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New World Development pauses on retail unit privatization, may try again

Developer to launch three more shopping malls in mainland China within a year

Adrian Cheng Chi-kong, left, New World Development's general manager, discusses the family-run company's annual results in Hong Kong on Sept. 21. (Photo by Joyce Ho)

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong-based real estate conglomerate New World Development intends to take a wait-and-see approach toward its plan to take a struggling mainland retail arm private after a recent frustrated attempt.

"We might revisit the plan [for the retail arm] a year later. It's too early to tell whether to continue pursuing it now," Adrian Cheng Chi-kong, the company's general manager, said at a briefing Thursday. Cheng noted that the board was unsure of why the deal flopped, but he suggested it might have to do with heavy ownership among retail investors.

"It's been 10 years [since the company went public], some investors might have emigrated," said Cheng, attributing the failure to possible difficulties for overseas shareholders to submit their consent.

The company, controlled by the prominent Cheng family, in June proposed acquiring a 27.7% stake in Hong Kong-listed New World Department Store China for $934.5 million Hong Kong dollars ($119 million), or HK$2 per share. But the deal failed to garner enough support from independent shareholders by the due date in August, receiving valid acceptances representing only 83.9% of the offer shares, shy of the 90% threshold.

The offer price represented a 50% premium over the unit's last closing price before the plan was announced, but was 66% below its listing price of HK$5.80 apiece a decade ago. The shares, which ended flat at HK$1.61 on Thursday, have hovered at a multiyear low since 2015, as e-commerce took a bite out of traditional bricks-and-mortar retail on the mainland.

The setback harkens back to New World's bumpy privatization of another mainland unit in the real estate sector, which only went through in August 2016 with an HK$21 billion tender offer following a failed attempt in 2014.

Having appointed a new management team to New World Department Store China, Cheng was positive about the company's retail business in mainland China. "The sales at New World Department Store [China] have been great lately. Hopefully it will stabilize progressively," he said, adding that the platform could potentially "create a lot of synergy" with other business lines through sharing of resources or supporting digital ventures.

The company plans to unveil art concept malls, known as K-11, in the Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Shenyang and Wuhan, he said, while also launching esports-related infrastructure across seven mainland cities.

New World Department Store China was operating 37 department stores and two shopping malls across 21 cities on the mainland as of June. Same-store sales during the last fiscal year grew 0.7%, the unit said Wednesday, snapping a downtrend since 2013. Operating profit also climbed 32.5% to HK$277.8 million.

The improvement was attributed to slowing momentum in the e-commerce market, according to New World Development, which said in its earnings report that "offline retail markets gradually regained vitality since 2017," while online platforms face rising operating costs as competition intensifies.

New World Development's net profit attributable to shareholders for the year ended in June declined 11.4% to HK$7.68 billion, the company reported after Hong Kong's morning trading, while underlying profit rose 26.5% to HK$7.13 billion.

Its Hong Kong-listed shares fell 3.5% down to HK$11.04 on Thursday, while the benchmark Hang Seng index dipped 0.06% the same day. 

Henry Cheng Kar-shun, the company's 70-year-old chairman who also leads Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group, remains on leave after suffering a stroke in February. Adrian Cheng said doctors recommended that his father "rest a little but more" but "could work from home."

"He will soon come out to meet the public," Adrian Cheng said.

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