An Anheuser-Busch InBev NV logo is displayed outside a facility in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. (Photographer: Alex Flynn/Bloomberg)

AB InBev Says Asian IPO Plan May Be Prelude for Acquisitions

(Bloomberg) --

Anheuser-Busch InBev NV is weighing an initial public offering of its Asian unit as the world’s largest brewer jockeys for position in a massive consumer market where rivals are piling in via local alliances.

The brewer on Tuesday confirmed that it might sell a minority stake in its Asia-Pacific operations -- a deal that could value the business at as much as $70 billion -- and list the shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The move would help AB InBev reduce its debt and pursue acquisition opportunities in a region that’s driving growth for an otherwise slow-growing business.

“The merits are really connected to creating a local champion in the consumer space,” Chief Financial Officer Felipe Dutra said by phone. “It’s a good platform for potential consolidation, and if we decide to proceed with the listing, we’ll get to our deleveraging target faster.”

AB InBev also recorded its fastest earnings growth in five quarters, joining brewers such as Heineken NV that have reported a strong start to the year.

The maker of Budweiser is coming under pressure to reduce its leverage, which has piled up since it acquired SABMiller in 2016 for more than $100 billion. AB InBev may seek to value the entire Asian business at $40 billion to $70 billion through the share sale, though the eventual figure would depend on market demand and growth prospects, Bloomberg reported in January, citing people with knowledge of the matter. The share sale could raise more than $5 billion, they said at the time.

The IPO could give AB InBev more strategic flexibility to seek local partners. Last week Heineken finished setting up its partnership with China Resources Beer Holdings Co., having bought a $3.1 billion stake in China’s top beer maker. The Dutch company is challenging AB InBev’s position as the largest foreign brewer in the world’s biggest market, one that has also attracted Carlsberg A/S.

Shares of AB InBev were little changed in Brussels. They have gained 34 percent this year.

Demand for Carlsberg’s Tuborg is surging in China, but the company has also actively sought to grow in other parts of Asia, especially the southeast, where it’s dueling Heineken in Myanmar and Vietnam. Carlsberg has been in talks with the Vietnamese government to acquire more shares in state-owned brewer Habeco for years.

AB InBev cut its dividend payment in half in October to amass funds to pay down debt. S&P Global Ratings said in March it may cut its credit rating after Moody’s Investors Service downgraded AB InBev one level late last year.

Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization rose 8.2 percent in the first quarter, beating a company-compiled consensus.

Big brewers are on a more stable footing after years of ceding market share to craft and local beers. The company maintained its forecast for robust growth this year based on demand for premium brands in developing countries.

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