SYDNEY, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Canada's Saputo Inc said on Friday its shareholding in Australia's Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory Holdings Co has jumped to 46.17 percent, putting it close to majority control.
Former rival bidder Bega Cheese Ltd said on Thursday it was selling its 18.8 percent stake to Saputo, all but handing victory to the Canadian company in the battle for Australia's oldest dairy company.
Analysts expect hedge funds holding about 10 to 15 percent of Warrnambool to join Saputo's base A$515 million ($460 million) bid, blocking another offer from Australia's Murray Goulburn Co-operative Co Ltd.
Murray Goulburn, whose A$530 offer was conditional on both reaching 50.1 percent and regulatory approval that is not due until next month, said it would consider the options for its 17.7 percent stake.
A win for Saputo, whose offer rises to A$549 million if the company receives acceptances of 90 percent or more, would end one of Australia's most competitive takeover battles in recent years.
The battle reflects the huge interest in Australia's agriculture assets amid surging demand from increasingly affluent southeast Asia. Warrnambool's portfolio includes increasingly popular high-tech milk extracts, as well as traditional dairy products.