October 5, 2016 / 12:12 PM / 10 months ago

Top Vietnam brewer Sabeco could list by early December

A statue of late Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh is seen at the Sabeco office in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam October 5, 2016.Stringer

HO CHI MINH CITY (Reuters) - State-owned Sabeco, Vietnam's biggest brewer, may list on the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange by late November or early December, its chief executive said, as the government moves towards loosening its tight grip over one of Asia's most sought-after beer markets.

Ho Chi Minh City-based Sabeco, formally known as the Saigon Beer, Alcohol, Beverage Corp, is one of the last profitable assets owned by the Vietnamese government, which has said it would sell its entire 89 percent in Sabeco by 2017. The stake is worth an estimated $1.8 billion.

All shares of Sabeco, known for its Bia Saigon and 333 brews, could be listed on the exchange, CEO Le Hong Xanh told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

The government has said it wants to list Sabeco before selling 53.59 percent this year and the remainder in 2017, but Xanh said all options for the government's stake divestment were being considered and the government had yet to approve any particular course of action.

"The listing could be in late November, early December, according to the consulting contract and agreement, but how fast it is depends on many other factors, like transparency in management and other conditions like tax," Xanh said.

With a leading 43 percent share of Vietnam's beer production, Sabeco's net profit jumped 27 percent in the first-half of 2016 to 2.39 trillion dong ($107 million), and the CEO forecast full-year profit could grow 14 percent.

Xanh's comments come a day after a Vietnam deputy minister said listings of Sabeco and smaller brewer Habeco could be delayed until the first quarter of 2017. The brewers' share debuts had been scheduled for the end of 2016.

An image of a can of 333 beer is seen at the Sabeco office in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam October 5, 2016.Stringer

Vietnam's beer market grew at an average compound annual rate of 7 percent from 1999 to 2015, touching about 4 billion liters in 2016. Growth is slowing, however, and is anticipated at around 4 percent to 2021, data from research firm Canadean quoted by investment bank Liberum showed.

Several major foreign brewers are eyeing Sabeco since the government earmarked it for privatization, but potential partners keen to exploit changing lifestyles and a fast-growing middle class have faced repeated delays.

Kirin (2503.T), Asahi Group Holdings (2502.T), Thai Bev (TBEV.SI) and Heineken (HEIN.AS) had previously expressed interest in the stake sale. But Xanh said the process has restarted and interested buyers would have to bid again, declining to name any specific investors.

"There are many interested investors but we haven't started talking specifically with anyone; many financial institutions, funds, foreign beer firms, but all are waiting for the government," Xanh said.

Asahi spokesman Takuo Soga said his company has earlier acknowledged interest in buying shares of Sabeco and that stance has not changed. A Kirin spokesman declined to comment on Sabeco.

Heineken, which holds a 20 percent market share in Vietnam via its local joint-venture according to Liberum, declined to comment.

A banking source having close connections with Thai Bev and who has direct knowledge about the deal said Thai Bev is one of the interested investors. Thai Bev did not respond to Reuters' queries for comment.

Reporting by Mai Nguyen; Additional reporting by Ritsuko Shimizu in Tokyo, Martinne Geller in London, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Manunphattr Dhanananphorn in Bangkok; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman

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