Mandarin confident of smooth transition

MANDARIN Oriental International managing director Robert Riley has shrugged off the group's delisting from the stock exchange as a technical matter.

'It will not have any effect or change in the group's day-to-day business operations,' Mr Riley said.

He believes in a smooth transition of the company's stock from Hong Kong to Singapore.

When the delisting takes place on March 31 next year, three months after its parent Jardine Matheson Holdings shifts to the republic, the group will have the advantage of seeing how Jardines will be traded in Singapore.

'We are confident that the trading that is vigorously taking place in Hong Kong will take place in Singaore,' Mr Riley said.

Analysts are inclined to agree with him.

One with a Singaporean brokerage said: 'We believe that the delisting is not as negative as people originally thought.' 'The Mandarin name is a well-known name and I don't think the listing of the stock in Singapore will see the stock performing badly.

'Hopefully, Mandarin's share price can be traded at a higher price-earnings ratio than in Hong Kong.' He said the stock was traded by institutional investors in various countries and some retail investors found the stock quite attractive.

Indeed, one of the group's greatest assets is its name which is firmly established as a top-class hotel chain where it commands high room rates and attracts the top end of business and leisure travellers.

While the group has not always turned out five-star results, it continues to enjoy support from investors because of its name, spread of assets and business throughout the region.

The group has hotels in Hong Kong, Macau, Manila, Singapore, Bangkok, San Francisco, Mexico City and London.

Last year, its after-tax profits rose a mere 1.24 per cent to US$40.8 million.

The group rebounded this year when it reported a 15.8 per cent rise in taxed profits to $22.6 million for the first half of this year, aided by the strong performance of its two properties in Hong Kong - Mandarin Oriental and the Excelsior.

The results underscored the importance of the two properties, which are both wholly owned and contribute about 70 per cent of the group's earnings.

Mr Riley said the Hong Kong properties would remain the major earners despite the group's expansion in the region and in Latin America.

'Hong Kong is the only place where our hotels are 100 per cent owned. Our equity exposure in hotels in other parts of Asia and the world is much less than that,' he said.

With the tightening of room supply in the territory, the two hotels saw average room occupancies increase which in turn allowed Mandarin to put up its average room rates.

For the first eight months of this year, Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong recorded an average room occupancy of 68.7 per cent, an increase of about 10 percentage points over the same period last year.

Room rates jumped 13.3 per cent to US$232.

At the Excelsior, average room occupancy increased by about three percentage points to 89 per cent, slightly above the industry average.

Average room rates rose 27 per cent to US$110.

The last 12 months has seen a sudden surge in the activities in the group, following the inertia of recent years.

In May, the group took over the management of the Ritz in London to gain a foothold into Britain.

The group then took a 25 per cent stake in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for US$20 million in July followed by the signing of a management contract in September to manage the Mandarin Oriental Mexico City - the first venture into Latin America by the group.

Unlike many major hotel group, the Mandarin is not rushing into China and Mr Riley dismissed suggestions that the reason could be due to politics given the previous misgivings between its parent Jardines and the Chinese Government.

'We are actively looking for opportunities into China, we are interested in Beijing and Shanghai, but so far we haven't come up with any.

'It is hard to do business in China - there's no mystery to that as well as finding the right piece of land, at the right place with the right local partner which can bring value to the investment. That takes a lot of patience.

'And China is not the only place where we have been patient. We have been patient in all of our developments all over the world.' Mr Riley added that the company had always been patient and deliberate in its expansion.

He said land cost in China was high in relation to the risk in the country.

He attributed 'risk' to the cyclical nature of the hotel industry.

The industry in China was in a very different picture to the current buoyant business enjoyed by the industry.

He said that only a few years ago, the Chinese hotels were languishing in an oversupplied market with low room occupancies and room rates.

While China and Indochina are the flavour of the moment, Mandarin does not feel a need to rush into those markets.

Mr Riley said the countries had lots of potential as emerging markets but there was no point in entering projects unless the group was certain they brought value to shareholders.

'Back in the 1980s, we did not pursue any trophy properties because we felt that such properties did not bring good value to our shareholders.

'We are known as being conservative and we are conservative.

'Our policy towards China is no different from elsewhere, that is patience, deliberation and certainty of good value.

'Once we find it then we've got the balance sheet right and we will enter the market.' Looking ahead, Mr Riley is extremely optimistic about Hong Kong. 'Hong Kong will just grow and grow especially once the new airport is built.' He also has his eye cast on Indonesia which he regards as exciting and full of potential.

'I am really impressed with Indonesia. I look at the country's economic growth and I see business travellers increasing as well as leisure travellers.

'Intra-country travel will also grow as the country develops more and the economy expands further.'