Better Known for Candy, Mars Makes a Big Bet on Pets

The company name Mars Inc. evokes images of M&M’s, Snickers and Dove chocolate, and possibly Wrigley chewing gum.

Soon, a majority of its business will be related to pets, thanks to a $7.7 billion acquisition announced Monday.

Mars agreed to buy VCA, a company that owns about 800 animal hospitals, a lab business and dog day care franchises that operate under the name Camp Bow Wow.

VCA will be part of Mars Petcare but will operate as a “distinct and separate business unit,” the companies said in a statement on Monday.

Poul Weihrauch, the president of Mars Petcare, said in an interview that Mars’ “love story” with pets goes back to 1935.

That year, Forrest Mars Sr. bought Chappell Brothers, giving the candy company access to Chappie brand canned dog food.

Today, Mars has 39 brands in its Petcare portfolio, its second largest division.

With this deal, Petcare will become its largest business, as VCA adds about $2 billion in revenue.

Together, Petcare, chocolate and Wrigley contribute 90 percent of company sales.

The impetus for the acquisition goes back years.

Mars, based in McLean, Va., uses VCA’s lab services in its veterinary businesses.

Talks about a deal began when Mars approached VCA in November. VCA, based in Los Angeles, had been an independent company for more than 30 years, and Bob Antin, the chief executive, said it was not looking to sell.

Merging with Mars, which is privately held, rids VCA of the challenges of being a public company, including the difficulty of justifying large investment in research and development, said Mr. Antin, 66, in an interview.

He said he would remain chief executive of the unit after the acquisition closes.

But Mr. Antin said the prospect of joining Mars, and no longer being a public company, was intriguing.

“We’ll be able to leverage off their technology, and the amazing part about it is their company is focused on what’s best for veterinarians,” Mr. Antin said.

Mars agreed to acquire VCA for $93 a share in cash, 31 percent higher than where the shares closed on Friday.

VCA traded at a high, up 28 percent to $90.60 a share, after news of the acquisition. Including debt, the deal is valued at $9.1 billion.

Mars has committed financing from JPMorgan Chase for the transaction, which has been approved by both boards but still needs approval from VCA shareholders and regulators.

The companies said they expected the transaction to close in the third quarter of this year.

Mr. Antin and Mr. Weihrauch, 48, have more in common than the combination of their businesses. They each have labradors and three children.

Mars has been strengthening its own portfolio of specialties. In October, it took full control of Wrigley, cashing out its partner Warren E. Buffett.

Terms of that deal were not disclosed, but it gave Mars full control over Doublemint and other chewing gums, as well as Skittles, Starburst and Altoids.

Morgan Stanley and BDT advised Mars, while Barclays was the exclusive financial adviser to VCA. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom advised Mars on the acquisition, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett provided legal advice on the debt financing and McDermott Will & Emery advised on antitrust.

By Leslie Pickler of the New York Times.com

An earlier version of this article misstated when Mars began offering two pet food brands, Pedigree and Whiskas. Both brands were introduced before 1990; they were not introduced in the 1990s

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