SPH set on digitising core media business

Shareholders at Singapore Press Holdings' annual general meeting on Dec 3, 2018.
Shareholders at Singapore Press Holdings' annual general meeting on Dec 3, 2018.PHOTO: ALVIN HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) is focused on digitising its core media business while seeking cash-yielding property investments in defensive sectors, said chief executive Ng Yat Chung at the group's annual general meeting yesterday.

He told around 440 investors at SPH News Centre: "You cannot cost-cut your way to prosperity."

He also discussed the thinking behind the firm's recent acquisitions.

One shareholder was concerned that SPH might be "late to the game" with its $321 million purchase of student accommodation buildings in Britain in September.

Mr Ng said the deal followed long deliberation: "We knew that Brexit was coming and we wanted to find a sector that ... would still be viable, likely to grow after Brexit.

"In fact, because of Brexit, there are deals to be done, people are willing to let go, they want to exit."

Another investor sought updates on private nursing home Orange Valley, which SPH acquired last year.

Mr Ng said: "The market in Singapore is small, and the leases we have are not long, we will have to renew those leases. So when we talk about growing the aged-care space, we are looking beyond Singapore.

"We are working with developers in neighbouring countries. We can develop not just nursing homes, but retirement villages... In places like Australia, the retirement village as a lifestyle choice is very much a mature market."

A shareholder, noting that SPH had previously cited the events sector as a growth area, asked if this strategy had changed, given the business gets less mention today.

Mr Ng replied: "We continue to grow it, but at the end of the day we are not sentimental about our businesses, we take a hard look at the returns. The events space industry has changed. (Performance)... at least from the trade side, has not been as expected."

Some shareholders suggested that SPH grow its media business by distributing more content overseas and monetising its rich trove of readership data.

Mr Ng said: "In fact, one of the main ideas behind our investments in digitalisation is precisely to help us understand the readers, what they read, how they read, so that we can deliver apps... We'll try to do it as quickly as we can."

He added: "We are improving our coverage of South-east Asia. In South-east Asia, not many English-language papers have the same standing as The Straits Times. These are opportunities that we are exploring."

Chairman Lee Boon Yang reiterated that SPH's core media business remains "very profitable", generating $92.8 million pre-tax profits in the year to Aug 31.

Mr Ng said: "While we want to make money from the media businesses, we also provide a critical public service."

All resolutions passed swiftly.

SPH shares closed six cents up at $2.70 yesterday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2018, with the headline 'SPH set on digitising core media business'. Print Edition | Subscribe