Asahi suing PEP and Unitas over Independent Liquor purchase

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Japanese brewer Asahi Group Holdings Ltd is suing Pacific Equity Partners and Unitas Capital Pte Ltd, alleging they inflated the earnings of the Independent Liquor business it bought in 2011 for NZ$1.5 billion (837.8 million pounds).

PEP and Unitas rejected the claims, saying in a joint statement they were untrue and unfounded.

Individual directors and investment funds controlled by the two private equity firms are also targeted by the legal action filed by Asahi Holdings Australia and Independent Liquor New Zealand, both Japanese registered subsidiaries of Asahi Group, in Australia's Federal Court.

Asahi, the maker of Japan's top-selling "Super Dry" beer, is seeking unspecified damages for losses after an internal investigation uncovered what the company claims was misleading and deceptive conduct.

"It is very disappointing that PEP and Unitas have engaged in this misconduct," Asahi Holdings Australia Managing Director Atsushi Katsuki said in an emailed statement.

"We conducted due diligence thoroughly and in good faith and relied on the figures provided to us," he added. "We are seeking maximum recovery of our loss and we have commenced legal proceedings for this purpose."

Asahi bought Flavoured Beverage Group Holdings Ltd, the parent company of Independent Liquor, from PEP and Unitas when Japanese brewers were on a spending spree across Asia and Oceania.

The acquisition of Independent Liquor, a New Zealand-based firm which also operates in Australia and the U.S. and is known for its "Woodstock Bourbon" and "Vodka Cruiser" brands, was part of Asahi's bid to boost revenue growth amid a shrinking beer market in Japan.

But the timing of the deal coincided with a slump in sales of pre-mixed spirits following the Australian government's decision to increase taxes on alcopops to curb underage drinking, which led to higher shelf prices.

PEP, Australia's largest buyout firm, and Unitas said Asahi had breached the sale contract by taking legal action and the pair were considering filing a counter lawsuit for damages in New Zealand.

"The allegations foreshadowed by Asahi are completely untrue and unfounded," they said in a joint emailed statement. "Asahi and its team of expert advisers were given full access to information and management during a three month due diligence process."

(Reporting By Jane Wardell; Editing by Richard Pullin and Daniel Magnowski)

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