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Altria pays $12.8 billion for minority stake in e-cigarette company Juul

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(Reuters) – Marlboro cigarette maker Altria Group Inc (MO.N) on Thursday announced it would pay $12.8 billion to take a 35 percent stake in Juul Labs Inc, a marriage between an old-line tobacco giant and a fast-growing electronic-cigarette rival looking to make inroads among smokers.

FILE PHOTO: JUUL e-cigarette vaping pods are shown in this photo illustration taken September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Illustration/File Photo

The deal values San Francisco-based Juul at $38 billion, more than double the roughly $16 billion valuation it fetched in a July private funding round, highlighting what Altria sees as its next phase of growth in the face of declining smoking rates and cigarette sales in the United States.

“We are taking significant action to prepare for a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose non-combustible products over cigarettes,” Altria Chief Executive Howard Willard said in a statement.

For Juul, which has risen swiftly over the last three years to become the U.S. market leader in e-cigarettes, the Altria investment is expected to give it more prominent distribution in convenience stores and other traditional retail channels.

The companies said Juul will be able to reach Altria’s customers through advertisements in traditional packs of cigarettes as well as direct mailers to customers.

Altria also brings years of lobbying expertise in Washington that could benefit Juul as the company navigates heightened federal scrutiny over its products’ popularity among teenagers.

“Our success ultimately depends on our ability to get our product in the hands of adult smokers and out of the hands of youth,” Juul Chief Executive Kevin Burns said in a statement Thursday, adding that “this investment and service agreement helps us do just that.”

Under terms of the deal, Altria is subject to a standstill agreement under which it may not buy additional Juul shares above its current interest. Altria has also agreed not tosell or transfer any Juul shares for six years from the closing of the deal.

The deal, which is subject to antitrust clearance, would give Altria the right to nominate directors representing a third of Juul’s board, the cigarette giant said.

The company also said that it would participate in the e-vapor category only through Juul for at least six years.

Juul’s devices, which vaporize a nicotine-laced liquid and resemble a USB flash drive, grew from 13.6 percent of the market in early 2017 to more than 75 percent this month, according to a Wells Fargo analysis of Nielsen retail data. In its release Thursday, Altria said Juul represented approximately 30 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette space, when factoring in online sales and products in specialty stores such as vape shops.

Federal data released last month showed a 78 percent year-on-year increase in high school students who reported using e-cigarettes in the last 30 days, coinciding with the rise in Juul’s popularity.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month announced new curbs on sales of flavored e-cigarette products, including Juul’s mango and cool cucumber, amid fears that the products could lead a new generation into nicotine addiction.

Juul has boosted its own lobbying spending, spending $890,000 so far in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That is still far less than Altria’s more than $7 million toward lobbying this year, making it the biggest spender in the U.S. tobacco industry.

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One unknown is how the deal could affect Juul’s reputation in the marketplace. In many ways the company positioned itself as the foe of big tobacco, saying in job postings that it was “disrupting one of the world’s largest and oldest industries” and “driving innovation to eliminate cigarettes.”

Juul CEO Burns acknowledged that in announcing the deal, calling Altria a “seemingly counterintuitive” investor.

“We understand the controversy and skepticism that comes with an affiliation and partnership with the largest tobacco company in the U.S. We were skeptical as well,” he said, adding that the company ultimately was convinced the deal could “help accelerate our success switching adult smokers.”

Tobacco companies including Altria have been investing in e-cigarettes as U.S. smoking rates decline, but those products have lost significant market share over the last year as Juul’s popularity has surged.

Altria said this month it would discontinue some of its e-cigarette brands, based on their financial performance and will take a related pre-tax charge of $200 million in the fourth quarter.

Federal data from earlier this month showed 14 percent of U.S. adults smoked cigarettes, the lowest level ever recorded.

Altria’s cigarette volumes declined by 6.3 percent for the nine months of 2018, from a year earlier. The company’s share price has fallen by nearly 30 percent over the last year.

