January 3, 2019 / 1:57 AM / 3 months ago

Breakingviews - Keep an eye on Seoul for Asia’s next big buyer

Chairman & CEO of SK Holdings, SK Innovation and SK Hynix, Chey Tae-won, a former SK Group chairman and still a major shareholder of the group, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Seoul January 27, 2013. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - An active acquirer lurks in South Korea. Over the last couple of years, companies from Japan and China have led Asia in overseas deals. Seoul-based conglomerate SK Group could be up next. Bankers should make sure they have boss Chey Tae-won on speed dial.

The sprawling group, with a collection of listed shares worth about $100 billion, has been expanding since it bought chipmaker Hynix in 2012. It was one of the first chaebol to start cleaning up its controversial structure, even if it occurred while Chey was in prison for misappropriating company funds. With a left-leaning government turning the screws on big businesses, it makes sense for SK to seek bigger acquisitions abroad. And hailing from South Korea should make it more welcome than Chinese buyers in many places.

There are many areas for SK Group to spend its cash, much of it generated from semiconductors. Nearly 100 affiliates operate in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals and chemicals to telecoms and logistics. They recently bought a Dow Chemical division and drug ingredient maker AMPAC Fine Chemicals, and backed the $18 billion acquisition of Toshiba’s memory-chip unit. Although it is hard to discern any overarching strategy, its Super-Excellent Council, or Supex, sits atop the organisation, ostensibly guiding expansion and seeking synergies.

A private equity-style investment arm inside parent SK Holdings has had some acquisition success, too. For example, it took control of Siltron in 2017 for about $530 million. In the third quarter, the silicon-wafer manufacturer’s operating profit margin improved 11 percentage points from a year earlier to 29 percent. That sort of achievement may help energise SK to pursue bolder deals.

There are clues about possible targets beyond biotech and microchips. SK Holdings, 30 percent owned by Chey and his family, recently injected funds into Grab, the Singapore-based ride-hailing outfit, and U.S. car-sharing startup Turo. Chey also turned up at a gala event in Washington in late November to promote his company’s stateside investments, including an electric-car battery plant. Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank has been among the most aggressive dealmakers in the automotive technology arena. SK Group could give it a run for its money.

- This is a Breakingviews prediction for 2019. To see more of our predictions, click reut.rs/2R6H5pG

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