MILAN Dec 18 Malaysian billionaire Sri Lim Kok Thay, whose luxury empire spans casinos and cruise liners, is to buy half of yacht maker Wider to expand into a fast-growing market in Asia, the founder of the Italian company said on Tuesday.
Wider is the second Italian yacht maker to attract Asian investors after Chinese state-owned Shandong Heavy Industry took control of Ferretti group for 374 million euros ($493 million) in January.
"Asia is an incredibly growing market for yachting, but they still know very little about this world," Wider chairman and founder Tilli Antonelli told Reuters.
Italy is the world's No.1 builder of super luxury yachts, but few Europeans can afford a 60-metre yacht with marbled floors and private gyms amid the economic slowdown.
Global yacht sales were expected to grow 2 percent to 7 billion euros in 2012, the worst performing sector in the 212-billion euro luxury industry, U.S. consultancy Bain said.
Antonelli launched Wider with his long-time business partner Paolo Favilla in 2010, after quitting Pershing, the luxury motor yacht brand he founded 30 years ago and sold to Ferretti in the 90s.
Wider made a splash with its innovative 12-metre day-cruisers with fold-out cockpits that turn into a large walkable area for additional seating and more comfort.
Lim Kok Thay, Malaysia's 16th richest man according to Forbes and chairman of luxury group Genting, got in touch with Wider during a trip to southern France last summer, Antonelli said. Five months later the deal was signed.
Following a capital increase, the Malaysian billionaire will become the single biggest shareholder in Wider with a 50 percent stake owned by his vehicle EXA Ltd, Antonelli said.
Antonelli and Favilla will share the remaining 50 percent. Other financial details were not disclosed.
Antonelli, who owns the cockpit patent, said he expected revenue of 6 million euros this year.
The global yachting market has been in decline since the financial crisis in 2008.
Yacht imports in China, however, increased threefold from 2009 to 2010 as new marinas and yachting facilities began to dot the southern coast, offering domestic billionaires the luxury experience of distant Mediterranean resorts.
New-money buyers are also boosting sales of super yachts, which represent a symbol of social power.
Antonelli, whose yachts use technology from Formula 1 and aerospace to cut weight and, thus, boost efficiency, said he will focus on 150-foot yachts from next year.
Orders for yachts above 150 feet were expected to grow 3.9 percent in 2012, according to the 2013 Global Order Book, the benchmark annual report on the global nautical industry by specialised magazine ShowBoat International. ($1 = 0.7598 euro) (Reporting by Antonella Ciancio; Additional reporting by Charmian Kok in Singapore; Editing by Dan Lalor)