Some analysts on Thursday expressed concern that Altria was paying too high of a price. A note from Stifel said the deal should help Altria “address the changing consumer attitudes toward nicotine” but that “the price paid offsets most of the future potential benefit” from a Juul investment.

Altria on Thursday also announced a cost-cutting program that includes workforce reductions and reduced third party spending, to save $500 million to $600 million annually by the end of 2019.

The company expects pre-tax charges of about $230 million to $280 million, or nine to 11 cents per share, the majority of which will be incurred in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Additional reporting by Siddharth Cavale in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Steve Orlofsky

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Canadian Tire and NuPort Robotics to commercialize Canada’s first automated heavy duty trucks

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Canadian Tire Corporation and Toronto based start-up NuPort Robotics, Canada’s first autonomous trucking company, are partnering with the Ontario government to invest $3 million to undertake an automated heavy duty trucking project to test a “first-of-its-kind-in-the-world” technology. 

The breakthrough technology provides a transportation solution for the middle mile, the short-haul shuttle runs that semi-tractor trailers make between distribution centres, warehouses and terminals each day.

It is designed to enable next-generation automated trucks that are more fuel efficient, safer to operate, and provide an enhanced driver experience.

Backed by $1 million in support from the Ontario government through Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network and matched by $1 million investments from Canadian Tire and NuPort Robotics, respectively, the two-year project is applying proprietary, artificial intelligence technology from NuPort Robotics to retrofit two conventional semi-tractor trailers – which will always be attended by a driver – with high-tech sensors and controls, a touchscreen navigation system, and other advanced features such as obstacle and collision avoidance.

Caroline Mulroney, Minister of Transportation, says: “Ontario is proud to be a global leader in automated and connected vehicle technology and this innovative project is an exciting milestone toward automated vehicle tech in the trucking industry.

“Ontarians rely on goods being delivered by trucks across the province every day and projects like this are demonstrating the ways that automated truck technology could help businesses meet delivery demands more efficiently while supporting a strong supply chain in Ontario.”

Vic Fedeli, Ontario Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, says: “This project applies unique and made-in-Ontario Artificial Intelligence technology that offers increased safety and efficiency, with a reduced carbon footprint, to the goods supply chains on which we all rely.

“This is the latest example of how Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network acts as a catalyst, fostering partnerships between ambitious technology start-ups and industry to develop and commercialize next generation transportation technologies that strengthen our economy and benefit society.”

Raghavender Sahdev, CEO of NuPort Robotics, says: “The trucks are currently transporting goods between a Canadian Tire distribution centre in the Greater Toronto Area and nearby rail terminals within a 12.5 mile radius, and early results are promising.

“The aim of the project is to develop a system that incorporates an autopilot feature for conventional trucks with a driver, leading to the most efficient way to drive and increase safety.

“The sensors work as a ‘safety cocoon’ to cover blind spots and prevent accidents and the end result is peak fuel efficiency, meaning lower carbon emissions, and peak driving performance for an overall more optimal transportation experience.”

NuPort Robotic’s approach to autonomous trucking is unique in the industry because it focuses only on solving the middle mile challenge, using a known set of predetermined trucking routes that are repetitive and high frequency as opposed to general highway driving.

Ultimately, when implemented on fixed routes in the future, Canadian Tire will benefit from faster commercial deployments and improvements in supply chain sustainability.

Gary Fast, vice-president of transportation, Canadian Tire, says: “Canadian Tire embraces innovation and is always testing new technologies to improve our operational efficiency and safety.

“As proud Canadian companies, the safety of all stakeholders, including drivers, employees, customers, and public will be the top priority as we work together towards deployment of this technology.”

Cari Covent, vice president of intelligent automation, Canadian Tire, says: “Over the last three years, Canadian Tire has made a significant effort to solve complex business problems by using the Canadian start-up Artificial Intelligence ecosystem, and NuPort Robotics exemplifies what we look for in a start-up with a focus on innovation, automation and artificial intelligence.”

