F&N hunts for new buys in S-E Asia with $1b war chest

Singapore-based F&N has $971.8 million in cash and cash equivalents as of end-June, after selling its stake in Myanmar Brewery last August.
Singapore-based F&N has $971.8 million in cash and cash equivalents as of end-June, after selling its stake in Myanmar Brewery last August. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Fraser & Neave, the drinks-maker controlled by Thailand's richest man Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, is searching for acquisitions to bolster its market share in South-east Asia, after its war chest grew to nearly $1 billion with sales of beer assets.

One potential target is Vietnam Dairy Products, also known as Vinamilk, said Mr Lee Meng Tat, F&N's chief executive officer for non-alcoholic beverages. 

Vietnam's largest milk producer is an example of what F&N wants in an acquisition - a company with market presence, well-known brands, and a strong distribution network, he said.

"The ideal situation is, of course, to acquire," said Mr Lee, referring to F&N's efforts to expand in South-east Asia, where he said the company is a "distant third" to United States soft drinks giants PepsiCo and Coca-Cola.

"That would give us a much faster way into the market."

Singapore-based F&N has $971.8 million in cash and cash equivalents as of end-June, after selling its stake in Myanmar Brewery last August, three years after it divested its share of Asia Pacific Breweries.

In South-east Asia, home to nearly 600 million people and among Asia's fastest-growing economies, the company also plans to build its presence from scratch in some markets if acquisition opportunities do not work out.

Vinamilk, Vietnam's biggest company by market value, gained as much as 1.2 per cent in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday, and was heading for a fresh record high.

F&N fell as much as 1 per cent in Singapore trading.

Vinamilk had surged to a record high last week after index compiler MSCI said it would add the stock to its gauge of frontier markets, extending gains after the government scrapped the foreign ownership limits for the company.

The shares have jumped 32 per cent so far this year, compared with the local benchmark index's 14 per cent gain.

If more shares in Vinamilk become "available and it makes financial sense, we will always look at it", said Mr Lee. "That has always been our position."

Vinamilk is not on a list of 120 companies that government investment arm State Capital Investment Corp plans to divest this year, news website Nhip Cau Dau Tu reported earlier this year, without saying where it got the information.

F&N is Vinamilk's second-biggest shareholder,  with an 11 per cent stake, after the Vietnam government's 45 per cent.

F&N's main brands include the 100Plus isotonic drink and Ice Mountain bottled water.

It also distributes beverages produced by companies under its Thai owner, such as Oishi Group's green tea drink and Thai Beverage's Chang beer.

F&N is among the top three soft drinks players in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, according to Euromonitor International, but it is not ranked among the top five in Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, where the company is looking at ways to grow.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'F&N hunts for new buys in S-E Asia with $1b war chest'. Print Edition | Subscribe