Japanese beer makers look to Vietnam for growth

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Japanese brewers are looking past China’s $57 billion beer market to a country with less than one-tenth the population: Vietnam.

Japan’s oldest beer maker, Sapporo Holdings, pulled out of China in 2004 and is boosting production in Vietnam. Rivals Asahi Group Holdings and Kirin Holdings have bought Southeast Asian companies to help offset domestic beer sales that have slumped for at least six years.

The brewers are making the fastest-growing major economy, China, a lesser priority because of slowing population growth and strong competition. The Japanese companies’ push to tap younger markets in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam may boost sales and margins. It also pits them against global brands, including European brewers Heineken and Carlsberg.

Vietnam “has 90 million people whose average age is 28 years and love to guzzle beer,” said Yoshiyuki Mochida, who heads Sapporo’s international business. “It’s an era of the warring states for business in Vietnam. If you fall asleep there, your head will be lopped off.”

Vietnam retail beer sales will probably rise 20 percent to $4.6 billion this year, or less than a tenth of China’s $57 billion, researcher Euromonitor International estimated. The country’s per capita beer consumption trailed China’s and was the equivalent of about a third of that in the United States, according to research by Kirin.

But while China accounted for 71 percent of the Asia-Pacific region’s beer market by volume last year, it contributed only 16 percent of profit, Heineken Chief Executive Officer Jean Francois van Boxmeer said.

Asahi is looking at Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia for potential acquisitions, said company President Naoki Izumiya. China’s beverage market will take a hit in 2015 by slower population growth from the nation’s one-child policy, he said.

Japanese brewers need to look to countries such as Vietnam for growth. The Japanese beer industry’s 2010 domestic sales by volume, including lower-malt drinks, is 18 percent lower than a decade ago after sliding for six consecutive years, according to Kirin’s research.

“Consumption is tied in with population, and we have to face this fact squarely,” Kirin Chief Executive Officer Senji Miyake said.

Kirin has a head start in Southeast Asia, said Akane Nakagawa, an analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley. Sapporo, which started beer production in Southeast Asia last month, is next, she said.

While Asahi lags behind the other two, it may benefit from synergies as it integrates Malaysia’s nonalcoholic drink maker Permanis, which it acquired in the second half of this year, Nakagawa said.

Southeast Asia offers opportunities because of a relative absence of competition, said Mikihiko Yamato, an analyst at JI Asia. The “best-case scenario” would be for the Japanese companies to buy closely held beverage makers where they can negotiate directly with the owners, he said.

Japanese brewers have found China a tough place to do business because a handful of brands dominate China’s beer industry.

“Their market share there can’t rise,” said Tokushi Yamasaki, an analyst at Daiwa Securities Capital. “Competition is too fierce in China.”

China Resources Enterprise, the maker of Snow beer with SABMiller, has a 22 percent share. Tsingtao Brewery, part owned by Asahi, has 14 percent, and Anheuser Busch InBev has 12 percent, according to Euromonitor.

“There are giants in the Chinese beer market, and we have no chance to go it alone,” said Kirin’s Miyake. “There is still a chance for us in Vietnam, from our market analysis.”