Walgreens is the largest shareholder in AmerisourceBergen with an almost 30 per cent stake © Bloomberg

US drug wholesaler AmerisourceBergen has agreed to buy the distribution business of Walgreens Boots Alliance for about $6.5bn as it pushes further into Europe.

The offer for Alliance Healthcare, comprising $6.275bn in cash and 2m AmerisourceBergen shares, comes three years after a potential deal for Walgreens to acquire the pharmaceuticals distributor fell through.

The two companies already have a strategic partnership in place but as part of the transaction, Walgreens and AmerisourceBergen have agreed to extend a US distribution agreement by three years to 2029. Alliance Healthcare will also remain a distribution partner for Boots, the UK drugstore group, for a decade.

Walgreens is the largest shareholder in AmerisourceBergen with an almost 30 per cent stake.

The deal is designed to expand AmerisourceBergen’s presence in Europe, as Alliance is one of the largest wholesalers on the continent.

Stefano Pessina, chief executive of Walgreens Boots Alliance, told the Financial Times that he would use proceeds from the sale to pay down debt and to help fund acquisitions, adding that the company had identified a number of targets.

Steven Collis, chief executive of AmerisourceBergen, said he had “inherited an intact and very good business” that would allow the company to pursue European expansion.

It will also allow Walgreens to focus on its pharmacy business, which includes more than 9,000 drugstores across the US.

Mr Pessina defended retail stores amid a rise in online shopping and pharmacy delivery services. Using the coronavirus vaccine as an example, he said some things could not be distributed digitally. “Pharmacies will continue to be the backbone of healthcare in any country,” he added.

Despite concerns about a sluggish start, Mr Pessina said that Walgreens would finish the first phase of its US vaccination programme five days ahead of schedule, inoculating residents and staff at nursing homes across the country by January 25.

Shares in AmerisourceBergen climbed almost 8 per cent to $105.43 by midday trading in New York. Walgreens stock, which has fallen 30 per cent in the past year as the pandemic put pressure on its bricks-and-mortar stores, also gained — up 4 per cent to $42.89.

In late 2019 Walgreens explored a $70bn management buyout with US private equity giant KKR that would have delisted the retailer. The sale of Alliance Healthcare is likely to reignite speculation about a fresh attempt to take the drugstore group private.

Mr Pessina, the deal-hungry chief who assembled Walgreens through a series of mergers over the years, could take advantage of Walgreens’ smaller business and market valuation to explore a buyout.

He announced last year that he planned to step down from the role and become executive chairman but did not give a timeline.

Alliance, which began life in Italy as Alleanza Farmaceutica in 1977, was the company that put Mr Pessina into the big league. A series of deals culminated in a $600m merger with the UK-listed UniChem in 1997.

Less than a decade later, Alliance UniChem combined with Boots, the stalwart British retail pharmacy chain, in a deal that created a pan-European pharmacy giant with £13bn of annual sales.

Mr Pessina teamed up with private equity group KKR in 2007 to take Alliance Boots private, a transaction lauded for its audacity but criticised for its impact on Boots, a paternalistic company with Methodist origins that was forced to cut costs to service the £9bn of debt taken on to fund the merger.

In 2014, Walgreens paid $23bn for its British rival in a two-part deal that created a transatlantic behemoth.

Walgreens and AmerisourceBergen expect synergies in four years to be at an annual run rate of at least $150m, which will be split equally between the companies.

News of the deal comes as Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway called time on their joint venture to create an online pharmacy and change the US healthcare system.

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