Lippo a force to be reckoned with

WITH a seemingly insatiable appetite for new assets and capital, Lippo Ltd has established itself as one of the fastest-growing corporate entities in Hongkong. But more needs to be done, if the Indonesian Riady family's ambition is to become a major conglomerate.

The company was known as Public Finance until being drawn into the Indonesian based Lippo Group by Mr Mochtar Riady in April 1991.

Since then, the Riady family has successfully shaped Lippo Ltd into its listed flagship with the capital base established through a series of new shares subscriptions and acquisitions.

Mr Mochtar Riady's younger son, high-flier Stephen Riady, who, at 32, is already a force in the group, spoke enthusiastically about its corporate strategy.

''Investors may get upset about last year's sizeable cash calls when Lippo Ltd needed the money to buy assets that would make it an investment holding company with exposure to various businesses,'' he said.

''The strategy was a must as it would be a lot easier to borrow money from the banks by showing to them a company with solid business and low gearing than the one that is just desirous of being big through acquisitions.'' At the end of last year, Lippo Ltd's shareholders' funds totalled $2.32 billion while debt amounted to only $161 million.

Mr Riady realises that it is time for the company to capitalise on the earnings base, with the new group structure in place.

''I do not see any need for cash calls in 1993, and even if Lippo Ltd wants money, bank borrowing will be a better alternative,'' he said.

He says the company is pursuing an aggressive but prudent policy. He does not hide his distaste for the idea of making Lippo Ltd a passive investment holding concern.

Given its strong connection with business giants such as Cheung Kong and China Resources, he believes that the company can move ahead of most of its rivals in identifying investment opportunities.

''The company will not refrain from trading assets for quick return as long as another opportunity is just round the corner,'' he said.

Despite its aggressive nature, investors seem to be less than enamoured with the stock.

When compared with its spectacular asset growth, Lippo Ltd's share price performance is hardly satisfactory.

Last July, Lippo Ltd made a private placement of 160 million shares to outside investors at $2.75 a share. Since then the stock's price has failed to rise above that level.

''Investors were getting tired of the cash calls, which also scared away those punters only looking for a speculative buy,'' said one stock analyst.

The fact that new shares mean earnings dilution is also worrying for shareholders.

The company last week reported a twelvefold increase in net profit to $211 million for last year. But this is unsurprising given the rapid expansion of assets in the period.

Earnings per share rose only 63 per cent to 20.3 cents because of the dilution of earnings caused by the sizeable share issues.

Earnings per share on a fully diluted basis for the coming year are expected to be the same as last year, and only marginal growth is forecast for next year.

Lippo Ltd's greatest attraction appears to lie in its huge long-term potential as a genuine conglomerate play.

The Riady family currently holds six listed companies including Lippo Ltd, the Hongkong Chinese Bank, Hongkong China (formerly EIE Development), Morning Star, Asia Securities, and the Hongkong Building and Loan Agency.

These companies focus their investment in banking, property, travel and infrastructure projects in Hongkong and China.

However, the pulling together of these listed concerns so swiftly poses the problem of the lack of a well-defined corporate structure.

Wardley James Capel analyst C.Y. Ho says Lippo Ltd's management has yet to prove that there will be a division of labour among the companies when investment opportunities arise.

The Riady family also should avoid intra-group transactions by which listed companies would become the vehicles for private assets injection, he said.

Noting the market concern, Mr Riady said that, with one exception, the family was not prepared to inject more assets into the listed off-shoots as the groundwork for the group's development was complete.

The Riady family is now considering selling a prime office project in Singapore to Hongkong China for investment use.

Mr Riady also maintains that there will be a well-defined role for each of the listed companies in any future investment.

''Lippo Ltd will concentrate on merchant banking and China investment, while Hongkong China and Asia Securities will be for property investment and strategic investment respectively,'' he said.

He did not expect any substantial company acquisitions in the near future, but said Asia Securities would play a key role in moves to buy minor stakes in selected companies.

Some analysts note that the businesses of Hongkong China and Asia Securities overlap, both firms having interests in property investment.

Asia Securities is expected to dispose of more properties either to outside parties or Hongkong China if a rationalisation plan is implemented.

Meanwhile, Lippo Ltd appears to have huge long-term potential as a China play.

Lippo Ltd is negotiating numerous joint ventures in China. It has also set up a joint venture with the government of Fuzhou, the Riady family's home county, in Fujian province, to develop a number of infrastructure projects.

With an initial capital injection of $1 billion, the project will be the company's major source of earnings from China.

Lippo will take a substantial stake in the projects and play a leading role in arranging financing.

Standard Chartered Securities research director Edward Chan said the international airport development was the most important project.

He expected Fujian's gateway position to make the programme attractive to Taiwanese investors.

Mr Chan believes that having laid the groundwork for development, Lippo Ltd is set to build on its China activities, although realisation of its full potential is in the distant future.

For many years, Hongkong has been a favourite place for Chinese businessmen from Southeast Asian countries to amass quick fortunes, but few have been seen as long-term players.

The Riady family appears to offer a totally new style to Hongkong investors and has become a force that has to be reckoned with in the market.