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7 rue Louis Murat
Paris F-75008
Telephone: +33 1 58 36 10 90
Fax: +33 1 42 25 03 41
Web site: http://www.OENEO.com

Public Company
1838 as Tonnellerie Moreau
Employees: 1,576
Sales: EUR 162.7 million ($205 million) (2004)
Stock Exchanges: Euronext Paris
Ticker Symbol: SABT
NAIC: 321920 Wood Container and Pallet Manufacturing

Formerly known as Sabaté Diosos S.A., OENEO S.A. is a major player in the international wine industry. The company is the world's second largest producer of cork-based and other closure systems, and is also the world's leading producer of oak casks. Slightly more than half of the group's revenues, which amounted to nearly EUR 163 million ($205 million) in 2004, come from its oak cast operations. France represents the company's single largest market, at 35 percent of sales, while the rest of Europe adds another 36 percent to sales. North America accounts for 17 percent of group sales. In the mid-2000s, OENEO has shifted the focus of its wine closure production to emphasize its "technological" closures, and especially its patented Altec synthetic corks and the new DIAM wine closure system, introduced in 2005. As such, the company has sold off its natural cork production unit, as well as other noncore operations, such as its cork flooring subsidiary. The company also has re-centered its oak cask manufacturing business around its French production unit, shutting down its oak staves mill in Iowa. The company hopes that these measures will help it restore its profitability after several years of losses. OENEO is listed on the Euronext Paris Stock Exchange.

Cork Maker in the 1930s

Modeste Sabaté was a journalist in his native Catalan, Spain, who fled his country when Ferdinand Franco came to power after the Spanish Civil War. Sabaté settled in Roussillon, near the Spanish border and the French Mediterranean basin. In 1939, Sabaté founded a company and began producing corks. He was joined by sons Augustin, Alex, Bernard, and Georges in 1960.

Cork had been used as a bottle stopper since the 1600s, when Dom Perignon fashioned the first cork for his famous champagne. Cork was quickly adopted for the so-called tranquil wines as well and, before long, cork had become synonymous with bottled wine. At first centered in the south of France, the cork industry gradually moved south, following the richest areas of the cork-producing oak, Quercus Suber in the Catalan region of Spain and Portugal. One of the earliest of the industrial cork makers appeared in Spain in the 1750s.

Cork remained a fairly rare commodity, growing only in certain areas along the Mediterranean basin. The growth cycle of the cork oak was rather long—more than 30 years for the maturation of a tree. Harvesting cork was a delicate process as well. A first harvest, culling the so-called male bark from the 30-year-old tree, exposed the underlying female or mother bark, which then required a further 9 to 11 years of growth before the cork could be harvested. The production of finished cork itself required another year to two years of effort.

Yet cork's success among French and international wine-makers came from the natural material's qualities, allowing just enough air to pass through to aid in the oxidation process of aging fine wines, while being flexible enough to provide a tight seal for the bottle. Nonetheless, cork was not without its shortcomings. Being rare, it was rather expensive for bottlers of cheaper wines. In addition, cork was long plagued by its vulnerability to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, a chemical compound capable of tainting wine—producing the musty, off-flavors of so-called corked wines. The wine industry began a search for a means of eliminating TCA.

Modeste and sons, especially Augustin Sabaté, began building the company into one of France's leading cork producers. The company also took a leading role in the search for means of reducing, if not eliminating entirely, TCA from their corks. In 1985, the company patented a new method for cleaning cork, using hydrogen peroxide and dubbed SBM by Sabaté. The invention represented somewhat of a breakthrough for the wine industry and helped Sabaté capture a leading position among the world's cork makers. Modeste Sabaté died in 1986, and Augustin Sabaté took over as head of the family-owned company.

Integrated Wine Products Provider at the Turn of the 21st Century

The French wine industry stimulated the creation of other industries aside from cork making. One of the most important of these, at least as far as the fame of French wines was concerned, was that of the production of the casks used for aging wines. Crafted (typically by hand until rather late in the 20th century) from a specific species of French oak, the casks became essential to the quality of French wines.

