Lino Saputo Jr. is in Australia this week and next in an attempt to sell dairy farmers there on his company’s $1.3-billion bid to buy the country’s second-largest milk processor. The deal for the Murray Goulburn Co-operative would leave Saputo with fully a third of the Australian milk market it first entered in 2014 when it took control of Warrnambool Cheese and Butter.
Earlier this year, Saputo bought out the minority shareholders of Warrnambool, Australia’s fifth-biggest dairy producer. The deal it struck last week to buy the Murray Goulburn would see Saputo battling for Down Under dairy supremacy with New Zealand’s giant Fonterra co-op. Both dairy titans have been bulking up in Australia to supply the ever-thirsty Chinese market.
The 16,000 kilometres separating Saputo Inc.’s Montreal head office and its operations Down Under are but one indication of the distance the company has travelled since it went public 20 years ago this fall. Back then, Saputo had already carved out a local niche for itself as Canada’s biggest producer of mozzarella. But its modest $450-million in annual sales meant it remained but a curd among the truly big cheeses of the global dairy market, such as Nestlé or Danone.
By 2016, Saputo had become the world’s ninth-biggest dairy processor, with sales of $11-billion. With little debt and a seemingly insatiable thirst for acquisitions, it may not be long before it climbs into the top five. Not bad for a cheese maker founded by Sicilian immigrants to Montreal’s Little Italy in 1954 with a delivery fleet that then consisted of a single bicycle.
Led by patriarch Lino Saputo Sr., who stepped down as chairman this year at 80, the Saputo clan has amassed Quebec’s biggest fortune, and Canada’s fifth-biggest, with a net worth estimated in 2017 at $10.4-billion. And they’ve done it without relying on multiple-voting shares to insulate themselves and management from takeovers or pesky minority…