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Australia's Fastest-Growing Food Company Sells All Its Fruit in China

  • Dongfang Modern plans to Australian-ize its China operations
  • Company’s market value more than doubled since listing in 2015

Australia’s fastest-growing food company -- whose market value has more than doubled to about A$900 million ($650 million) in the seven months since listing -- grows and sells all its fruit in Southeastern China.

Dongfang Modern Agriculture Holding Group Ltd. was incorporated in Australia last year to hold an existing agricultural business in China’s Jiangxi Province. It now ranks as the biggest citrus grower in China by sales and has almost overtaken Ravenhall, Victoria-based Costa Group Holdings Ltd. as the largest publicly traded horticulture company in Australia.

Its move to go public in Australia, an agricultural giant that ranks among the world’s top five exporters of beef, chick peas, almonds, barley, sugar and wheat, is part of a growing move by Chinese and Hong Kong entities seeking to tap a more mature financial market. The other advantage, Sydney-based Dongfang Modern’s executives say, is adding an Australian seal to the business.

More Confidence

“It should give Chinese consumers a higher level of confidence in our products,” Chairman Hongwei Cai, 29, who owns 80 percent of the company’s shares, said in an interview last week. “China still faces food safety problems.”

Such concerns have fueled imports of food and cosmetics made by companies including Bellamy’s Australia Ltd. and Blackmores Ltd., turning them into proxies for betting on the rising middle class in China. Dongfang Modern plans to use Australian processes to grow more tangerines, oranges, pomelos and camellias. It’s also considering buying Australian businesses.

“Perception is everything,” said Jason Chesters, a Perth-based analyst with Patersons Securities Ltd. “I don’t know if that stamp of approval will be there just yet” because the operating unit has been in business since the last decade, he said.

Chesters, who said he visited Dongfang Modern’s orchards in late April, published his first report on the company on May 16 with a hold rating.

China hasn’t levied an income tax on some agricultural businesses since 2008 in an attempt to increase production and yields. Dongfang Modern derives about 40 percent of its annual profits from government incentives, Chief Financial Officer Edward Yuen said.

“It’s close to impossible” that the policy will be changed, Cai said. China will end up importing food if farmers aren’t given tax handouts, he said.

The laws have helped Dongfang Modern stay debt free even as it bought plantations, increasing its cultivation area by 15 percent since 2013 to about 8,600 hectares (21,000 acres). Production rose 19 percent to 240,000 metric tons for the year ended March 31, leading to sales of A$199 million. Profit, excluding some items, rose 30 percent to A$90 million.

Those results placed Dongfang Modern ahead of Asian Citrus Holdings Ltd., which recorded 2015 sales of 765.5 million yuan (A$162 million). Demand for fruit will continue to increase as rising disposable incomes in China make consumers more health conscious, Chief Executive Officer Chiu “Charles” So said. That’s why even more plantation purchases are on the cards, he said.

In Australia, Dongfang Modern wants to buy an Australian olive-oil producer, So said. It plans to use the intellectual property acquired to process camellia oil, a popular cooking oil in China.

A camellia oil business wouldn’t be eligible for tax incentives in China, Patersons’ Chesters said. The company would also have to raise money for any Australian purchases by selling more shares, he predicts.

Institutional Shareholders

That may attract institutional shareholders to a stock that’s not very liquid because of Cai’s large stake. Australian financial institutions typically are circumspect of investing in companies that have all their operations in China and are controlled by a large, single holder, Chesters said.

“The issue is there’s no research out there,” said Barry Dawes, whose Paradigm Securities led Dongfang Modern’s IPO.

The shares rose 7 percent to A$2.45 today as of 2:07 p.m. Sydney time, the biggest gain in more than a month. Chesters projected the shares will drop to A$2.08 in a year. Investment risks include the company expanding into new businesses and regions as well as “fluid” tax legislation in China that could change rules governing income taxes and dividends paid by the operating unit in China, Chesters said.

IPO Moratorium

This year, six Chinese and Hong Kong companies, including China Dairy Corp., have followed Dongfang’s path to Australia as of April 8, according to ASX Ltd. data, driven partly by a moratorium on IPOs in China last year.

“I’m seeing a range of them,” Paradigm’s Dawes said. He said he’s working with Living Cities Development Group Ltd., which is listed on the ASX and is planning to build a mall in Sichuan province.

“It’s still difficult to list in Shanghai, in Shenzhen,” Sydney-based Dawes said. “Here there’s greater transparency.”

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