Japanese brewer Asahi ready to spend 'billions' on deals

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asahi Group Holdings 2502.T, Japan's largest brewer, is ready to spend "billions of dollars" on acquisitions, having spent $11 billion over the past year to acquire beer brands across Europe from Anheuser-Busch InBev ABI.BR.

Asahi Group Holdings President and COO Akiyoshi Koji poses for a photo with the company's logo at its headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Asahi president Akiyoshi Koji said “bolt-on” acquisitions in Europe, including beer makers and distributors, were a priority, as the company carves out a larger slice of the overseas market to compensate for slow growth at home.

He did not specify how much he would spend and did not name potential targets.

“If there are big investment opportunities, we can make big investments,” he told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.

Asahi, maker of Japan’s best-selling beer, Asahi Super Dry, seized a chunk of the European market thanks to back-to-back deals with InBev that completed earlier this year. The deals handed it brands including Peroni, Grolsch and Pilsner Urquell.

Any sizeable deal would likely rely on debt, given a cash pile that stands at just under $740 million. But Koji said the company’s leverage was under control, indicating it could tap lenders for more - net debt to core earnings will fall to 3 in 2020, after rising to 4.8 after the European deals.

“That’s a normal level,” he said.

Expansion will also be organic, as the company prepares to sell Asahi Super Dry draft beer in Britain and Italy from January next year, hoping to carve out a niche as premium beer brand in Europe, and prepares for zero-alcohol sales and to sell canned cocktails, hugely popular in Japan for some time.

In Asia, global beer companies are closely watching Vietnam's plan to sell a majority stake in beer makers Sabeco SAB.HM and Habeco BHN.HM, potentially offering a lucrative portion of the market in a young, beer-loving nation.

Koji said Asahi has been studying Sabeco but declined to comment further: “As a growth market, Vietnam is attractive, but our judgment will be based on whether the market fits our premium beer strategy,” he said.

Vietnam’s privatization has been protracted, putting off some of the international investors who initially flocked to it.

But it’s not all about acquisitions. The 65-year-old career insider who took the top job last year has also been reviewing the company’s asset portfolio, and he said minority investments remained under scrutiny.

In June, Asahi said it would sell its 20 percent stake in Chinese brewer Tingyi-Asahi Beverages Holding Co for $612 million.

Asahi also has a 20 percent stake in China's second-largest brewer Tsingtao Brewery Co 600600.SS0168.HK. Koji said he could not comment on the Tsingtao stake, noting he plans to make some announcement on the portfolio review by the year end.

Asahi, which commands nearly 40 percent share in Japan’s beer market, has been battling changing tastes and a sluggish economy at home, with the beer market shrinking around 1 percent a year in volume terms.

The trend is not changing yet, Koji said, despite some indicators of a strengthening economy - but the company will tap Japan’s knack for ‘selective spending’ on premium or highly popular products.

“Given this trend, we have to be doing more targeted product development and marketing for different generations and regions,” Koji said.

Reporting by Taiga Uranaka and Ritsuko Shimizu; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Muralikumar Anantharaman