[BANGKOK] Thailand's biggest retailer, Central Group, said it may bid for French supermarket firm Casino Group's Thai and Vietnam stores, seeking control of a business it already partly owns as a platform for growth in fast-growing Southeast Asia. "We are interested in both (Casino-controlled) Big C in Thailand and Vietnam," Prin Chirathivat, deputy chief executive officer told Reuters in a phone call. "If the prices are not too expensive, we will be keen to bid," Prin said.
Casino owns 58.6 per cent of the Thai asset, Big C Supercenter Pcl, which has a market value of US$5.5 billion, and is the country's second-biggest hypermarket business. The Vietnam asset is worth at least US$750 million, according to people familiar with the matter.
Central owns 25 per cent of Big C through its founding Chirathivat family, according to company sources. A takeover bid would make for Thailand's second-biggest inbound acquisition after 2013's US$6.6 billion purchase by CP All Pcl of cash-and-carry wholesaler Siam Makro Pcl.
Big C shares surged over 9 per cent, hitting a 12-month high of 247 baht in morning trade.
Casino said last week some buyers had expressed interest in its Thai business during the sale process for its Vietnam unit. The French firm's move to consider selling the Thai unit comes after a report by short-seller Muddy Waters in December that said Casino was "dangerously leveraged", prompting the worst slide in its stock in seven years.
Bankers pointed to Central's existing interest in Big C as a potentially serious impediment for other bidders - despite the asset's appeal as growing Southeast Asian economies bring rising consumer spending. Big C was founded by Central, but it brought in Casino as a partner in 1999 when Thailand was mired in economic difficulties. "The sell-side is trying to drum up competition to Central for Thailand, but (it's) not sure people want to go hostile against them," a banker familiar with the transaction said."This is all happening so quickly." Other potential bidders for the Big C Vietnam asset include Berli Jucker Pcl, the flagship company in the consumer business of TCC Group, controlled by Thai tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi.
Central has been actively looking to buy assets overseas as it wants to expand into Southeast Asia and Europe. The Chirathivat family is the third-richest in Thailand, according to Forbes Magazine.