Sahdev says: “As NuPort Robotics continues to develop new technologies to overcome middle mile supply chain problems and advance autonomous trucking, I am extremely grateful for the support of the Ontario Government through AVIN and the Ontario Centre of Innovation.

“With their continued support, we are striving to position Canada as the leader in autonomous transportation.”

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Constellation Software is money in the bank, this fund manager says

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If you’re looking for a long-term hold in Canadian tech then Constellation Software (Constellation Software Stock Quote, Chart, News, Analysts, Financials TSX:CSU) should definitely be on your radar. So says Jason Del Vicario of Hillside Wealth Management who likes not only Constellation but its recent spin-off Topicus (Topicus Stock Quote, Chart, News, Analysts, Financials TSXV:TOI) which Del Vicario says could do even better than CSU over the next ten years.

Software consolidator Constellation has been running on the same game plan for years, buying small vertical market software companies providing so-called mission critical software solutions globally. Over the years CSU has completed over 500 such acquisitions, buying the top names in their respective niche verticals and then using its clout and breadth to grow the business and expand into new markets. The resulting cash flow is then plowed back into more acquisitions and the cycle repeats.

The strategy has worked wonders for Constellation, which has grown its revenue from $631 million in 2010 to almost $4 billion for 2020 while taking earnings from $4.12 per share in 2010 to $20.59 per share this past year.

Shareholders were given a special treat last month when Constellation spun out recently acquired Topicus, giving CSU owners about 1.9 Topicus shares for every Constellation share as a dividend-in-kind. Constellation bought Netherlands-based software company Total Specific Solutions BV (or TSS) in 2013 and that subsidiary recently acquired Topicus BV, a Dutch information service company focusing on sectors such as healthcare, education and finance.

Topicus was singled out by Constellation founder Mark Leonard for its ability to grow without using outside shareholder funding. Leonard said the spin-out was part of the intention since a purchase agreement was struck last year.

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Nuvei wins price target raise from National Bank

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Strong quarterly results and an even brighter outlook for 2021 are reasons to celebrate for Canadian payments company Nuvei (Nuvei Stock Quote, Chart, News, Analysts, Financials TSX:NVEI), according to National Bank Financial analyst Richard Tse. In an update to clients on Wednesday, Tse left his rating unchanged at “Outperform” while raising his price target from C$85.00 to C$100.00.

Montreal-headquartered Nuvei is a provider of payment technology solutions to merchants and partners around the world, with a platform geared for high-growth mobile commerce and e-commerce markets. Nuvei’s solutions include a fully integrated payments engine with global processing capabilities, a turnkey checkout solution and a suite of data-driven business intelligence and risk management tools and services.

The company released its fourth quarter and full year 2020 financials on Wednesday, showing Q4 revenue of $115.9 million, up 46 per cent year-over-year, and adjusted EBITDA of $51.3 million, up 61 per cent year-over-year. Total dollar value of transactions processed by merchants (‘total volume’) with Nuvei rose by 53 per cent to $13.9 billion. (All figures in US dollars except where noted otherwise.)

The 2020 year featured revenue up 53 per cent to $375.0 million and adjusted EBITDA up 87 per cent to $163.0 million, with total volume rising a full 76 per cent year-over-year to $43.2 billion.

“Our performance continues to be driven by strong momentum in the high-growth verticals we serve, as well as by our customizable, scalable and feature-rich technology platform which provides one of the industry’s most complete payment technology solutions going well beyond merchant acquiring,” said Philip Fayer, chairman and CEO, in a press release.

The company said the fourth quarter represented the strongest growth yet experienced by Nuvei, driven by wallet share expansion from current merchants along with accelerated uptake of new merchants. New e-commerce business almost tripled compared to a year earlier, Nuvei said, while the company expanded its connectivity coverage over the quarter, introduced new product innovations on its platform and continued to execute on M&A.

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