Saturday, December 1, 2007

POPULAR Holdings a winner?

POPULAR Holdings is best known for its bookstores and schoolbooks, but there is now more to it than meets the eye. For the household name has been making big bets on real estate in Singapore, and its fortunes going forward are likely to be driven more by property than by publishing.

It’s a shift that started just last year but has since picked up dramatically enough to alter the complexion of the group.

Last week alone, the group announced two new property investments. It purchased all the strata units at View Point at Jalan Datoh for $16.5 million and at Shiba Apartments at Jalan Raja Udang for $15.5 million.

Earlier in May this year, Popular bought 10 residential units at 18 Shelford Road for $27.2 million for redevelopment.

Its first major property foray was back in May last year, when the group bought eight residential units with a total land area of 15,070 sq ft at Robin Road, at a cost of $12.5 million. The company plans to sell the units once development is completed.

So in just over a year, the group has invested almost $72 million in the property business.

In sharp contrast, Popular’s investments in publishing-related businesses have been less eye-catching. It has made only two recent publishing-related announcements. This month, the group, through its subsidiaries in Hong Kong, raised the paid-up capital of eNet Digital Pacific Ltd from $2HK.00 to $10HK,000. In September, Popular acquired two ordinary shares of RM1 each in the capital of Seashore Publishing (M) Sdn Bhd, which is in the business of publishing and distributing books, articles and other printed materials.

Property, clearly, has become an area of major focus for Popular. In its announcements, the group had tended to characterise its property forays as opportunistic. ‘While retail, distribution and publishing will remain the group’s main business focus, property development will be a potential area of growth that the group is looking into, to capitalise on the potential and promising returns of the current property market,’ it said while making one of its property investments.

But it is clearly more than that. In its latest annual report, chairman Chou Cheng Ngok told shareholders that Popular is entering into a new business segment, property, through a new unit, Popular Land Pte Ltd. And its ambitions span beyond residential property. ‘We are also looking into commercial property business opportunities as well as for potential future self-use,’ Mr Chou said. ‘We will give the same passion for property development as we have shown for our book and publishing businesses. This ‘diversification’ will enhance our shareholders’ value in the long term.’

The question, of course, is whether this will really be the case. While one-off projects could well give a short-term fillip to earnings, going into property on the basis that Popular is thinking of entails more risks. The lessons from the past show clearly that it is very difficult for non-property players to play the real estate game well. Many will recall how many non-property companies all rushed into property during the property bull run in the mid-1990s, and got their fingers burnt when the bubble was pricked in 1996/97. While the current state of the property market is still bullish, several factors, such as overstretched valuations in some segments, the threat of more government intervention to cool prices, and concerns about the impact of a potential US recession on local sentiment, will make it challenging for property players.

So it is by no means certain, despite the company’s optimism, that Popular’s property ventures would achieve the results it is hoping for. It is also debatable if going the property route is the best way for Popular to increase shareholders’ value - it could have invested its surplus cash in its core business, or return it to shareholders if there are no suitable investments. What has clearly changed is that Popular is no longer just the stable, if rather staid, publisher and retailer of education staples. If the potential returns from property development are high, so will be the risks.

Source : Business Times - 29 Nov 2007

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