|An antitrust brouhaha in Washington has thrown the future of Crown Imports, a Chicago-based beer importer, into question.|
The company, which ranks third in U.S. beer sales volume, is a joint venture between New York-based Constellation Brands Inc. and Mexico's Grupo Modelo, which makes Corona Extra, the leading imported beer in the U.S., and other brands. Crown sells Modelo brands as well as China's Tsingtao.
As part of its proposed sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev, Grupo Modelo agreed to sell its 50 percent stake in Crown to Constellation Brands for $1.85 billion. The separate transaction was meant to ease possible antitrust concerns that the merger would eliminate Crown Imports as a competitor.
But on Thursday the U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit against AB InBev to block its acquisition of Grupo Modelo. Antitrust officials said the merger would further increase the concentration of the U.S. beer market, leading to higher prices for American consumers.
The lawsuit said the sale of Modelo's interest in Crown Imports to its partner would only create "a facade of competition" between AB InBev and the importer.
"In reality, Defendants' proposed 'remedy' eliminates from the market Modelo — a particularly aggressive competitor — and replaces it with an entity wholly dependent on ABI," the Justice Department said in the lawsuit.
The suits cites as evidence part of an internal memo that Crown's chief executive, Bill Hackett, wrote to employees after the transactions were announced in June. According to the suit, Hackett wrote, "Our #1 competitor will now be our supplier ... it is not currently or will not, going forward, be 'business as usual.'"
Under the terms of the proposed merger with Modelo, AB InBev also had the option to terminate its agreement with Crown Imports after 10 years, giving it full control of Corona distribution.
Constellation Brands on Friday attacked the Justice Department, saying in a statement that the suit "demonstrates its incomplete understanding" of the proposed merger. Constellation and AB InBev have indicated that they plan to challenge the suit.
In a detailed defense, Constellation said its full control of Crown would improve competition, not harm it. According to the lawsuit, Modelo controls about 7 percent of U.S. beer sales, far behind AB InBev's market-leading 39 percent.