Huishan tries to milk Hong Kong investors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 1:31am

Milk maker Liaoning Huishan Holdings, also known as Huishan Dairy, has reportedly invited proposals from investment banks to lead a Hong Kong initial public offering of up to US$1 billion.

The deal is not set to hit the market until well into 2013. As things stand, it would probably be a challenging story.

In 2008 China's Sanlu dairy company sold melamine-tainted infant formula. Thousands of babies fell ill. Hundreds of others were diagnosed with kidney stones due to melamine poisoning, and six died. Inspectors then found melamine in milk from other dairy firms, which used it to boost their product's protein content.

Despite massive public outrage, more melamine-tainted milk was found in 2009 and 2010.

These scandals were a disaster for China's listed milk producers, which have been scrambling to recapture the trust and goodwill of the public ever since.

A key test for Huishan during the marketing of its IPO will be to convince investors its products will always meet the highest standards.

The good news is that dairy is a dependably high-growth consumption item on the mainland.

The research firm Datamonitor expects the Chinese dairy market by value to have grown at a compound annual rate of 7.1 per cent per annum between 2008 and 2013. Mainland dairy consumption is also low compared to other countries' per capita use - about one fifth that of the US, for example.

Dairy makers are addressing that potential with heavy imports of cows (a reported 100,000 heads in 2011 alone) from countries such as Australia and New Zealand, and from Latin America.

Large dairy producers such as Huishan are rapidly setting up new farms too, to ensure control over the quality and quantity of milk made.

Huishan is the largest producer of liquid milk in northeast China. It's a fully integrated dairy company that produces and markets a variety of products. It controls all levels within its supply chain through its "grass-to-glass" concept.

Last summer, Swiss group Hero bought a stake in Huishan, having previously entered into a joint venture to make and market infant milk formula with the company, with which it opened a factory in May.

Huishan also announced in 2010 an initiative to produce clean electricity for 17 of its dairy farms through anaerobic fermentation methane - in other words, gas from cow dung.

In 2011, the company reportedly sold about 20 per cent of its share capital for some US$290 million to a consortium of private equity investors, including New World Development and Chow Tai Fook tycoon Cheng Yu-tung. CLSA Private Equity and Japan Asia Investment were also said to have made investments back in 2005.

Pitching the right level for valuation will be key as the sector shows a disparity among the various players. Hong Kong-listed competitor China Mengniu trades at an estimated price/earnings ratio of just below 22 times, while smaller China Modern Dairy is on about 13 times prospective earnings.

Philippe Espinasse, a former investment banker, is the author of IPO: A Global Guide (HKU Press)