Japanese Firms Brewing Opportunities in Australia

Jan 07, 2009


In the space of 6 months, Japanese alcohol and non-alcohol beverage manufacturers have made aggressive merger and acquisition deals on the dairy and beverage industry in Australia and New Zealand. Despite the economic crisis and a pessimistic outlook for 2009, major Japanese companies such as Kirin, Suntory and Asahi breweries have made billion dollar deals in search for potential growth markets in the Asia-Oceania region.

The declining birthrate and an aging population in Japan have been a reoccurring theme in Japan with regards to the country’s future economic growth. Once highly lucrative markets, such as the beer and alcoholic beverage industry in Japan has been severely effected by an aging demographic, whom have changed and diversified their drinking habits to incorporate more than just beer, acknowledged until recently as Japan’s most popular alcoholic beverage. Coinciding with a totally saturated domestic low-alcohol market, an exhausted product range not only produces regular beer, but also new beer varieties such as low-malt low-taxed happoshu (sparkling spirits), and non-malt beer categories such as dai-san-no bi-ru (a third category of Beer). With the global financial crisis dominating international headlines and the short-term economic outlook casting a grim shadow for a nation that has officially fallen into a recession, the 2009 forecast by seasoned economists is for a year of negative growth for the world’s second largest economy.

In a direct contrast with current economic times, some of Japan’s major beer, alcoholic, and non-alcoholic beverage producers have aggressively pursued to diversify their portfolios in overseas markets. Leading the charge is Kirin Holdings, and their infiltration of the Australian milk and dairy market. Kirin Holdings Company Limited, has been dominating the takeover of overseas markets through their long-term strategic plan; Kirin Group Vision 2015, which envisions amongst other things ‘Quantum Growth’ and an audacious sales target exceeding the 2.5 trillion yen (excl. alcohol tax) mark by 2015. The aggressive takeover of companies such as National Foods and Dairy Farmers is largely attributed, not only to the domestic low-alcoholic beverage market situation in Japan, but also to the leadership of President and CEO of Kirin Holdings, Mr. Kazuyasu Kato. This he acknowledges in his mission statement where “The Kirin Group aims to become a leading company in the Asia-Oceania region.”

These company policies have manifested in the acquisition of all shares in the Australian based company National Foods from San Miguel by the end of 2007. This made National Foods Limited a consolidated subsidiary of Kirin to the tune of $2.8 billion AUD, which Kirin will fund through debt. Then, in August 2008, National Foods Limited became a successful bidder to acquire all shares in Dairy Farmers, Australia’s second-largest fresh dairy company after National Foods Limited. The offer values Dairy Farmers at $884 million AUD and effectively gives Kirin Holdings a potential monopoly on profit made in milk and dairy product sales in Australia and New Zealand. In the most recent merger talks, Lion Nathan Limited, a 46% owned and affiliated company of Kirin Holdings has been in discussion deals regarding a potential merger with Coca-Cola Amatil Limited. Coca-Cola Amatil is Oceania’s leading non-alcoholic beverage company producing core brands such as Coca-Cola, Lift, Sprite and Powerade. Coca-Cola Amatil and Lion Nathan are listed as Second and Third respectively, in 2008’s listings of the BRW Australia’s top 1000 enterprises under the Food, Beverage, and Tobacoo Manufacturing Sector. This potential merger would create the largest beverage company in Australia and New Zealand and extend the range of products to cover a complete range of beverage products.

Kirin is not the only major Japanese alcoholic beverage company to expand its interests overseas. Suntory Limited, another major beer, alcohol, and non-alcohol beverage producer in Japan, historically specializing in whiskey has reached an agreement with French based Danone Group to acquire 100% ownership of the Frucor Group in October, 2008. A New Zealand beverage company established in 1962, Frucor was acquired by the Danone Group in 2002, and is said to be New Zealand’s second largest non-alcoholic drinks manufacturer. Suntory Limited have not only shown interest in diversifying their product range to include other food and beverage products, but have also invested in niche markets such as biotechnological R&D into the world’s first blue-coloured Rose.

Another of the major Japanese beverage companies, Asahi Breweries Ltd. has also been expanding their interests in regional markets, through the announcement of an expected acquisition of Schweppes Australia in late December 2008. The agreement is subject approval by the Foreign Investment Review Tribunal, and to a right of negotiation given to the The Coca-Cola Company, which can exercise the right to negotiate with Cadbury regarding the potential acquisition of Schweppes Australia until the end of March 2009. If sucessful in aquiring Schweppes Australia as a wholey owned subsiderary, Asahi Breweries Ltd. is expected to conclude the deal at the cost of 1,185 million Australian dollars. Schweppes Australia is considered the second largest player in the Australian non-alcoholic ready-to-drink beverages market through both owned and franchised brands.

With regards to Australia imports, Japan is currently ranked as the top 11th country from which beer made from malt is imported, where the quantity of beer exports from Japan has doubled in the space of 2 years till 2007. The potential for imported Japanese beer still has further potential for growth as is currently worth 1.7 million dollars annually. This is quite marginal compared with Mexico, Australia’s biggest export beer partner, being worth 135 million annually. This does not account for the profits companies such as Asahi Breweries make by licensing Australian brewers to produce their beer, a branding and marketing project that is also very lucrative in itself.

In defiance of the current economic situation and the stagnating domestic Japanese markets for low-alcohol beverage consumption, major Japanese corporations are looking towards expanding into Asia-Oceania markets. Heavily investing in potential growth markets such as the Australian beverage industry, large Japanese firms are increasingly diversifying their portfolios with their presence in the Australian market. The added incentive of having a strong Japanese yen in comparison with the Australian dollar in recent months has made these most recently mentioned merger and acquisition deals particularly inviting for Japanese firms. Coincidentally, the Minister for Trade, Simon Crean announced recently in Parliament House a report released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade entitled “Australia and Japan; How distance and complementarity shape a remarkable commercial relationship.” There is no doubt that the future relationship between countries such as Japan in the Asia-Pacific region will continue to be a significant presence for Australia, regardless of the current economic situation. As we enter 2009, investment opportunities to capitalize on these turbulent times such as exemplified above will no doubt emerge for respective countries, and for those who are willing to take the plunge.

Raymond Roche is a Research Officer for the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Department, at the Japan External Trade Organization’s Sydney Office.

The views represented within this article are those of the writer and not necessarily the views of JETRO or the Japanese Government.