Business / Corporate

Asahi eyes U.S. beer expansion with ¥400 billion war chest

by Monami Yui and Grace Huang

Bloomberg

Asahi Group Holdings Ltd., the brewer that’s buying European brands from Anheuser-Busch InBev NV worth $2.9 billion, is now pursuing deals in the U.S. that would help boost distribution of its Super Dry beer in the world’s largest economy.

Tokyo-based Asahi is willing to spend ¥400 billion ($3.7 billion) starting next year, which includes raising debt and ¥100 billion in cash, on further acquisitions, President Akiyoshi Koji said in a recent interview.

The company is mainly seeking overseas investments to strengthen its alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverage businesses, said Koji.

AB InBev last month accepted Asahi’s offer to buy the Peroni, Grolsch and Meantime beer brands as the European brewer seeks to win regulatory approval for the purchase of SABMiller Plc. For Asahi, completing the biggest deal in its history would help the brewer expand abroad amid falling domestic beer consumption and changing tastes.

“There’s huge potential that our Super Dry beer will gain popularity in the U.S.,” said Koji, pointing to the country’s growing popularity of craft beers and diversified food culture. “The key is how to boost distribution power — then we can think of bringing our whisky, Shochu spirit and nonalcoholic drinks later on, too.”

Asahi is aiming to boost the ratio of its overseas sales contribution to 20 percent by 2018, up from 15 percent currently, and will look to expand in both the U.S. and Europe, said Koji, 64, who was promoted to the No. 2 job on March 24 after heading Asahi’s beer unit since 2011.

The European deal may boost Asahi’s profitability and change its earnings structure, which has been heavily reliant on domestic beer sales, according to Satoshi Fujiwara, an analyst at Nomura Securities Co.

“Asahi’s heavy dependence on its beer unit has been problematic, weighing on its top-line profit,” Fujiwara said by phone. Asahi’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization margin, which excludes liquor tax, is at about 14 percent while that of the AB InBev brands it’s acquiring is about 21 percent, he said.

Asahi shares were little changed at ¥3,628 by the close of Tokyo trading Wednesday. The stock has fallen 4.5 percent so far this year, compared with the benchmark Topix index’s slump of 13.5 percent.

Asahi last month reported its highest-ever first quarter sales as demand for its alcoholic beverages rose. Sales rose 1.6 percent to ¥380.2 billion in the three months ended March 2016, while net income fell 95 percent to ¥614 million.

The drop in net income is due to a one-time gain related to an investment in a Chinese company booked in the same period last year, according to the company.

Recent mergers and acquisitions by Asahi, which also sells spirits and nonalcoholic beverages, include the purchase of New Zealand beverage maker Independent Liquor Ltd. in 2011. The Japanese brewer in 2009 bought a 20 percent stake in China’s Tsingtao Brewery Co. from AB InBev.

Asahi is not interested in buying a stake in Vietnam’s Saigon Beer-Alcohol Beverages, and doesn’t plan to sell its stake in the Chinese brewer Tsingtao, despite the economic downturn in China that has hurt beer consumption, according to Koji. Shandong province-based Tsingtao reported its 2015 net income fell 13.9 percent to 1.7 billion yuan ($260 million).

“Tsingtao is striving to boost profit, so we’re supporting its effort to increase production efficiency while not having direct control over their business,” Koji said.

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