By Denny Thomas
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing is expected to use proceeds from what could be the world's biggest retail sector IPO to expand his health and beauty business in China - a market forecast to grow by around 40 percent to $186 billion (114.5 billion pounds) by 2015.
In the process, Li would aim that firepower against foreign rivals such as Mannings, controlled by Jardine Matheson Group's Dairy Farm International Holdings Ltd (SES:D01); Alliance Boots, 45 percent-owned by Walgreen Co (NYS:WAG), the biggest U.S. drugstore chain; and Vivo, part of China Resources Enterprise Ltd <0291.HK>.
Billionaire Li's conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa Ltd <0013.HK> last week scrapped the sale of ParknShop, its Hong Kong supermarket chain, and said it would carry out a strategic review of A.S. Watson Co Ltd, its retail arm, which includes ParknShop, the Watsons, Superdrug and Kruidvat personal care stores, Fortress electronic appliance outlets, and chains selling food and wine and luxury and cosmetic products.
That review may include an initial public offering of all or parts of the business, it said, without elaborating.
Applying a 14 times multiple to last year's earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) of $1.64 billion, an IPO could value A.S. Watson at about $23 billion, bankers and analysts estimate. If 25 percent of A.S. Watson is floated - a standard Hong Kong IPO percentage - the IPO could raise close to $6 billion.
Health, beauty and luxury retailing accounted for 82 percent of 2012 revenue at A.S. Watson, which has its roots in a small dispensary set up in 1828 to provide free medical services to the poor in the southern province of Guangdong.
"China's health and beauty retail industry is hugely fragmented, and Watson has more room to grow," said John Chan, an analyst at Standard Chartered. "The biggest hurdle to growth would be finding the right store location."
A.S. Watson, which generated $19.2 billion in revenue last year from some 11,000 outlets worldwide, is already the market leader in personal care in China - a fragmented landscape of mainly small mom-and-pop stores where the top 10 firms control less than 5 percent. A.S. Watson leads with just a 1.6 percent share of the market that was last year worth $134 billion.
"China has been A.S. Watson's growth engine, and given the huge growth opportunity and attractive returns, we would expect part of any IPO proceeds to support the expansion of the Watsons franchise there," said Chan. Watsons is the brand under which the health and beauty retailing business operates.
Since 2008, it has tripled its China store count to 1,438, adding more than a store a day on average last year. Its China operating profit has grown four-fold to more than HK$3 billion (238.3 million pounds) in that period. The business has a near-20 percent operating margin.
By comparison, Mannings has said it plans to grow its network of stores across China, which stood at 187 last year, while Alliance Boots has struck two deals to expand in China, with one of its partners owning 500 retail stores. State-backed China Resources owns 165 health and beauty Vivo stores in China.
China Resources declined to comment for this article. Dairy Farm and Alliance Boots did not reply to emails seeking comment.
Li, dubbed "Superman" in Hong Kong's business centre because of his financial record - he built a sprawling ports-to-telecoms empire from a plastic flower business in the 1960s - is targeting fast growing lower-tier cities for his expansion plans across China, said people familiar with the matter. A spokesman for Hutchison Whampoa declined to comment, noting only last week's statement mentioning the A.S. Watson strategic review.
China accounts for 24 percent of A.S. Watson's operating profit, but only 13 percent of its retail store count - two thirds of the group's stores are in Europe. Its China health and beauty retailing business recorded 17 percent revenue growth in 2012, the fastest among the group's geographies.
Western Europe's health and beauty retail market shrank 8 percent last year and is forecast to grow just 4 percent by 2015, to around $306 billion, Euromonitor forecasts.
"Certainly, growing organically in China makes a lot of sense given the returns," said CLSA analyst Jonathan Galligan. "They could also build more scale in Southeast Asia and you could see them making acquisitions in retail space in Europe, something they haven't done in size since 2006."
If the strategic review does result in an offering of A.S. Watson stock, any deal of more than $6 billion would make it Asia Pacific's biggest IPO in three years, according to Thomson Reuters data.
The A.S. Watson review is the latest move by Li - ranked by Forbes as the eighth richest person in the world, with a near $31 billion fortune - that some commentators have suggested shows he is cutting his exposure to Hong Kong and freeing up cash to invest elsewhere. Last month, Li announced plans to list his Hong Kong power assets in a deal that could raise about $5 billion.
(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok; Editing by Michael Flaherty and Ian Geoghegan)