China Agri's role 'reflects national needs'
With more than 1.3 billion people on the mainland, securing adequate food supplies is understandably an important national security issue.
That makes national strategic planning identical to strategic planning at China Agri-Industries, according to Yu Xubo, the newly-appointed chairman of the state-owned investment firm.
In 1988, Yu joined China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO), the mainland's largest food processor, producer, trader and the parent firm of China Agri. He remains a director.
In 2007, he was appointed China Agri's managing director.
'Mainlanders are going to consume more and more animal protein, and place more importance on food safety and quality. It is an inevitable trend,' Yu told the South China Morning Post last week.
The mainland's rising demand for food led to China Agri's conversion from being an exporter to an importer, Yu said. The firm, he said, was now the world's biggest importer of soya beans and would become the biggest corn importer by 2015.
Yu said another major change was the way that global fast-food chains - such as McDonalds, KFC, and Yoshinoya - had expanded on the mainland, and displaced domestic businesses to become China Agri's most important clients.
Their standardised food production translated into bulk purchase orders of millions of tonnes of feed grains and semi-processed products, he said. 'We always have to think one step ahead of the market,' Yu said. 'That explains why we have started investing a lot in feed products and processed products like flour and sweetener.'
Indeed, the firm's large investments account for its high leverage ratio of 108 per cent last year, up from 96 per cent in 2010; as well as financing costs that have more than doubled from HK$376.9 million to HK$888.7 million.
As China Agri's chairman, Yu said his first task was to reduce that leverage ratio to a 'more reasonable level' of 90 per cent or less by improving the return on investment.
He would also step up the production capacity of its new plants and integrate business units to further reduce costs. The firm would also boost production efficiency rather than make more acquisitions.
Controlling production costs was particularly important, Yu said, given Beijing's high priority of controlling food price inflation.
In the first half of last year, all edible oil businesses on the mainland were losing money, as Beijing clamped down on rising prices, Yu said. But China Agri's operating profits more than doubled to HK$4.5 billion when Beijing lifted its price restriction in the second half of last year.
Managing foreign exchange needs and hedging commodity prices were also important, Yu said, particularly given the economic uncertainties arising from the United States' quantitative easing policy and the euro zone's sovereign debt crisis.
On the bright side, however, the yuan's appreciation would help offset the increases in commodities prices as a result of greater monetary liquidity, he said.
China Agri's net foreign exchange gains amounted to HK$1.08 billion last year, up from HK$351 million in 2010, partly because of the yuan's rise against other currencies.