Lion Nathan's mouth waters at massive market

WITH the beer drinking capacity of Australians and New Zealanders topping out at 110 litres per head per annum, New Zealand's largest beverage producer Lion Nathan reckons it is time to tap into the China market.

''There is no growth in beer consumption in New Zealand and Australia as the market has matured,'' said Lion Nathan chief executive officer Douglas Myers.

While the Chinese market is still in its infancy with annual consumption at 10 litres per person, Mr Myers expects the cup to run over at 30 litres in a few years.

''When that happens, China's market in beer consumption will exceed that of the United States, which is currently the largest beer consumer in the world,'' said Mr Myers.

''Chinese drinking habits are also changing and many are beginning to learn that beer complements Chinese food,'' he said.

He expressed equal confidence that China's leadership would continue with its high and sustainable economic growth rate.

It is with this potential in mind that Mr Myers, who has been hailed as New Zealand's richest man, is taking his chairman and board of directors on a familiarisation visit to China today in the hope they will endorse his ''enthusiasm''.

Asked whether the board would vote his way, he replied: ''I'm very confident that they will. Otherwise I would not have wasted my money on their air fares.'' Mr Myers said there were no cultural or moral issues to impede the growth of beer consumption in China, unlike in some Muslim and Christian countries.

He said: ''There is a general perception that there is an imbalance between demand and supply in China. The demand for beer is higher than the supply.

''The potential is so big in that country.'' Mr Myers said if the company moved into China, it would concentrate on the production of high quality brands.

''Fighting for a market share will not be our objective as the market is so big,'' he said.

The growing realisation that Australasia's future lies within Asia is also another factor in Lion Nathan's focus on China.

He said: ''For a long time, we [Australasia] always considered ourselves as an outpost of Europe.

''It has taken us a 150 years to define where we are. Our presence in this part of the world is part of that re-orientation.''