Danone defended the ‘strong results’ under chief executive Emmanuel Faber, highlighting its 50 per cent earnings per share growth from 2014 to 2019 © Bloomberg

An activist investor has taken a stake in yoghurt maker Danone and is calling for chairman and chief executive Emmanuel Faber to be replaced because of what it called “disappointing” share performance.

Bluebell Capital Partners, a London-based hedge fund founded by Francesco Trapani, the former chief executive of Bulgari, has not disclosed the size of the stake that it built late last year. The fund would only be required to make a public disclosure if it passed the 5 per cent threshold that triggers a filing to France’s market regulator.

In mid-November, Bluebell sent a letter calling on the board to begin to search for a new chief executive and recommending that the chairman and CEO roles be split.

“The underperformance of Danone’s share price has been driven, in our view, by a combination of poor operational record and questionable capital allocation choices,” the fund wrote in the letter seen by the Financial Times.

The fund also pointed out that Danone’s total shareholder returns have lagged behind larger rivals Nestlé and Unilever since Mr Faber took the helm in October 2014. Its shares are up 2.7 per cent since then, while Nestle’s have risen 45 per cent and Unilever 72 per cent.

Asked about the activist fund’s arrival, Danone said: “We value constructive dialogue with all our shareholders. The leadership team of Danone is highly focused on delivering long-term sustainable value.”

It defended Danone’s “strong results” under Mr Faber, pointing to its 3.1 per cent average organic sales growth and 50 per cent earnings per share growth from 2014 to 2019.

Bluebell’s arrival comes at a difficult time for Danone. Its bottled water business, best known for the Evian and Volvic brands, has suffered during lockdowns, depriving it of its most profitable sales at restaurants, bars and convenience stores. Meanwhile, the cost of transport, raw materials and logistics has crept up.

To cope, Mr Faber announced a major reorganisation of the company in October that will lead to as many as 2,000 job cuts. He has also pledged to sell assets and prune the product portfolio.

Some investors have also been sceptical of Mr Faber’s focus on environmental and social goals, and frustrated by Danone’s inability to deliver on its financial targets. In June, shareholders voted for Danone to become a so-called enterprise à mission, or purpose-driven company, aimed at bringing “health through food” to consumers.

The legal status requires Danone not only to generate profit for its shareholders, but do so in a way that it says will benefit its customers’ health and the planet.

Bluebell said it supported the dual focus but added: “However, we feel that under the leadership of Mr Faber, Danone did not manage to strike the right balance between shareholder value creation and sustainability.”

The fund, whose previous campaigns have included Lufthansa and Hugo Boss, pointed to how Unilever and Nestlé were also “extremely committed to sustainability” and yet achieved better shareholder returns than Danone.

Activist campaigns have been on the rise in France in recent years, although they remain rarer than in the United States or the UK. Hedge funds such as Elliott Management and Amber Capital have mounted campaigns at blue-chip companies like Capgemini and Pernod Ricard that were once seen as untouchable.

That led the government last year to weigh tighter controls on short sellers and activists, but in the end the measures introduced were quite modest, such as requiring better disclosure.

French business magazine Challenges first reported on Bluebell’s investment in Danone.

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