Chinese billionaire sees baguette goldmine in French fields

Chinese waitresses work in a Chinese bakery “Chez Blandine,” belonging to the Chinese billionaire Hu Keqin, in Beijing. China, eager for lands abroad, is now interested in French wheat. A discreet billionaire, Hu Keqin, bought farms in Indre and Allier. He has just opened a first bakery in a chic Beijing complex and does not intend to stop there. (AFP)
Updated 25 February 2018
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Chinese billionaire sees baguette goldmine in French fields

Thiel-sur-Acolin, FRANCE: In the peaceful French village of Thiel-sur-Acolin, retired farmer Marc Bernardet is ambivalent about having a Chinese billionaire for a neighbor.
Over the past four years Hu Keqin has quietly snapped up 3,000 hectares of wheat fields in the central Indre and Allier regions, including next door to Bernardet.
His purchases are part of a Chinese buying-spree in recent years stretching from the US to Australia. And in France, struggling farmers fear a landgrab.
“It’s a piece of French heritage that is being taken, but that’s globalization and that’s the trend at the moment,” Bernardet told AFP.
“If it wasn’t the Chinese, it would be someone else.”
The fields may be bare for winter, but Hu has big dreams: Eventually they’ll provide some of the flour for 1,500 French bakeries in China, catering to a burgeoning middle class.
But he is keenly aware of the suspicions his project faces in France, where farmers say their traditional family ownership model is under threat from a huge rise in investor purchases.
“We take extremely good care of our land, and we’re using only French people to cultivate it,” the 57-year-old insisted in an interview at his Beijing offices.
“Many foreign investors are buying land in France,” added the understated businessman with a net worth estimated at $1.22 billion (€1 billion) by Forbes magazine.
“Are we so different from the Germans or the English? Shouldn’t we, like the others, encourage the local economy to develop?“
Hu cannily used legal loopholes — buying almost all of each farm rather than the entirety — to skirt rules that can allow the French government to block sales of farmland.
But President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday vowed to crack down on foreign investors buying up swathes of French land.
“French agricultural lands are strategic investments on which our sovereignty depends,” he told a crowd of young farmers at the presidential palace.
“We can’t allow hundreds of hectares of land to be bought by foreign powers without us knowing the aims of these purchases.”
Hu, who has spent €11 million on land in Allier alone, stressed that his plan is moving ahead with “solid support” from the French government.
His Reward Group is exploring a slew of tie-ups with French firms which, despite their suspicions, come as welcome news for a government that has prioritized kickstarting the economy.
Central to Hu’s plans to conquer China with baguettes is a partnership with France’s biggest cereal cooperative Axereal to supply flour as well as bread-making know-how.
And that’s just one of several potential French deals for Reward, which since 1995 has built an empire of everything from cleaning products to powdered milk.
It is exploring a possible import deal with Bel, the maker of Laughing Cow cheese, and France’s biggest meat producer Bigard ahead of the lifting of an embargo on French beef.
Reward took control last summer of a lavender soap maker in the south of France, Le Chatelard 1802, and has held further talks with a bakery chain, grain processor and soy company.
As it looks to diversify and grow its foreign assets, the conglomerate is also eyeing land in Romania and has bought a US cosmetics factory.
As far as the bakeries are concerned, having ingredients imported from France is particularly reassuring for Chinese consumers after a series of food scandals.
The first, Chez Blandine, just opened in a chic Beijing shopping center designed by star architect Zaha Hadid.
Bread is rarely served with meals in a country of rice and dumplings, and the Chinese bakery scene remains dominated by chains offering filled buns adapted to local tastes.
But Hu is banking on China getting hooked on the crunch of a traditional French baguette as more and more of its middle classes take European holidays.
“I’m counting on the young generation born in the 1980s and 1990s — keen travelers — and on children, but also the older generation whose eating habits are changing,” he said.
“The potential is huge.”


Saudi Aramco aims to buy controlling stake in SABIC — sources

Updated 34 min 15 sec ago
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Saudi Aramco aims to buy controlling stake in SABIC — sources

  • Riyadh-listed SABIC, the world’s fourth-biggest petrochemicals firm, has a market capitalization of 385.2 billion Saudi riyals
  • The potential acquisition would affect the time frame of Aramco’s planned initial public offering set for later this year

DUBAI: Saudi Aramco aims to buy a controlling stake in petrochemical maker SABIC, possibly taking the entire 70 percent stake owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Late last week Aramco confirmed a Reuters report that it was working on a possible purchase of a “strategic stake” in Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC) from the Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s top sovereign wealth fund.
Aramco’s initial thinking is to buy the full stake owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), but if that fails to materialize Aramco could end up with a stake in SABIC of more than 50 percent, making it a majority owner, the sources said.
No final decision has been made on the size of the stake as the discussions are still at a very early stage, they added.
Aramco declined to comment. The PIF did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Riyadh-listed SABIC, the world’s fourth-biggest petrochemicals firm, has a market capitalization of 385.2 billion Saudi riyals ($103 billion).
The potential acquisition would affect the time frame of Aramco’s planned initial public offering set for later this year, the state oil giant’s chief executive, Amin Nasser, said in a TV interview on Friday.
Aramco plans to boost investments in refining and petrochemicals to secure new markets and sees growth in chemicals as central to its downstream strategy to cut the risk of an oil demand slowdown.
Aramco plans to raise its refining capacity to between 8 million and 10 million barrels per day, from around 5 million bpd now, and double its petrochemicals production by 2030.
Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer, pumps around 10 million bpd of crude oil.