Thai moguls chase deals in Vietnam as ‘buy-Thai’ market booms

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Through supermarkets, malls, dairy and beer, Thai tycoons are pursuing deals in Vietnam that could break mergers and acquisitions records in the upwardly mobile market of 90 million people, at the expense of their Asian rivals.

Vietnam’s swelling middle-class sees Thai products as better and more affordable than Japanese and Korean imports, and vastly preferable to the cheap but unpopular goods that flood across the border from giant neighbour China.

“I prefer Thai goods. I don’t have to worry if they’re contaminated,” Thai import shop customer Hong Anh said in Hanoi, reflecting the widely held view that Chinese goods are not only low-quality but hazardous as well.

Billionaire beer magnate Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi is leading the Thai charge into Vietnam through his Thai Charoen Corp (TCC), which has finalised a 655 million euro ($876 million) purchase of German retailer Metro’s Vietnam chain. TCC subsidiary Berli Jucker is among the bidders for Casino Group’s Big C supermarkets in Vietnam, worth about $1 billion.

“We fully expect Thai companies to continue to view Vietnam in a favourable manner and to continue to invest and grow through M&As,” said John T Ditty, managing partner at tax advisory firm KPMG.

“The Thai economy has been somewhat flat,” he added, with Moody’s expecting Thailand’s real GDP growth to fall to about 2.5 percent this year from 2.8 percent in 2015 in the wake of paralysing anti-government protests and a military coup.

In Vietnam, by contrast, things are looking up. Average incomes have quadrupled during 15 years of economic growth at over 5 percent. Retail sales will hit $179 billion by 2020, from less than $110 billion last year, reckons VietinBank Securities.

Action like that is driving M&A deals to record levels. Last year’s $4 billion worth of mergers and acquisitions was the highest ever, boosted by Thai tycoon Santi Bhirombhakdi-linked Singha Asia’s $1.1 billion worth of deals. Many analysts expect Thai firms to help smash that record in 2016.

Dealmakers say Thais are among those awaiting new offers and drawn-out state divestments, betting on Vietnam’s demographics and hedging against political and economic uncertainty back home.

Charoen is also expected to show interest in a mooted sale of an up to 45 percent government stake valued at $3.1 billion in Vietnam Dairy Products JSC, or Vinamilk. His Fraser and Neave already has an 11 percent share in Vietnam’s top listed firm and is tipped to raise that if the government proceeds with the sale.

Big drinkers

Charoen could be in the mix again if his Thaibev, maker of Beer Chang, succeeds in tapping into what is Asia’s third-biggest beer market after China and Japan. Thaibev has shown interest in $2 billion brewery Sabeco, of which the government will sell 53 percent.

And rival Singha beer could enter the Vietnam market via the distribution network of consumer goods firm Masan Group , after a $1.1 billion investment by Singha Asia Holdings in December.

Retail giant Central, run by Thailand’s third-richest family, the Chirathivats, is expanding its Robinson Department Store and has declared interest in Big C, adding to its $200 million purchase of a 49 percent stake in electronics retailer Nguyen Kim.

Thai firms won’t have it all their own way, however, as the likes of South Korea’s Lotte, Japan’s Aeon, China’s Parkson and local firms Vingroup and KIDO expand.

But that’s unlikely to deter Thais, said Chokedee Kaewsang, the deputy chief of Thailand’s Board of Investment, who expects Thai firms to double or triple their Vietnam presence by 2019.

“They like Thai products, and the Thai brand,” he said of Vietnamese.

What’s more, Vietnam’s small-time capitalists are willing partners.

Hanoi businesswoman Bui Thuy Nga deals only in Thai goods and saw her small store quickly transform into a wholesaler with a dozen-page client list. It feeds a boom in Thai-only stores, which Nga estimates have tripled since 2012, selling anything from shampoo and stationary to plastics and toothpaste.

“Our business struggled at first and we didn’t expect the market could grow that much,” she said.