Li gets numbers right as 3G finally brings home a profit

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2011, 12:00am

A relieved Li Ka-shing announced his company Hutchison Whampoa was increasing its dividend payout for the first time in a decade after its 3G mobile-phone unit made its first profit since its launch nine years ago.

Li said the group 'has entered a new era when the 3 Group will no longer be a drag on profits and instead make a positive contribution'.

Every year since 2005, the billionaire has promised shareholders that their massively expensive investment in its 3G telecoms division was just about to pay off.

The 3 Group made HK$2.93 billion last year before interest expenses and taxation - its first full-year positive earnings and a marked turnaround from its loss of HK$8.92 billion in 2009.

The figure included two one-off gains: HK$6.01 billion from 3 UK's revised network-sharing deal and HK$1.48 billion related to the assignments of spectrum, or frequency ranges, for 3 Italia.

All 3G operations except Ireland's achieved growth, with the total registered 3G customer base increasing by 13 per cent last year to more than 29.6 million customers.

Average revenue per user increased by 5 per cent to Euro29.67 (HK$325.41) last year. But in local-currency terms, that dropped 5 per cent year on year due to reductions in the regulated connection and international roaming fees in Britain.

Li pledged last year to consider raising the dividend payout when its 3G operations became profitable.

To reward its patient shareholders, Hutchison increased the final dividend 16 per cent to HK$1.41 per share, bringing the full-year payout to HK$1.92 per share.

Since 2003, Hutchison has poured billions into the 3G business in Britain, Ireland, Italy, Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Austria. But despite huge outlays for licences and networks, 3G failed to be the money-spinner Li originally envisioned.

However, he said, the billions spent also counted as an investment in the next generation of mobile services. 'We don't have any problem in terms of capital and technology if we have to move to 4G,' Li said.

Driven by a turnaround in its 3G operations and growth in other businesses ranging from hotels, retail and ports in 52 countries, the conglomerate posted a 47 per cent gain in net profit to nearly HK$20.04 billion for the year to December. The results beat market forecasts, which expected Hutchison's earnings to increase by 15 per cent to HK$15 billion.

Its property and hotel business was also a bright spot for the group. Its earnings before interest expenses and taxation, excluding property revaluation gains, grew 40 per cent to HK$8.99 billion. The retail arm recorded growth of 38 per cent. Earnings before interest expenses and taxation were HK$7.86 billion.

Total revenue from Hutchison's port portfolio grew 13 per cent to HK$37.72 billion.

Li said he remained upbeat about the group's prospects. 'I am very optimistic in the short, medium and long term. All our existing businesses will see organic growth,' he said.

Li also said that the disaster in Japan would have little effect on the company beyond a small impact on its port businesses.

The billionaire did not reveal any spin-off plans, although some analysts expect a Hutchison spin-off after it made HK$45 billion from the initial public offering of the Hutchison Port Holdings Trust in Singapore this month.

Shares of Hutchison fell more than 2 per cent to HK$88.80.