Wharf's China spree set to pay off

The developer boasts one of the biggest land banks among its Hong Kong counterparts on the mainland and is ready to reap gains

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 6:59am

Wharf (Holdings) is looking forward to reaping the benefits of an aggressive acquisition binge on the mainland that has expanded its land bank to 18 million square metres since 2007.

Last year, the conglomerate accelerated its investment in the mainland by acting as a white knight to rescue financially troubled Greentown China.

Through a deal involving 5.1 billion yuan (HK$6.3 billion) of shares and convertible notes, Wharf will hold a 24.6 per cent stake in the mainland developer that could be increased to 35.1 per cent if it converts the notes.

The equity investment represents a big boost for the Hong Kong conglomerate's presence on the mainland. Previously, Wharf expanded its land bank mostly through mainland government land auctions or tenders. But it added 5.7 million square metres to its land bank after it became the second-biggest shareholder in the debt-laden mainland developer. Wharf, which also owns Times Square in Hong Kong, now has one of the largest land banks of any Hong Kong developer on the mainland.

"We are not chasing to be the largest in terms of size but strictly looking for return," said Wharf deputy chairman and managing director Stephen Ng Tin-hoi. "We will not go for a site if it fails to meet our internal rate of return [IRR]."

We are not chasing to be the largest in terms of size but strictly looking for return. We will not go for a site if it fails to meet our internal rate of return
Wharf deputy chairman Stephen Ng Tin-hoi

He did not disclose Wharf's IRR but said 20 per cent was a basic requirement.

Wharf's mainland development started to bear fruit last year with turnover reaching a record HK$9.5 billion, up 51 per cent from a year earlier. Strong mainland property sales helped the conglomerate post a record HK$11.04 billion of core earnings last year.

Ng said the firm has no plans to divest its equity investment in Greentown. Shares in Greentown have shot up 180 per cent to reach HK$14.60 last Thursday from HK$5.20 a share last year.

"We became a shareholder in Greentown mainly to explore future co-operation to expand into the mainland. It would kill the goose that is laying golden egg if we sold our shares in Greentown," he said.

With Wharf's financial aid, Greentown's profit increased 88.4 per cent year on year to 4.85 billion yuan last year and its gearing ratio dropped to 49 per cent from 148 per cent in 2011.

"We are positive on the mainland property market outlook as the rapid urbanisation policy will encourage several million farmers to relocate to the cities," Ng said.

From next year until 2016, Wharf plans to open a shopping centre each year.

Also in the pipeline are five retail-office-hotel projects - Chengdu International Finance Square (IFS), Chongqing IFS, Suzhou IFS, Wuxi IFS and Changsha IFS - all of which are due to open between 2014 and 2016.