* World's No. 2 Coke drinks bottler to seek main London
* Coca Cola Hellenic is Greece's biggest firm by market
* Legal base will move to Switzerland, losing "Hellenic"
* Plans to maintain plants in Greece but most activity
By Harry Papachristou
ATHENS, Oct 11 Greece's biggest company, Coca
Cola Hellenic, is leaving the country, the drinks bottler said
on Thursday as its move to Switzerland and a London listing for
its shares dealt a blow to the crippled Greek economy.
The immediate material impact on Greece is limited - its
Greek plants stay open and CCH said the small portion
of it activity that the world's second-ranked Coke bottler has
in Greece will be unaffected. But analysts quickly saw it as bad
news for a nation struggling to compete inside the euro zone.
CCH, which has said it fears the Greek crisis could disrupt
its multinational business, said in a bourse filing in Athens
that shareholders, most of whom are abroad, will exchange their
stock for shares in Coca Cola HBC AG, based in Switzerland and
effectively shorn of the Greek tag "Hellenic".
That stock will be primarily quoted on London's LSE.
"A primary listing on Europe's biggest and most liquid stock
exchange reflects better the international character of Coca
Cola Hellenic's business activities and shareholder base," the
company said in its regulatory statement.
The firm, in which The Coca-Cola Co of the United
States has a 23-percent stake, bottles Coke and other produce in
28 countries from Russia to Nigeria. About 95 percent of its
shareholders and business activity are outside Greece.
"This transaction makes clear business sense," chief
executive Dimitris Lois told analysts in a conference call. An
overwhelming majority of shareholders have already accepted
moving a company which has long complained about Greek taxes.
Analyst Manos Hatzidakis of Beta Securities in Athens said
that the move made sense for the firm, which follows Greek dairy
group FAGE this month in seeking a low-tax, low-volatility haven
for its corporate base - in FAGE's case Luxembourg.
"The Greek bourse is losing a very good company and the
London Stock Exchange is gaining a very important group," said
Hatzidakis. "It's very bad news for the Greek economy and
For brokers on the stock exchange, losing a stock that made
up 8 percent of daily turnover this year will be unwelcome -
especially since total volumes are down by half since last year.
For the Greek treasury, the loss of tax revenue is unclear.
Though CCH officials did not detail tax savings from moving the
registered office to Switzerland, it has complained of high -
and increasingly unpredictable - taxation in crisis-hit Athens.
But the move may further discourage investment in Greece.
Trade unionists saw the corporate exodus as immoral and one,
Stathis Anestis, spokesman for the biggest labour group GSEE,
suggested a boycott of Coke : "This is unacceptable," he said.
"CCH and FAGE are speculating at the most crucial moment for
the Greek economy and the Greek people. Consumers should use
their power to punish these companies."
One analyst said CCH, which rose to the top of corporate
rankings as the values of Greek banks collapsed, was out to rid
its share price of such risks associated with Greece; the
country is mired in recession and facing mass discontent as its
leaders slash budgets to meet international creditors' terms for
loans intended to keep Athens inside Europe's single currency.
"This is a healthy company that does not want to suffer from
Greece's high country risk," said the analyst, who spoke on
condition of anonymity.
Foreign investors have been steadily reducing their
investment in the Athens Stock Exchange since the country
was engulfed by the sovereign debt crisis in 2009. Greece's
future in the 17-nation euro zone still remains in doubt.
Aided by the fact that it is doing most of its business
outside Greece, CCH consistently outperformed the general Athens
stock market index, which has slumped to 20-year lows.
CCH has become the country's biggest firm by market value
with a capitalisation of around 6 billion euros ($7.7 billion),
representing about a fifth of the Athens bourse's total.
The company, which last year made net profit of 330 million
euros on sales of 6.85 billion, has complained of taxes imposed
under Greek government austerity measures. A U.S. filing shows
it paid about 20 million euros in both 2009 and 2010 for one-off
"social responsibility" levies in Greece.
Profits at operating units in other countries are generally
taxed locally. The Greek parent company reported 32 million
euros in Greek taxes in 2010 and none last year. New withholding
tax on dividends in Greece might have affected CCH in future.
In its U.S. filing for 2011, the company said: "Greece,
which accounted for approximately 6 percent of our unit case
sales volume and approximately 8 percent of our net sales
revenue in 2011, is currently facing a severe economic crisis
resulting from significant government fiscal deficits and high
levels of government borrowing."
"The ... Greek government debt crisis may have impacts on
our liquidity that currently cannot be predicted."
CCH said it would delist from the Athens Stock Exchange and
then seek to re-enter that bourse with a secondary listing.
Coca Cola Hellenic shares closed down 4.9 percent at 15.66
euros in Athens. Analysts explained the drop by the low cash
price of 13.58 euros the company is offering to those
shareholders who refuse the offer of new Swiss shares.