| HONG KONG
HONG KONG A potential deal for CVC Capital Partners CVC.UL to buy a majority stake in a Chinese restaurant chain highlights a growing willingness by smaller China firms to cede control to foreign private equity amid unfavorable IPO prospects.
London-based CVC is in advanced talks to buy a majority holding in South Beauty Investment Co Ltd for $300 million, sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
South Beauty, which operates high-end restaurants that cater to China's business and political elite, had previously hired banks for a Hong Kong IPO worth as much as $200 million that had been planned for this year.
A successful deal would also be the latest in a string of stake acquisitions in Chinese restaurant chains by foreign private equity.
Owners of China's small and medium sized companies prefer to exit their investments through IPOs, which tend to generate higher returns.
But stricter regulations for offerings in China, a choppy public market in Hong Kong and tighter credit conditions are helping private equity firms, which are unable to exit minority stakes through public listings, convince owners to give up control, sources have said.
Under the deal being discussed, CVC is buying 69 percent of South Beauty while the restaurant chain's founder Zhang Lan will own a 31 percent stake, Basis Point, a Thomson Reuters publication, reported on Tuesday.
The deal would follow one this year by Swedish firm EQT Partners to take majority control of RCS Group Co for around $170 million. EQT bought stakes from both the Chinese owner and private equity backer Warburg Pincus WP.UL, sources told Reuters.
RCS has franchise rights for ice-cream vendor Dairy Queen and one of China's biggest pizza chains, Papa John's.
Deals done last year include Unitas Capital paying $40 million to buy majority control of Babela's Group, which runs Italian, Cantonese and Taiwanese restaurants, from investors including Carlyle Group (CG.O). General Atlantic acquired a stake in hot pot chain Xiabu Xiabu from private equity firm Actis.
A successful deal would give Chinese private equity firm CDH Investments an opportunity to exit from its investment, the sources added. CDH bought an unspecified stake in South Beauty in 2008 for $29.3 million, according to Thomson Reuters data.
South Beauty was founded in 2000 and has restaurants nationwide including in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Shenyang.
The restaurant chain had earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) of 308.5 million yuan ($50.7 million) for the 12 months ended July 2013, Basis Point reported.
A deal for 69 percent of South Beauty at $300 million would represent an EV/EBITDA ratio of around 8.5. Listed comparables trade at 7.76, according to Thomson Reuters data.
CVC has hired Bank of America Corp (BAC.N) as an advisor, and the bank is arranging loan financing of $140 million to back the acquisition, Basis Point said.
Bank of America and CVC declined to comment. South Beauty did not reply to an email requesting comment. Sources declined to be identified as the discussions were confidential.
(Reporting by Stephen Aldred and Prakash Chakravarti of IFR/LPC; Additional reporting by Sandra Tsui of Thomson Reuters Basis Point; Editing by Denny Thomas and Edwina Gibbs)