Victor Li, chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd. and CK Asset Holdings Ltd., speaks during the official opening of the CKC18 store, operated by A.S. Watson Group, in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg)

CK Scraps Australia Deal in First Big Setback for Victor Li

(Bloomberg) -- CK Group has formally walked away from its A$13 billion ($9.5 billion) bid to buy Australia’s biggest gas-pipeline operator, representing the first major setback for Chairman Victor Li since taking over the family empire from his father in May.

Li dropped his pursuit of APA Group on Tuesday, confirming the end of what became a doomed deal on Nov. 7, when Australia effectively said it would block the transaction on national-security grounds. Had the purchase gone through, Li, 54, would have gained control over pipelines delivering about half of Australia’s gas, kicking off his reign by making the biggest overseas purchase the Hong Kong group had ever done -- even under his deal-savvy father.

CK Scraps Australia Deal in First Big Setback for Victor Li

But the plan collapsed, underscoring how the world has changed since the days CK was gobbling up assets worldwide under the chairman’s father, Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man. Go-to investment destinations such as Australia are no longer as welcoming as they once were, and many of the CK group’s main businesses are aging, with some facing the prospect of falling behind nimbler technology upstarts.

That all adds up to pressure on the new chairman. While Victor Li has said multiple times that he doesn’t plan to make drastic changes at CK, he may need to reconsider whether to maintain status-quo stability or chart a new path for growth in the decades to come.

CK gave up the deal hours after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg confirmed on Nov. 20 that the deal would be “contrary to the national interest,” and may create too much foreign ownership by a single company in the gas transmission business. CK bought Australian power distributor Duet Group last year.

Li has been blocked in Australia before. Prior to the Duet deal, the Australian government rejected CK Infrastructure Holdings Ltd.’s 2016 bid for electricity network Ausgrid. But at the time, the rejection was seen as being more directed towards government-controlled State Grid Corp. of China, which sought to buy a majority stake of the electricity distributor.

The rejections may cast doubt on CK’s ability to buy overseas utility and infrastructure companies that generate stable cash flows.

"We are going to see more of this, not just in Australia but also Europe and the U.S.," said Richard Harris, Hong Kong-based chief executive officer of Port Shelter Investment Management. The perception that the Chinese government exercises control over companies has become a problem, he said.

While seeking deals in Australia, CK Infrastructure has looked to reduce its exposure in the U.K. -- amid uncertainties tied to the country’s looming exit from the European Union and the so-called “return reset” for some of its assets. For instance, the regulatory reset for Northumbrian Water is due to commence in April 2020.

A group led by CK Infrastructure in 2010 acquired the U.K. power networks from Electricite de France SA for 5.8 billion pounds ($7.4 billion) and a year later bought utility Northumbrian Water for 2.4 billion pounds. In 2015, CK Infrastructure acquired Eversholt Rail for 2.5 billion pounds to gain control of almost a third of the U.K.’s passenger trains.

Now, Victor Li is taking steps to prepare his European infrastructure business for an initial public offering in London, which could give CK more firepower for deals after an acquisition spree and also would serve to cut its U.K. exposure.

CK Infrastructure, which owns energy and water utilities globally, is considering selling minority interests in certain of its assets to a new investment company to be listed on the London Stock Exchange, Hong Kong-based CK Infrastructure said in a statement Tuesday.

The group might “also list its Australia assets in the future if it sees more resistance to M&A,” said Dennis Ip, head of power, utilities, renewables & environment at Daiwa Capital Markets.

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