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E&A buttered by $125M sale of Udi's to Smart Balance

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Indianapolis investment firm E&A Industries is cashing out of its majority stake in Udi’s Healthy Foods LLC by selling the Denver-based food company to margarine maker Smart Balance Inc. for $125 million.

The acquisition was announced Thursday.

E&A’s principals include Al Hubbard, a former economic policy advisor to President George W. Bush.

Another is Devin Anderson, who led E&A’s 1997 acquisition of Indianapolis-based fine-toiletries maker Gilchrist & Soames. Anderson has been Udi’s CEO since E&A bought a majority stake in 2010.

“I have been running the business day to day and commuting to Colorado for the past two years,” Anderson said Friday morning, as he was driving to Udi’s Denver headquarters to outline the deal to employees.

Udi’s has grown quickly, with expected annual sales of $72.4 million this year, compared with $4.3 million in 2009.

Udi’s was E&A’s first investment in the food industry. The company's niche is gluten-free products such as bread and pizza.

“We had fresh eyes in the food industry,” Anderson said. "I think that was helpful. We tried things the food veterans told us didn’t make sense."

Among them was a marketing focus heavy on social media. Udi’s has more than 750,000 fans on Facebook and adds 1,000 to 2,000 more fans each day, said Anderson.

Initially, Udi’s focused on serving consumers who had a gluten intolerance and could no longer eat bread products. More recently, it broadened its appeal to consumers seeking healthier food products.

It’s unclear exactly how much E&A will reap from the deal. Holding a minority stake in Udi’s is founder Udi Bar-on.

Anderson said Paramus, N.J.-based Smart Balance has similar corporate vision and growth objectives. In addition to margarine, the publicly traded company makes microwave popcorn and peanut butter. The company earned $3.7 million in its latest quarter on revenue of $79.3 million.

E&A’s other holdings over the years have included Car Brite, which makes automotive cleaning products. It sold that firm in 2005, and sold Gilchrest & Soames in 2007.

Current holdings include Ontario, Calif.-based Ultra Solutions, which provides ultrasound and echocardiography machines; and Northbrook, Ill.-based Con-Tech Lighting, a distributor of lighting products.

E&A shops for companies in the $2 million to $20 million revenue range. Candidates tend to reside in niche and specialty markets that are sales- and marketing-driven.

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