An early cooperage was that of Tonnellerie Moreau, based in Charente, a region of western France near the Bordeaux wine industry. Founded in 1838, that company enjoyed a degree of prominence up until World War I. Moreau was joined by other cooperages, including Sequin, founded in 1870. The two companies were later brought together under Remy Martin, which took a majority share in Moreau in 1958 and reoriented the company toward the production of casks for Remy Martin's core cognac and related spirits products. Remy Martin acquired full control of the company in 1972. By the late 1970s, more than 70 percent of the company's sales came from its parent company. By then, however, Sequin Moreau had decided to refocus itself as a producer of casks for the Bordeaux wine producers, then for other wine producer regions of France. After successfully imposing itself as a leading cooperage for the French market, Sequin Moreau began attacking the international market, opening an office in Australia in 1988 and an office in Napa, California, in 1992. The company also diversified into producing casks from other species of oak, notably from Russia and North America.

Another fast-growing cooperage was that of Tonnellerie Radoux, founded in 1947 by Robert Radoux. That company crafted its cask after the traditional fashion until the arrival of Radoux's son, Christian, as the company's head. The younger Radoux converted the company to limited liability status in 1982 and began industrializing much of its production processes, while maintaining nonetheless traditional methods, materials, and designs. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Radoux began to seek greater vertical integration, buying up Sciage de Berry in 1987 and France Merrain in 1991 to ensure its supply of cask components. The company also launched its own wine-making ingredients distribution subsidiary in 1991.

Radoux sold out to investor Michel de Tapol in 1997. Two years later, Tapol merged Radoux with Sequin Moreau, one of its primary competitors. The new company, dubbed Diosos, became the world's leading producer of oak casks for the wine market. Remy Martin, meanwhile, remained a major shareholder in the company.

During this time, Sabaté also had been growing strongly. The SBM patent had helped establish the quality of Sabaté's cork, and the company soon grew to become the main rival for industry leader Corticeira Amorim, of Portugal. A major step in Sabaté's development came with its acquisition of Spain's Corchos de Mérida, a company specialized in raw product purchasing and storage. This acquisition enabled the company to begin the process toward creating a vertically integrated production chain. The Mérida acquisition notably helped the company ensure the supply and quality of its raw cork requirements.

The company's requirements were growing steadily in the late 1980s. Under Augustin Sabaté, the company now turned toward industrializing its production process. In 1991, the company completed construction of a new 65,000-square-meter headquarters and production facility in the town of Ceret. The company then was able to begin converting its production processes to comply with ISO 9002 regulations, a certificate the company obtained in 1995. In 1994, Sabaté confirmed its intention to build its position, placing its stock on the Paris Stock Exchange's unlisted market. One year later, however, the company transferred its listing to the Parisian Exchange's Secondary Market.

Sabaté's public offering and new production facility also enabled it to pursue development of a new product—a new cork material that the company dubbed Altec. The introduction of Altec allowed Sabaté to straddle an ongoing argument among wine producers of the virtues of natural cork versus newer artificial corks then appearing on the market. Altec was in fact a hybrid of natural and artificial materials, using cork powder produced from a purified cork and combining that with a material developed for Sabaté by Akso Nobel. The new Altec presented a number of interesting properties, notably a greater elasticity than natural cork, as well as a greater resistance to TCA tainting, while retaining some of natural cork's porosity.

Launched in 1995, Altec made steady inroads among wine producers, particularly on the international scene. By 1997, the company was selling more than 200 million units per year, some 80 percent of which were sold to the United States. By then, Sabaté had opened an office in the United States, under subsidiary Sabaté USA, located near the heart of the California wine-producing region, which began operations in 1995. Sabaté continued to seek means to ensure its vertical integration, and in 1996, the company created a new subsidiary, Sabaté Maroc, a company specialized in the purchasing and treatment of raw cork. A year later, the company expanded horizontally, acquiring cork flooring and materials specialist Aplicork, based in Spain.

Company Perspectives:

Present in all major wine producing regions, OENEO is the only international group to propose a global offer of value added products and services to the wine industry. OENEO is the largest manufacturer of barrels for fine wines and the second largest provider of cork based closures in the world.

