Tale of the tigress may soon end

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 May, 1997, 12:00am

The sixth and uppermost floor of Sing Tao Building in Kowloon Bay is eerily quiet at the busiest of times.

Above the five floors housing newsrooms, accounts departments, a staff canteen and printing presses, rows of offices sit empty.

At the back of the building, overlooking the busy runway of Kai Tak International Airport, sits Sally Aw Sian's office.

The office was vacant yesterday - the occupant 'travelling in China', according to tight-lipped company officials.

Under the firm direction of Miss Aw, chairman and group managing director, Sing Tao Holdings has made a name for itself as an innovator among newspaper publishers.

In 1978, the group's Sing Tao Daily News became the first newspaper to have its pages transmitted through satellite to printing plants in North America, Europe and Australasia.

Then, in 1994, Sing Tao and the state-run Shenzhen News and Publications launched China's first joint-venture newspaper, the Shenxing Times . The same year, the group's English-language Hong Kong Standard became the first foreign newspaper to be printed on the mainland.

The presses suddenly stopped rolling, however, a year later when the printer, China Daily , said its machinery no longer had the capacity to continue the print run.

But despite gaining recognition for being at the forefront of the industry, the company has also been dogged for the past two years by negative fundamentals.

A combination of soaring newsprint prices, a weak property market and keener competition for advertising revenue have hit the company's earnings and share price particularly hard.

The group reported a net loss of $146 million for the 1995-96 financial year.

Sing Tao opted not to join the price war that hit the Chinese-language dailies with the launch of Jimmy Lai Chee-ying's Apple Daily. But as the price war claimed its victims, advertising rates were slashed and competition bit.

The slowdown in the property market hit the group's earnings both ways. Not only does the group rely on advertising revenue from the property sector, it also develops and invests in property in the markets in which it sells newspapers.

Culturecom Holdings, in which Sing Tao has a 43 per cent stake, also suffered, with a fall-off in readership of its Tin Tin Daily News and the end of the series of the highly successful Dragonball comic.

Sing Tao was back in the black for the six months to September last year, recording a net profit of $4.92 million.

Its shares were suspended yesterday pending an announcement following a near 12 per cent rise in the share price on Tuesday on reports the Aw family was in negotiations to sell its 68 per cent stake to a unit of the Malaysian Hong Leong Group.

The counter rose 40 cents to $3.80 on Tuesday. From the heady realms of $14 at the beginning of 1994, the counter has since fallen steadily and traded in the $3-$4 range for the whole of last year.

In December, the last time the company's shares were suspended, the closure of the Sing Tao Evening Post was announced after it was concluded there was no longer a market for an evening newspaper in Hong Kong.

But signs are, business is picking up. And any new buyer is likely to take over the reins of a company on the upswing. There are still problems ahead however, analysts warn.

'Sing Tao has its problems and its weaknesses,' Salomon Brothers analyst Kaushik Shridharani said.

One of the weaknesses is seen to be the increasingly competitive market for property advertising, the group's core earner.

'Newspapers are trying to break their way into the niche area that Sing Tao had a strength in, so you have newspapers like Hong Kong Daily News trying to offer competitive rates for classified property advertising and the Hong Kong Economic Journal developing a business property oriented readership,' Mr Shridharan said.

'So, although they have a strong portion of the institutional market for property-related readership, it's being pursued.' He added it was a business that had only recently become more difficult to operate in.

'It was a fairly easy business to run up until a few years ago, so perhaps [Miss Aw] felt what it needed was a lot more energy and fresh ideas, new blood.

'It would be a good time for the Aw family to sell because the value of the Sing Tao property-related advertising franchise should go up when the property market itself is going well.' Mr Shridharani said if the Aw family did not sell its stake now, it might find itself waiting for the next cycle.

Miss Aw has steered Sing Tao, which also has interests in financial printing as well as newspapers and property, since the death of her father Aw Boon Haw in 1954.

Her no-nonsense style of doing business, in a city where few women have succeeded, has commanded the respect of many.

'She has this ability to skim over two documents simultaneously while she's on the phone . . . and she doesn't miss a single detail,' one former employee said.

'This all came as a surprise,' one leading businessman who has known Miss Aw for years said.

'I certainly didn't know anything about it until I read about it in the papers.' Analysts agreed, but added that the Aw family was known to have been considering selling the business in recent years.

With no children of her own to carry on the family dynasty, now might be a suitable moment for Miss Aw to look around for a friendly buyer.