Fortune smiles on Hong Kong brands as retail sales recover

A dog-shaped gold figurine at Chow Tai Fook Jewellery store ahead of the Lunar Year of the Dog in Hong Kong. (REUTERS)
Updated 13 February 2018

Fortune smiles on Hong Kong brands as retail sales recover

HONG KONG: Retailers in Hong Kong such as Chow Tai Fook, the world’s No. 2 jeweler after Tiffany’s by market capitalization, are expanding again in a sign of confidence for a sector critical to the economy.
A pick-up in visitor arrivals from mainland China and strong local demand buoyed by robust stock and property markets have boosted consumer confidence, which translated into retail sales rising 2.2 percent in 2017, the first increase in three years.
Consultant PwC expects retail sales growth to quicken to 4-6 percent this year and to remain firm for several years after that. The volume of retail sales last year rose 1.9 percent after two straight years of decline.
Retail sales are critical for the economy. When 2017 GDP figures are published, analysts expect them to show that retail sales produced 17 percent of the economy’s growth and about a 10th of its jobs.
Like many other brands, Hong Kong-listed Chow Tai Fook had closed stores in recent years. It said it opened three new shops in Hong Kong between October and December 2017 and plans further openings, including in neighboring Macau. Including mainland China, the brand increased its stores to 2,565 in 2017 from 2,377 in 2016.
“The outlook for the jewelry sector in Hong Kong this year is positive against the backdrop of a recovering economy in mainland China ... and the booming stock and property markets that create a positive wealth effect,” the company said in a statement.
Other stores will follow Chow Tai Fook’s suit, figures from real estate services company Colliers International suggest. It predicts that 1.38 million square feet of new retail space will come onto the market in the core shopping districts of Hong Kong in 2018, a sharp increase from 327,000 square feet in 2017.
Chow Tai Fook’s smaller rival Luk Fook Holdings added two stores in Hong Kong in the final quarter of 2017 and jeweler Chow Sang Sang said it might open more shops in Hong Kong.
Skincare and cosmetics brand L’Occitane International increased its stores in Hong Kong to 36 in 2017 from 34 in 2016 and rival Sa Sa International added four to take its total to 119 in 2017.
Visitors to Hong Kong from the Chinese mainland are rising again, which has helped boost retail sales. Their numbers increased 3.9 percent in 2017 after falling 6.7 percent in 2016. Total visitors also increased in 2017 after declining in 2015 and 2016.
One attraction for Chinese mainland visitors to Hong Kong is that imported goods are often cheaper than in China due to lower tariffs.
A Hong Kong jobless rate of less than 3 percent — the lowest in nearly 20 years — is also boosting confidence and analysts said there is little pressure on retailers to pay higher rents, allowing them to keep costs under control.
“There are still many empty shops on the streets, absolutely it is not a time for raising rents,” said Joe Lin, executive director, advisory and transaction services, retail at property services group CBRE in Hong Kong.
“I don’t believe we will see a significant rebound in retail rent in the next 12 months,” he said.
Colliers said favorable rents on first-tier high streets were driving demand for shops in prime locations although brands, including Major League Baseball (MLB), Swedish watch brand Daniel Wellington and Swiss luxury watch maker Carl F. Bucherer, were opting for smaller stores of around 1,000-5,000 square feet rather than bigger ones.
“International mid-market fashion and lifestyle brands are thriving, new F&B (food and beverage) concepts continue expansion,
luxury watches and jewelry demand continue a slow recovery,” it said.

INTERVIEW: SABB Managing Director David Dew steering through historic transaction in Saudi banking

Updated 20 October 2018

INTERVIEW: SABB Managing Director David Dew steering through historic transaction in Saudi banking

DUBAI: David Dew has been working in banking in the Middle East and other emerging markets for 40 years, and you might think he has seen it all. But the merger between SABB and Alawwal in Saudi Arabia — which he is steering through to completion next year — is a career achievement for him.
“I think it’s a clear case of a win-win situation, and all our stakeholders will get benefit from it. It’s a genuinely exciting landmark transaction, and a significant transformation for the Kingdom,” he said.
It is a historic transaction, Dew explains. “It is the third biggest banking merger in the history of the region — the other two were in the UAE with significant government ownership — so SABB-Alawwal is also the biggest private banking merger for 20 years. It’s the first since the Capital Market Authority (CMA) was formed and the first since the new takeover rules came in.”
The merger will create the third biggest bank in the Kingdom by assets, loans and deposits, and — perhaps more significant in the current financial environment — forge a bank that is unashamedly international in its outlook. The transaction has its origins in the different imperatives of foreign banks operating in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia has been identified as a global growth market by HSBC, which holds 40 percent of SABB — full name the Saudi British Bank.
Alawwal — the “first bank” in Arabic, reflecting its long heritage in the Kingdom — was dominated by a consortium of foreign banking interests, notably cash-strapped RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) of Britain. RBS and its consortium partners — from Spain and Holland — wanted to reduce their overseas footprint. Getting out of Alawwal was a logical move from that perspective.
RBS and the Spanish bank Santander — which would each have about 4 percent of the enlarged company — have undertaken not to sell their shares for six months after completion.




