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Eric Watson's US dairy venture changes tack with planned iced tea merger

Eric Watson, the expatriate New Zealand businessman with a fortune estimated at $400 million in the National Business Review 2014 Rich List, is changing tack with his planned US dairy farming venture, which is to merge with an American iced tea maker.

Waynesboro, Georgia-based Cullen Agricultural Holdings, of which Watson owns about 57 percent, has entered into an agreement to merge with iced tea manufacturer Long Island Brand Beverages, with a view to break into an increasingly fragmented ready-to-drink tea market worth some US$5.3 billion, the companies said in a joint statement this week. The deal is expected to be completed in the first quarter of this year, rebranding Cullen Agricultural as Long Island Iced Tea Corp and installing the iced tea maker's chief executive Philip Thomas as head of the merged company.

Once the transaction closes, the owners of Long Island Brand Beverages will receive 39.5 million shares in the combined company, representing about 63 percent, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. That leaves Cullen Agricultural with 37 percent and implies Watson will own about 21 percent of the merged entity.

Watson won't sit on the board of Long Island Iced Tea Corp, having stepped down as chief executive and chairman of Cullen Agricultural in November 2013. The board will be made up of existing Cullen Agricultural directors Edward Hanson, a former Babcock & Brown director, human rights activist Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of the late US Senator Robert Kennedy, and Richard Roberts, a principal of consulting firm Roberts, Raheb, & Gradler. Cullen Agricultural's existing chief executive Paul Vassilakos and Thomas will also sit on the board.

"The segment is growing quickly as teas edge out other bottled beverages that consumers consider unhealthy," Vassilakos said in a statement. "We believe favourable market dynamics and consumer trends combined with Long Island Iced Tea's premium ingredients, bold taste and strong brand awareness will enable it to maintain strong growth in the Northeast and expand to other markets in the future."

Cullen Agricultural sought to export New Zealand's farming techniques into the US, using cheaper and more productive methods to get a footprint in the word's largest economy on as much as 16,000 hectares of land mainly used for dairying. The company struggled to attract financiers to develop property in the wake of the global financial crisis and was forced to change its strategy, selling 3,635 acres of land which it planned to use for dairy and beef pastures, and seek alternative investment options.

Watson hasn't given up on developing agriculture in the US completely, citing Hart Dairies as an associate of his Cullen Investments firm, operating more than 4,000 acres of land in the south-east of the US, with more than 8,000 livestock, according to Cullen's website.

Hart Acquisitions LLC, an affiliate of Watson's brother Richard who was a former director of Cullen Agricultural, entered into a sale and purchase agreement with the firm to buy certain assets and intellectual property relating to the former farming business for US$125,000, according to documents filed with the SEC. Either party can cancel the deal before Jan. 31, and if Hart sells or licenses the intellectual property before the end of January 2020, Cullen Agricultural will be entitled to 20 percent.

Cullen Agricultural's shares trade on Nasdaq's Over-The-Counter Bulletin Board (OTBB), and have climbed to 42 US cents, valuing the company at US$8.24 million, and up from 14 cents on Dec. 30, the last time the shares traded before the merger deal was announced.

Watson has restructured his investment portfolio since the collapse of Hanover Finance, which he co-owned with Mark Hotchin, during the meltdown of the finance sector through the tail-end of last decade.

In 2011 he merged his Bendon underwear manufacturer with Australia's Pleasure State lingerie, and kept a majority stake, and the following year set up a joint venture with former global logistics boss Owen Glenn, splitting ownership of his property, bloodstock and New Zealand Warriors assets.

The relationship between Watson and Glenn has since soured, with both parties filing court proceedings in multiple jurisdictions as they try and untangle their business affairs.