Kwek ready to snap up bargains amid Brexit turmoil

At yesterday's event to sign two agreements were (from left) Mr Raj Menon, chief operating officer (excluding greater China) of Marriott International, Mr Craig Smith, Asia-Pacific president and managing director of Marriott International, Mr Kwek Le
At yesterday's event to sign two agreements were (from left) Mr Raj Menon, chief operating officer (excluding greater China) of Marriott International, Mr Craig Smith, Asia-Pacific president and managing director of Marriott International, Mr Kwek Leng Beng, executive chairman of Hong Leong Group and City Developments, and Tan Sri Dato' Lee Shin Cheng, executive chairman of IOI Group. South Beach is a joint venture between CDL and IOI.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Property tycoon looking out for fire sales in Britain's real estate and hotel sectors

Property tycoon Kwek Leng Beng sees Britain as being a sound market in the medium term and is prepared to open his chequebook if bargains appear in the wake of the Brexit turmoil.

Mr Kwek, executive chairman of Hong Leong Group and City Developments (CDL), told a briefing yesterday: "I'm confident that if there are fire sales, I will buy in the UK, whether real estate or hotels. I'm looking in Europe as well.

"Some people could panic and maybe I will come into the picture. My balance sheet is not very leveraged and I've got firepower."

CDL has invested £448.4 million (S$815 million) in nine development properties in the United Kingdom to date, with Britain accounting for about 20 per cent of proposed development gross floor area worldwide.

About 7.6 per cent of the 34,665 rooms under its London-listed subsidiary Millennium & Copthorne (M&C) Hotels are in London.

Britain accounts for 12 per cent of CDL's revenue, 11 per cent of its assets and about 12 per cent of debt.

Currencies are hedged and M&C's hotels are spread across the world, Mr Kwek said. At the same time, a weaker sterling could boost leisure travel to London.

"I'm not worried about our hotels for the time being because we have always faced (difficult) situations - such as during the Lehman Brothers crisis, Sept 11 attacks and Sars. We face these problems from time to time and we survive."

The most important thing is not to over-leverage, he added. CDL had a net gearing of 26 per cent at the end of the first quarter and about $3.3 billion cash. Mr Kwek noted that business at hotels in Singapore had slowed in the past two months, which was expected, given the number of hotel rooms coming onstream this year and next year.

"For the time being, the greatest fear for hotels (anywhere) is a terrorist attack, but other than that, you see the cycle and go through the ups and downs. In Singapore, it's generally 80 per cent occupancy, which is not so bad."

Mr Kwek was speaking at the signing of two agreements - one to rebrand The South Beach hotel, which has 634 rooms, as JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach. As part of the second agreement, the group's upcoming 190-room boutique hotel in Orchard Boulevard will be branded The Singapore Edition. These will be the only hotels in Singapore for both brands, which are part of the Marriott International portfolio.

He said CDL opted for an international third-party hotel chain as this would allow it to focus on its core business, and picked Marriott for its record of providing returns for owners. Marriott has been managing JW Marriott Hong Kong, in which CDL and a Hong Kong firm have controlling interest.

Mr Craig Smith, Marriott International's president and managing director of Asia-Pacific, said: "Our pending merger with Starwood would make us the largest hotel company in the world.

"We have US$10 billion (S$13.5 billion) of bookings through our online site and, with the merger, our loyalty programme would be the largest in the world... We will be able to drive talent (and customers) into our hotels."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2016, with the headline 'Kwek ready to snap up bargains amid Brexit turmoil'. Print Edition | Subscribe