AriZona's fate in judge's hands after closing arguments

The Woodbury-based maker of AriZona Iced Tea was The Woodbury-based maker of AriZona Iced Tea was worth a combined $2 billion as of October 2010, a state Supreme Court justice ruled Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, in Mineola. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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In a case that could trigger the sale of the Woodbury-based maker of AriZona Iced Tea, lawyers for the company's feuding co-owners Thursday made final arguments in a nonjury trial to set the company's value.

Putting a price on the company would allow Domenick Vultaggio, a Sands Point resident, and Beverage Marketing USA Inc. to buy out the 50 percent stake held by longtime partner John Ferolito, of Colts Neck, New Jersey, and a Ferolito family trust.

In his 75-minute summation before a packed gallery at State Supreme Court in Mineola, Vultaggio's lead lawyer, Louis Solomon, called the company a "flower of Nassau County," but warned that assigning a high valuation could tip AriZona Iced Tea into insolvency and imperil its 1,000 workers. About 400 of those employees are based in Woodbury.

Ferolito's lead attorney, Nicholas Gravante, meanwhile, said a sale is inevitable.

"Everyone wants a piece of this company," he said.

Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé SA, Tata Global Beverages Ltd. and others have inquired about acquiring the company, Gravante said.

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Justice Timothy Driscoll, whose bench was lined with AriZona products like Arnold Palmer Half & Half, peppered the attorneys with questions about how they reached their disparate price tags for the company, the country's top-selling maker of ready-to-drink tea.

Vultaggio's team puts the company's value as of October 2010 -- when Ferolito filed a lawsuit to dissolve Beverage Marketing USA -- at about $500 million; Ferolito's experts offered assessments of more than $3 billion.

Over the course of the 101-hour trial, which started in May, witnesses offered estimates based on discounted cash flow, which projects future cash generation, and other methods.

Gravante, however, maintained that Driscoll also should consider the higher price a strategic buyer would be willing to pay.

Hedge and private equity funds "would be interested, but won't offer as much as a strategic buyer like Coke and Nestlé," Gravante said.

Industry researcher Euromonitor International says AriZona had a quarter of the U.S. bottled tea market, excluding restaurants, in 2013, ahead of rivals like Snapple and Lipton.

In his presentation, Solomon, of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, said AriZona's strategy of maintaining the price of its signature 99-cent cans helps maintain market share, but pressures gross margins, implying a lower valuation.

Gravante, of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, cited 2005 and 2008 studies done for AriZona by Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. The valuations in those reports were $4 billion and $3.2 billion, he said.

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In 1998, six years after launching the company, the partners agreed that Vultaggio would run day-to-day operations, while Ferolito moved to Florida. But by 2005, Ferolito was seeking a sale to let him cash out.

Driscoll is expected to render a valuation as early as October.

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