Keppel, the multi-business conglomerate

Keppel, the multi-business conglomerate

Keppel Corporation aims to make its property business the best performer in Asia, chief executive Loh Chin Hua said in the group's annual report released yesterday.

"To be a leader in the property industry does not mean that we have to be the biggest player," noted Mr Loh.

"We want instead to be a property developer with the highest return in Asia and that will be our focus for the property division, moving forward."

Keppel Land already ranks among the best-performing real estate developers in the region, with an average annual return on equity of 18.9 per cent since 2006.

The group aims to further develop Keppel Land into "a multifaceted property player, riding on urbanisation trends in Asia", added Mr Loh, pointing to its growing footprint in residential developments, trading and the commercial sector in this part of the world.

Keppel's property division last year accounted for the largest share of its overall profit, at 46 per cent, while contributions from its offshore and marine business came in at 32 per cent, amid the downturn in the oil and gas industry.

Another 14 per cent came from its infrastructure business.

Market watchers have been arguing that Keppel - whose offshore and marine arm Keppel Offshore & Marine (Keppel O&M) is known widely as the world's No. 1 rigbuilder - should be viewed increasingly as a property play as uncertainties continue to cloud prospects for the offshore and marine segment.

But Mr Loh reiterated that Keppel's property business, much like its offshore and marine arm, is but one facet of the group's multi-business strategy, which has produced "creditable results" despite strong headwinds.

"Keppel is more than just an offshore and marine company," he said. "Our results in 2015 would have been much weaker had we been so."

Mr Loh added: "I believe that the market has yet to fully recognise Keppel's merits as a conglomerate; that we have a set of unique strengths and potential synergies which can be harnessed, particularly through the cross-pollination of our business units.

"Of course, we want our engines firing on all cylinders. But even when we go through turbulence and one of the engines slows down, the other engines would be able to pick up the pace."

In a separate statement to The Straits Times last week, Mr Loh acknowledged that he has been asked if Keppel is now giving more emphasis to its property business, in the light of the challenges in the offshore and marine sector.

"This is not the case," he said. "We are a multi-business conglomerate, and we believe in building strong verticals in all the businesses we choose to be in."

Mr Loh added that the group believes "the future is still bright and Keppel O&M will emerge through this stronger than ever, as we have done in past down cycles".

For one thing, Keppel O&M is "still doing well", he said, noting that it remains profitable and would have booked underlying operating margins of 13.4 per cent last year, excluding the $230 million provision made for projects with Brazilian energy firm Sete Brasil.

"These are very respectable results, and they attest to the robustness of our core offshore and marine operations."

He said the group will continue to build strength in Keppel O&M by looking at new markets and building new capabilities, such as through its recent US$100 million (S$137 million) acquisition of the LeTourneau rig designs and aftermarket business, while investing in research and development and productivity in "preparing for the upturn".

Keppel's aim over the longer term is for its businesses to be consistent contributors to the group's bottom line - which is why recycling capital and building up recurring income is key, said Mr Loh.

He cited the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City as an example of how Keppel's various business units can be linked up to participate along critical value chains to "create impactful projects".

The newly minted Keppel Capital will also allow the group to "partner like-minded investors in co-funding some of these real assets from their creation to stabilising/de-risking and finally injecting them into one of our Reits or trusts".

Mr Loh said: "The resilience and strength of Keppel should not be overlooked in the current environment.

"As a conglomerate, with access to capital and the ability to invest when times are tough, we will use this period to prudently sow into strategic areas and build new muscles to ride the upturn."


This article was first published on March 29, 2016.
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