Born: Farnborough, UK, 1955


•Farnborough Grammar School

•University of Cambridge, MA in Economics


•British Bank of Middle East, Oman

•Various positions around the world with HSBC

•Managing director, SABB


The foreigners’ different strategic interests might have been the original spark for the merger, but Dew firmly believes it is in the best interests of the Saudi banking business, and bank customers. “Our first stakeholder is the Kingdom, and the merger is a great example of why and how Vision 2030 is actually working. It’s showing that Saudi Arabia is open for business. An important part of the Vision plan is the financial sector development program, and this merger shows it is working.
“The idea is to grow and develop capital markets, and this will help the Kingdom do that. It’s the kind of thing that just might not have happened even a few years ago.”
The next set of stakeholders he is working to satisfy is the regulatory establishment. The deal has been quite a long time in gestation, and much of that time has been taken up in getting it just right from a regulatory standpoint. “It’s taken a bit longer than you might have expected, but the regulators have been with us all the way — the CMA, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, and the Ministry of Finance. All good things take time, and it is more important to do it right than to do it quick,” he said.
The next key group of stakeholders are the shareholders on both sides. In addition to HSBC and the RBS consortium, there are big investors in both banks in the shape of the Olayan conglomerate, and the government agency the General Organization for Social Insurance. Both have recused themselves from involvement in the merger negotiations. But both boards have recommended the merger terms.
“We’ve explained the business rationale and made a compelling case to them that the merger creates value. There will be a circular from both parties to all shareholders, we hope, by the end of the year.”
The next stakeholders on the list are the customers. “I know it’s a cliche that the customers are all important, but it’s true, and they will see real benefits,” Dew said.
Comprising as much as 75 percent of the new bank’s business, the corporate sector will be crucial. “It will be the leading corporate bank by lending, and will offer other products, too, for example trade finance. It will also be the leading cash management business, and a significant foreign exchange provider.
“I think it will occupy a powerful corporate position and overall will be a bellwether for the underlying economy, so it will be followed closely by anybody interested in the Kingdom’s business,” Dew explained. With a market capitalization of about SR65 billion ($17.33 billion) and a sizeable free float on the Tadawul, it will be valuable proxy for investment in the modernizing Kingdom.
The new bank will also use its connection with HSBC’s powerful investment banking operation in Saudi Arabia to help satisfy customers’ needs in that segment.
In the retail sector, it will never be as big as NCB or Al Rajhi, market leaders with more than 50 percent of the retail market between them. But with about 10 percent of the Kingdom’s retail market, Dew feels it will be approaching the “tipping point” at which it becomes a serious player.
“The home loans market is critical. We estimate we’ll have 16 percent of that market, which is vitally important to the changes that are happening in the Kingdom,” he said. It will also have around 20 percent of the Saudi credit card market, he estimated.
“We will redouble our efforts to offer a good SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) proposition. SABB has not done enough in this sector, but we will do more, and the ability to do it will be enhanced by the merger,” he added.
“For corporate customers, we will be able to offer the biggest balance sheet and underwriting capability, which adds up to more ‘muscle’ for corporate clients. For retail customers, we will offer additional scale and focus, especially on the digital side. This is the future for the retail banking business, and we will build on Alawwal’s strengths here. They are pretty good in digital already. They have punched above their weight,” Dew said.
The final group of stakeholders are the employees. “Again it is trite to say ‘We are nothing without our people,’ but I happen to believe it. We have promised and we mean it, that there will be no involuntary redundancies. That does not mean there will be no losses through attrition. People come and go all the time, so that is only natural,” Dew said.
The new bank will have 4,800 employees, more than 90 percent of them Saudi citizens and 20 percent women. Its new chairperson will be Lubna Olayan, head of the eponymous conglomerate and one of the leading business figures in the Kingdom. “She has a track record in business, leadership expertise and international connectivity. To have somebody like that as chair of the new bank is an incredibly powerful statement. She will also be the first female chair of a listed Saudi company,” said Dew, who will be managing director of the new entity.
The bank will start operating in what Dew sees as an improving economic and financial environment in the Kingdom, with the long-promised privatization and initial public offering program materializing. “Two years ago, growth and bank lending were falling. In 2018 there has been a modest but significant improvement, and I do believe next year is going to show further improvement.”
On the geopolitical background, always a big factor in the business climate in the region, he brings a historical perspective to bear.
“When I came here 40 years ago, Israel-Palestine was the big issue. Since then, the region has become even more complicated and volatile. But business has navigated through these problems and I’m confident it will do so again. It’s all about having strong foundations,” he said.