Augustin Sabaté died in 1998 and son Marc Sabaté took over as the company's president. By then, Sabaté had sold more than one billion Altec corks, confirming the product's success. That number was to double again just two years later. The company faced a slight setback, however. Sabaté initially had claimed that Altec was entirely TCA-free. A series of TCA taints among its customers, however, forced the company to admit that it was impossible to eliminate the possibility of TCA tainting entirely. Despite a range of bad publicity, the extent of the TCA tainting remained limited to a very small percentage of all bottles using Altec corks. The setback barely slowed down the rise of Altec sales in Sabaté's revenues; by 2001, Altec represented some 45 percent of Sabaté's cork sales.

Sabaté moved to expand its bottle-stopping range as it turned toward the new century. In 1999, the company acquired two other companies, including Switzerland's Suber, a producer of cork for high-quality wines, as well as screwtop caps. Sabaté's entry into this latter category represented its growing determination to follow the trend toward internationalization of the wine industry, which saw consumers turning away from France to embrace new wines from other parts of the world. Screwtop caps were widely considered the best means of closing a bottle of wine. Although French winemakers—and their customers—refused to consider abandoning natural corks, especially for high-quality wines meant to age for long periods of time, other markets, such as Australia, were proving more and more receptive to the idea of adopting screwtop caps. Among the notable advantages of this system was the virtual absence of TCA tainting. Later in 1999, Sabaté took a stake in Sibel, a maker of corks for champagne and sparkling wines. By 2000, the company had completed its takeover of Sibel, taking 100 percent control.

Sabaté's determination to place itself in line with developments in the worldwide wine industry led it to make a more dramatic move in 2000. In that year the company announced that it had reached an agreement to merge with Diosos S.A., creating Sabaté Diosos S.A. The merger doubled Sabaté in size, as both the cork division and the cooperage division produced more than EUR 100 million in revenues. Under terms of the agreement, Marc Sabaté and Michel de Tapol agreed to function as co-CEOs of the enlarged group, which sought to position itself as a provider of services and products to the wine industry. Although greeted with some skepticism by stock market observers—who criticized in particular the lack of production synergies between the two companies—Sabaté Diosos remained confident that the merger would enable both sides of the larger group to take advantage of its widened distribution network as it wooed the world's winemakers.

The company, which continued to enlarge its production facilities in Ceret, moved to boost its customer service capacity as well. In 2002, the company opened new finishing facilities in South Africa and in California, increasing the range and depth of its services for its customers in those markets. The following year, Sabaté Diosos opened a new stave mill in Bloomfield, Iowa, in an effort to produce lower-cost casks based on American woods for the U.S. market. Also in 2003, the company, through local partnerships, added new finishing operations in Australia, Italy, and Chile. In that year, as well, the company expanded its cask-making capacity through the acquisition of Australia-based Schahinger.

New Name and New Focus in the Mid-2000s

Yet the hoped-for synergies from the merger Sabaté Diosos never appeared, just as the company struggled amid the diffi-cult economic climate of the early 2000s. The company's sales appeared to enter a freefall, with revenues dropping from below EUR 202 million at the end of 2002 to less than EUR 163 million at the end of 2004. Already by 2002, the company was forced to take steps to counter its downward spiral. Among its first moves was to eliminate its dual-leadership—a move made as much to restore investor confidence in the group's direction. Michel de Tapol left the company; Marc Sabaté stepped down as well, turning over the CEO spot to Gérard Epin, formerly CEO at Sonepar Distribution, a distributor of electrical products.

Epin led a restructuring of Sabaté Diosos, refocusing the company around a core of wine closures and casks. As part of that effort, the company shut down its parquet floor production division, then sold off its transportation operations and its nonwine-related cork products activities in 2003. Following its restructuring, Sabaté Diosos decided to change its name in order to reinforce its new focus on the wine industry. In June 2003, the company became known as OENEO S.A.

