SYDNEY, Dec 5 (Reuters) - Australia's competition regulator will begin public hearings into one of the three bids for Australia's oldest dairy firm early next year, target Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory Co said on Thursday.
The heated battle for Warrnambool has moved into the slow lane as two separate regulators examine offers from preferred bidder Canada's Saputo Inc and rival Murray Goulburn Co-operative Co Ltd.
Warrnambool said the Australian Competition Tribunal had set Dec. 9 as a case management conference and Feb. 10 as the start of public hearings into Murray Goulburn's A$530 million bid.
Murray Goulburn's offer is conditional on approval from the tribunal, which is likely to take between three and six months to make a decision.
Warrnambool said it would seek to actively participate in the tribunal process.
The takeover battle for Warrnambool has been one of the most competitive in Australia for years, with nine bids and counter bids notched up since Bega Cheese Ltd, the third bidder, made the first approach in August.
Warrnambool is attractive for both its basic dairy produce - it churns out around 800 million litres (210 million gallons) of milk a year via its shareholder farms - and infrastructure that includes a high-tech plant producing value-added milk extracts.
Saputo is currently suspended from processing orders for its A$515 million bid, which has the support of the board, after Murray Goulburn won an interim order from the Takeovers Panel.
Murray Goulburn and Bega are asking the Takeovers Panel to force Saputo to drop its latest revised offer, arguing a decision to abandon A$1.31 per share in proposed dividends means shareholders will not have access to A$0.56 in franking credits.
The temporary block by the Takeovers Panel can last up to two months while it considers whether to conduct a full investigation.
Saputo and Murray Goulburn have been the more aggressive bidders in the race, with Bega's cash and shares offer, currently worth around A$515 million, trailing.