By Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Maersk Line, the world's biggest shipping company, is to buy smaller rival Hamburg Süd, joining a wave of M&A in the industry just over two months after the Danish company revealed plans to bolster its transport operations.
The deal, announced by parent A.P. Moller-Maersk <MAERSKb.CO> on Thursday, is the group's first full takeover in more than a decade and highlights a consolidation drive in container shipping, which has been grappling with low freight rates and oversupply.
It also follows Maersk's new boss Soren Skou's move to focus on transport and logistics and spin off the company's energy operations.
Maersk shares rose more than 5 percent.
Hamburg Süd, part of the Oetker Group, is the world's seventh largest container shipping line and operates 130 container vessels primarily in trade between the northern and southern hemispheres. Maersk has a fleet of more than 600 ships.
"This will provide us with a very strong platform in Latin America," Skou, chief executive of Maersk Line and the Maersk Group, said on a conference call, noting "significant" cost benefits from combining the companies' network.
Skou declined to disclose the value of the deal, but said it would be a cash only transaction, and that Maersk did not need to sell other assets to ahead with the purchase.
He also said Maersk would be looking at a "light-touch integration" of family-owned Hamburg Süd, keeping both the brand name and the company's headquarters in Hamburg.
"I would imagine that more (consolidation) can happen in the future. Even with this acquisition, the market is still quite fragmented, and I would be surprised if this was the final piece," Skou said.
With the acquisition, Maersk Line will increase its container capacity to around 3.8 million TEU (20-foot Equivalent Unit), boosting its market share to 18.6 percent from 15.7 percent, it said.
Maersk's combined fleet will consist of 741 container vessels with an average age of 8.7 years, compared with 9.2 years before the deal.
The transaction will help Maersk Line to boost its presence in global trade, especially in Latin America where Hamburg Süd has had a strong presence since its foundation in 1871 by representatives of Hamburg merchant houses.
"It's a smaller and more niche player – it's a good strategic fit for Maersk," analyst Michael Jorgensen at Alm. Brand Bank said. He described the acquisition as a defensive consolidation. Alm. Brand has a "buy" recommendation on Maersk.
Hamburg Süd has 5,960 employees in more than 250 offices across the world. Last year, the company's revenue was $6.73 billion and of that $6.26 billion came from its container line activities, Maersk said.
Oetker Group is involved in shipping, banking, food and beverages. There had been speculation in the shipping market that the Oetker-family would opt to sell its container business.
"Giving up our engagement in shipping after an 80 year-long ownership in Hamburg Süd was not an easy decision for my family," said August Oetker, chairman of the advisory board behind the management holding company of the Oetker Group.
The deal will be the first full acquisition by Maersk since a takeover of P&O Nedlloyd a decade ago.
Other container lines have been looking to do deals to build scale. Family-owned French group CMA CGM sealed an acquisition this year of Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines, which has given it market leadership on trans-Pacific routes.
Last week, the European Commission gave conditional approval to a merger between German container shipping line Hapag-Lloyd <HLAG.DE> and the United Arab Shipping Company.
In 2013, a planned merger between Hapag-Lloyd with rival Hamburg-Süd was called off as terms could not be agreed.
Maersk said the deal would be subject to final agreement and regulatory approvals, and would have no impact on Maersk's outlook for 2016.
A.P. Moller-Maersk said it expected to give more details following approval of the purchase agreement which is expected early in the second quarter of 2017.
(Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; additional reporting by Annabella Pultz Nielsen and Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen and Jonathan Saul in London; editing by Jason Neely and Jane Merriman)