Key Dates:

Tonnellerie Moreau, later a founding member of Diosos, is founded.
Seguin, another member of the later Diosos company, begins producing casks.
Modeste Sabaté starts up a cork production company in Rousillon, France.
Robert Radoux begins crafting casks.
Moreau and Sequin merge and Remy Martin becomes a majority shareholder.
Modeste Sabaté is joined by sons Augustin, Alex, Bernard, and Georges.
Remy Martin acquires full control of Moreau Seguin, which produces casks for cognac and eau-de-vie.
Christian Radoux takes over his father's business and introduces industrial production methods.
Moreau Seguin begins producing casks for the French wine industry.
Sabaté patents the SBM cork cleansing process.
Sabaté acquires Corchos de Mérida of Spain.
Seguin Moreau begins international expansion and begins producing casks using Russian and American oaks.
Sabaté opens a new 65,000-square-meter headquarters and production facility in Ceret, France.
Sabaté launches its first public offering on the Parisian unlisted securities market.
Sabaté joins the Paris Stock Exchange's Secondary Market.
Moreau Seguin and Radoux merge to form Diosos S.A.
Sabaté and Diosos merge to form Sabaté Diosos S.A.
Company name is changed to OENEO.

Yet OENEO's difficulties continued into mid-decade. Notably, its new Iowa mill failed to live up to the company's expectations, as U.S. winemakers continued to use wood chips for their lower-priced wines; yet the Iowa mill's American wood casks were seen as unsuitable for higher-priced wines. After the mill lost nearly $1.2 million in 2004, OENEO sold off the plant in January 2005.

Meanwhile, the continued shift away from traditional cork wine closures, especially in the international market, led OENEO to restructure its cork-making operation in 2004. As part of that restructuring, the company abandoned its natural cork operations and re-centered its closures division on its technical corks, synthetique closures, and especially its "technological" cork production.

Backing up its refocusing effort, OENEO launched two new closure products at the beginning of 2005. The first was a new type of twist-on cap, called the S-cap. More important to the group's future, however, was the unveiling of its newest technological cork in January 2005. Called the DIAM (or Diamond) and developed in conjunction with the French Atomic Energy Commission, the new closures were produced using a process similar to that used to produce decaffeinated coffee. The resulting taint-proof cork was greeted enthusiastically by the international wine industry. With a new name and backed by the success of its DIAM and Altec technological corks, OENEO expected to remain a leading player in the global wine closures market into the 21st century.

Principal Subsidiaries

Corchos de Mérida S.A.; Sabaté Maroc SARL; Altec S.A.; Suber Suisse S.A.; SC Finance; Diosos S.A.

Principal Competitors

Corticeira Amorim; Sociedade Gestora de Participaoes Sociais, S.A.; Supreme Corq Inc.; Tonnellerie Francois Freres S.A.; Tonnellerie Vicard S.A.; Nadalie-Tonnellerie Ludonnaise S.A.; Tonnellerie Taransaud S.A.; Tonnellerie Saury S.A.; Tonnellerie Bouts S.A.

Further Reading

"Les bouchons d'OENEO," L'Expansion, October 29, 2003.

Brockhoff, Anne, "OENEO Sells Iowa Oak Stave Mill," just-drinks.com , January 14, 2005.

Cuny, Delphine, "Scepticisme sur le regroupement Sabaté-Diosos," La Tribune, October 24, 2000.

Hiaring, Philip, "Sabaté," Wines & Vines, August 1999.

Hunter Gordon, Kim, "OENEO and the Diamond Route to Recovery," Beverage Daily.com , January 20, 2005.

Kinetz, Erika, "Cork and Barrel Makers Face Risks Too," International Herald Tribune, June 23, 2001.

Matterson, Helen, "OENEO Uncorked Down Under," Australasian Business Intelligence, February 14, 2005.

Mowbray, Simon, "Cork Producer Claims Its Research Has Come with a Solution to Wine Taint," Grocer, July 27, 2004, p. 54.

"New Closures Force OENEO to Change Tack," Australasian Business Intelligence, March 7, 2005.

"OENEO's Process Is Veritas Validated," Wines & Vines, July 2005,p. 10.

"Plastic Wine Stoppers: A Corking Row," Economist, June 5, 1999.

"Sabaté Diosos abaisse ses perspectives de croissance," La Tribune, July 25, 2001.

"Sabate Diosos to Restructure Its Cork Activity," Les Echos, October 2, 2002.

—M.L. Cohen

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