(March 14) NEW YORK — Amid insistence from officials at Royal Ahold NV that the retail and foodservice giant is not headed in the direction of bankruptcy or any other such financial meltdown, experts on the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act are encouraging all suppliers to double-check invoices and keep clear records.

“We have gotten quite a number of inquiries, and they’re basically related to whether or not trust rights are preserved,” said Pat Rynn, a partner in the Newport Beach, Calif.-based law firm Rynn & Janowsky. “We’re advising our clients to just make sure the invoice party receives the trust notification, the notice of intent to preserve trust benefits.”

The warnings follow reports in late February that Royal Ahold had overstated earnings by as much as $500 million stemming from promotional allowances at its Columbia, Md.-based broadline distributor, U.S. Foodservice Inc.

Ahold stock has lost more than 70% of its value in the aftermath of the scandal.

Shares closed at $3 March 12 on the New York Stock Exchange. They were $10.69 Feb. 21, the last day of trading before news of the scandal broke.

Officials at Ahold USA, the company’s Chantilly, Va.-based U.S. operation, insist that normal operations would continue at U.S. Foodservice and Ahold’s retail grocery chains in the U.S.

“No impact,” said Barry Scher, a vice president with the Giant Food Inc., a 150-store Ahold-owned chain based in Landover, Md. “It will be business as usual at each of the U.S. operating companies within Ahold.”

The chairman of Ahold’s supervisory board, Henny de Ruiter, March 12 dismissed speculation that the company could be heading for bankruptcy or a takeover.

The company has rejected the possibility of selling Albert Heijn, its flagship supermarket chain in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Ahold USA is trying to reassure its suppliers and shoppers that the company was on solid footing and that concerns were unwarranted.

The company sent a letter to its vendors and told store managers to answer any concerns that shoppers may have.

PACA lawyers say that produce suppliers are worried about U.S. Foodservice’s billing practices and their potential impact on the suppliers’ PACA trust protection, in light of the accounting scandal.

U.S. Foodservice has directed its shippers to send invoices to Produce Solutions Inc., a Newport, Rhode Island-based third-party agent.

“My advice to the suppliers is, to obtain PACA trust protection, send the invoice to the entity that is actually buying from them,” said Larry Meuers, a Naples, Fla., PACA attorney.

In addition, U.S. and international authorities continue to investigate Ahold.
SPINNING OFF

“I think there are some issues with Ahold that’s going to come to a point where, if they have these financial problems, are they going to spin off some of these companies?” said Ed Odron, president of Produce Marketing Consultants, a Stockton, Calif.-based retail-consulting firm. “But who’s suited to buy these (subsidiaries)? That’s the big question mark if they’re really pressed for cash.”

In the U.S., Ahold owns retailers Giant Food Inc., Landover, Md.; Bi-Lo LLC, Greenville, S.C.; Tops Markets Inc., Williamsville, N.Y.; and Stop & Shop Cos. Inc., Boston, as well as online grocer Peapod Inc., Chicago, and broadline distributor U.S. Foodservice.

Odron said that spinning off U.S. Foodservice, which Ahold bought in 2000 for $3.5 billion, might address the company’s financial woes — to a degree.

“It might not be enough,” he said.

Some U.S. retailers might have to go, Odron said.

But, he added, even that might be problematic.

“That would put a whole different spin on the supermarket business in the U.S.,” Odron said. “Who’s going to buy them and run them? Is it Kroger? Safeway? Albertson’s? That would have a whole different impact on what takes place in the U.S.”
CHANGES AHEAD

Meanwhile, Ahold has let it be known that changes are under way. The company announced March 13 that it would erase $30 billion in reported sales when it corrects the way it accounts for joint ventures, according to the Financial Times.

The newspaper said Ahold’s profit would not be affected, but the company plans to chop off about 15% of its sales over the past three years.

Ahold announced March 12 that it had appointed Dudley Eustace as interim chief financial officer, succeeding Michiel Meurs, who had resigned along with Cees van der Hoeven, the company’s chief executive officer, in the immediate aftermath of the accounting scandal.

Analysts expect Ahold to sell off some properties in Latin America and Asia after the investigations are completed.

Several rivals, including France’s Carrefour and Casino, have said they would consider Ahold assets that came up for sale.

In fact, Ahold had to put up several of its supermarket chains — Giant Food, Stop & Shop and Albert Heijn — as collateral for a $3.38 billion revolving credit facility.