Wednesday, March 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Business Digest

FTC approves Albertsons sale

Pacific Northwest

Albertsons, the nation's second-largest grocery store chain, announced Tuesday that the Federal Trade Commission has approved the $9.7 billion sale of the company to a consortium led by Minnesota-based grocer Supervalu and drugstore chain CVS.

No divestiture of retail stores or other assets of the companies was required by the FTC and no conditions or restrictions were placed on the transaction. The required pre-merger waiting period for the transaction also has expired.

Albertsons President and CEO Larry Johnston said last week the sale of the Boise, Idaho-based company was expected to close within four months, pending approval of the transaction by both Albertsons and Supervalu shareholders.


New law increases tax enforcement

Businesses that try to merge their way into a lower unemployment-tax rate will face stiffer penalties and increased enforcement under a measure signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Christine Gregoire.

Employers pay unemployment taxes based in part on their history of laying off workers; larger and more frequent layoffs generally mean higher rates. New businesses pay based on an industry average until they have enough of a track record for the state Employment Security Department to set a rate.

To escape high rates, some business owners may create new shell companies — with no layoff history — and merge their old businesses into them. Or new businesses with high industry rates may buy existing businesses with lower rates, take over their rates and then shut down the older operation.

A 2004 federal law sought to crack down on such practices; the law signed Tuesday brings Washington law into compliance by tightening the definition of what constitutes "rate dumping" and increasing the penalties for it.


Trident to acquire processed fish unit

ConAgra Foods, the third-largest U.S. food company, said it agreed to sell its Minnesota-based processed fish unit and the Louis Kemp brand to Trident Seafoods.

Terms of the transaction with Seattle-based Trident, which produces fish and crab products, weren't disclosed.

Pacific Northwest


Company says EU won't open hearing

Microsoft said Tuesday the European Commission has refused its request for an open antitrust hearing later this month — hearings the European Union said are never open to the public.

The hearing March 30-31 gives Microsoft the chance to respond to the EU's claims that it was not doing enough to comply with a 2004 ruling ordering the company to share information that would help rivals develop software to work with Windows servers.

"We understand these sessions are normally private in order to protect the party under investigation," Microsoft said in a statement. "However, we waive our right to a confidential hearing to ensure a full and fair examination of the issues in this case."

EU spokesman Jonathan Todd said the hearings exist to give due process to companies under antitrust investigation and allow regulators to make a "considered" decision.

"Hearings in antitrust cases are never open to the public," he said. "They are not there to allow parties to play to the gallery."

Aviation Partners Boeing

New CEO headed aerospace supplier

Aviation Partners Boeing (APB) named a new chief executive, John Reimers, formerly CEO of Compass Aerospace, a California-based industry supplier with a local facility in Kent.

A joint venture between Aviation Partners and Boeing, APB developed blended winglets — the upward swooping wing tips that improve fuel economy and performance — for 737s and 757s.

Almost 1,000 airplanes worldwide already have the winglets, mostly retrofitted in service.

APB also supplies Boeing with winglets for installation on most new 737s at the Renton assembly plant.

Reimers replaces Mike Marino, who resigned unexpectedly in November. Marino had been CEO since 2003 after more than 20 years at McDonnell Douglas and then Boeing.

The APB joint venture was formed in 1999.

Sprint Nextel

State regulators approve spinoff

Washington state regulators approved Sprint Nextel's request Tuesday to spin off its local landline phone business into a separate company, known as Embarq.

Sprint provides local phone service to about 7.4 million lines in 18 states, including 60,000 residential and business customers in south-central Washington.

State regulators said Washington customers of Sprint Nextel will not experience any service changes or price increases when the local phone service separates and becomes Embarq. The name should change by June.

The Overland Park, Kan.-based company is led by Dan Hesse, who was previously the chief executive of Terabeam, a Kirkland broadband wireless provider.

Plaza Bank

First branch planned for Kent

Plaza Bank, which touts itself as the Northwest's first Hispanic-owned bank, plans to open its first branch in the new Kent Station development during the second quarter.

It will offer consumer and small-business services for the entire community, with a special focus on Latinos.

The bank's directors include CEO Carlos Guangorena, spa owner Gene Juarez and Michael Sotelo, a businessman and president of the Washington State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Mega Bloks

Tacoma gains jobs; layoffs elsewhere

Mega Bloks, the world's No. 2 maker of toy building blocks, said it will shift some production to China from North America to lower costs and will create a distribution center in Tacoma to handle North American distribution of all its Chinese-made products.

About 75 jobs will be created at the new Tacoma facility.

However, the shift in production to China by Montreal-based Mega Bloks means about 385 workers, or 13 percent of the company's global workforce, will be laid off from plants in New Jersey, Indiana, Montreal and Eugene, Ore.

Nation and World


Hedge funds settle insider-trading case

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed insider-trading and fraud charges Tuesday against a handful of Madison Avenue hedge funds and their portfolio manager, claiming they made millions of dollars through illegal securities deals and short sales.

Langley Partners, North Olmsted Partners and Quantico Partners, which has since merged with Langley, and portfolio manager Jeffrey Thorp agreed to pay $15.8 million to settle the civil lawsuit filed by the SEC in Washington, D.C.

Regulators said the hedge funds and Thorp, 42, of New York, made more than $7 million of illegal profits between 2000 and 2002 using complex deals, and also engaged in insider trading.

Thorp settled without admitting or denying the SEC's claims, and agreed to return his allegedly ill-gotten gains, with interest, and pay a fine.


New server chip goes on sale

Intel, the world's largest maker of semiconductors, said it began selling low-power versions of its Xeon server-chip to win orders from computer makers looking for cheaper and more efficient components.

The two processors, based on a chip normally used in laptops, are targeting the market for cheaper server computers built on large circuit boards closely packed together.

Intel is using features built into laptop processors to make its server chips more competitive against Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron models, which have won orders from IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

The new versions of Intel's Xeon chip draw 31 watts of power, as little as a third of that used by other models.

General Electric

Water-treatment company purchased

General Electric will buy a Canadian water-treatment company for $656 million in a deal that will accelerate the conglomerate's plans to tap into a fast-growing market in a thirsty world, company officials said Tuesday.

GE's acquisition of Zenon Environmental will provide technology to help convert seawater into drinking water and to reuse waste water from municipalities and industry, company officials said.

"We think it will position us as the leader and the lowest-cost producer of freshwater from these new sources," said Colin Sabol, chief marketing officer for GE Water and Process Technologies. "We'll be able to make freshwater less expensively than anyone in the world."

GE entered the water business in 2002.

"We saw water scarcity spreading across the globe," Sabol said.

Compiled from The Associated Press, Seattle Times staff, Reuters and Bloomberg News

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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