Hyflux seeks court protection for debt reorganisation

Ms Olivia Lum, founder and group CEO of Hyflux at its Tuaspring Desalination Plant on Sept 10, 2013. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Hyflux, the Singapore water treatment firm, has suspended trading of its shares and related securities and started a court-supervised reorganisation process, the company said in a statement late Tuesday (May 22).

The move will provide the company with room to focus on ongoing discussions with strategic investors, while seeking to optimise operations and maintain cash flows, Hyflux said in the statement.

Ernst & Young Solutions has been appointed as a financial adviser and WongPartnership as a legal adviser.

Hyflux last year posted its first annual loss since listing, and the company has said its energy business could suffer as an oversupply of gas depresses electricity prices.

Hyflux has been in talks to sell a stake in its single-largest asset, the Tuaspring project, which combines South-east Asia's largest desalination plant with a gas turbine power plant.

In a letter to stakeholders that Hyflux published on its website on Tuesday, the company wrote that Tuaspring "contributes significantly to our nation's water security".

However, it has "not escaped the impact of depressed electricity prices in Singapore" in recent years, it said.

"As a result, 2017 marked the first full year of losses in our operating history. Although improvements in wholesale electricity prices have reduced losses in the last few months, a sharper rebound in prices is necessary to restore the Group to its previous levels of profitability," said Hyflux.

It added that its recent plans to divest the Tuaspring project in Singapore and the Tianjin Dagang plant in China have "taken longer given the prevailing market and this has added stress to the business".

The turnabout in fortunes for Hyflux, whose founder Olivia Lum was a poster child for local entrepreneurs, adds to signs of pressures that smaller borrowers in the Singapore debt market face.

"A debt workout of some sort was inevitable," Ezien Hoo, a Singapore-based credit analyst at OCBC Bank, said on Tuesday before the Hyflux announcement.

"They were facing short-term debt, as well as the need to maintain cash to meet their bond covenants."

It's also been negotiating a potential divestment of the Tianjin Dagang desalination plant.

The fact that Hyflux was able to win contracts in recent months could mean that its business, excluding Tuaspring, is not so dire and that the firm may just need time to recapitalise its balance sheet, according to OCBC's Hoo.

Hyflux, which was worth nearly S$2.1 billion at its peak in late 2010, now has a market value of S$165 million. It's the second-worst performer on Singapore's FTSE ST All Share Index this year, with a 39 per cent decline, trailing only Noble Group.

The company said earlier this month it was in talks with potential investors to inject funds. Its net loss widened to S$22.2 million in the three months ended March 31, from a restated S$64,000 a year earlier.

Hyflux's net debt surged to 165 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization as of March 31, from about 32 times at the end of last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The company faces a coupon payment due May 28 on its S$500 million of 6 per cent perpetual securities. Its S$100 million of 4.25 per cent bonds mature in September.

Hyflux's former success had won accolades for its founder, an orphan who left a career in pharmaceuticals to start her own business with S$20,000 raised from selling her car and apartment.

The company, which became Hyflux, won municipal contracts in Singapore and expanded into new markets like Malaysia, China and India.

Ms Lum was named to government bodies, including International Enterprise Singapore, and appointed as a member of parliament in a seat reserved for distinguished community members.

Singapore updated its corporate insolvency framework last year following nearly US$1 billion of defaults in the Singapore bond market since November 2015, Law Minister K Shanmugam said in an August speech.

The changes, which incorporate elements of the US Chapter 11 system, were passed by parliament in March 2017.

One of the amendments effectively protects companies seeking an arrangement with their lenders, allowing a court to block creditors from filing winding-up petitions or seizing pledged assets while negotiations take place.

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