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Benpres sells Rockwell shares; Bayan next?

Friday, August 21, 2009 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES [ BusinessWorld Online ]

AFTER SELLING stakes in the hospital and infrastructure businesses last year, Lopez-led holding company Benpres Holdings Corp. has sold another major asset in a move meant to pare down debt.

In a disclosure yesterday, Benpres Holdings said it had sold its entire 24.5% stake in property arm Rockwell Land Corp. to unit First Philippine Holdings Corp. for P1.5 billion. First Philippine Holdings is awash with cash after selling a 20% stake in Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) for P20 billion to the PLDT group.

The 24.5% stake consists of 1.52 billion common shares and 673 million preferred shares. Following the transaction, First Holdings increased its stake in Rockwell Land to 49%. The rest is owned by Meralco.

"The buy-up in Rockwell solidifies First Holdings’ strategic position in the company. Rockwell Land has a strong brand and track record in property development," First Philippine Holdings President and Chief Operating Officer Elpidio L. IbaƱez said.

Benpres Holdings is the Lopez group’s vehicle for media (ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp.), cable (SkyCable Corp.), telecommunications (Bayan Telecommunications, Inc.) and power generation and distribution, which it handles through First Philippine Holdings.

The company has been selling assets to trim debt, which as of June stood at P30.8 billion.

Last year, the company sold its 18% stake in The Medical City to an affiliate of private equity manager Lombard Asia for P600 million. It also sold its 48% stake in First Philippine Infrastructure, Inc. to Pangilinan-led Metro Pacific Investments Corp. for P6 billion.

In June, the company told stockholders the sale of assets was in line with a debt restructuring proposal to creditors. The proceeds have been set aside for debt buyback and debt repayment, a process that has been going on for quite some time after accumulating debt for investments in Bayan Telecommunications and Maynilad Water Services, Inc., which the Lopezes dropped in 2004.

Rumors circulated in the stock market that Benpres Holdings had also sold its stake in Gokongwei-led Digital Telecommunications Phils., Inc. (Digitel) after some 543 million shares were sold in blocks. This represents 8.55% of Digitel’s 6.35 billion outstanding shares. Records showed that the shares were valued at P1.18 apiece, lower than the telco’s closing price of P1.50, for a total price of P643 million.

Officials of Benpres Holdings were unavailable for comment.

"I think Bayan will be the next in line [to be sold]. There are a lot of movements in the telecommunication industry," an analyst said.

Shares in Benpres Holdings yesterday slipped by 5.26% or P0.20 to P3.60 apiece. — Kristine Jane R. Liu


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