Villar eyes new IPOs, media empire

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Manuel Villar Jr.

MANILA, Philippines — Billionaire Manuel Villar Jr. is preparing to list three more companies, including a provincial power utility and his coffee chain group, over the next 12 months, further cementing his position as the country’s richest man.

Villar, in an interview with reporters last week, described a business empire that was on the move as the Philippines was poised to elect a new leader on May 9. The upcoming polls mark an important transition for the country and especially for the Villars, a family where big business and politics combine.

Villar himself was a former House speaker, Senate president, and presidential candidate. He had also struck alliances with powerful public figures through the years.

He considers President Rodrigo Duterte a personal friend and recently threw his full support behind the presidential run of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the survey frontrunner and namesake son of the late dictator.

During the interview on Thursday, however, Villar said he wanted to talk business.

The 72-year-old property, retail, and utilities magnate said the listings and expansion were part of family estate planning.

Former ABS-CBN frequencies

New businesses would also include an integrated media division with the help of television frequencies once held by ABS-CBN Corp., whose TV shutdown two years ago by Duterte and his allies in Congress was decried as politically motivated.

While some groups pause investments ahead of the elections, Villar’s Prime Asset Ventures Inc. agreed, on March, to buy Ayala Corp.’s interests in the 4-kilometer Muntinlupa Cavite Expressway for P3.8 billion.

Ultimately, the group’s direction was founded on Villar’s conviction the Philippines was close to attaining its goal of becoming an upper-middle-income economy. This was despite recent government data showing high poverty incidence figures affecting millions of Filipinos last year due to the impact of the pandemic.

“We are moving up. It’s the critics who aren’t listening to Digong [Duterte],” he said during the interview.

He revealed plans to build more upscale projects and phase out low-cost and mass housing while his upcoming initial public offerings (IPO) would tap into the country’s economic growth and expanding middle class.

The power utility, Siquijor Island Power Corp. or Sipcor, would list on the Philippine Stock Exchange sometime in the third quarter of the year, he said.

With assets from the government’s Small Power Utilities Group that were previously auctioned off, the Sipcor listing would give investors a stake in its roughly 21-megawatt power assets in Siquijor and Camotes Islands.

Villar said his coffee group, which includes the eight-year-old Coffee Project chain and other dining concepts based around caffeinated beverages, would list in November or early 2023 once it doubles its roughly 100 outlets today.

He said Coffee Project cafes were profitable and charged higher prices for drinks than the local outlets of US-based Starbucks, which had over 400 stores across the country, recent data showed.

Later this month, his real estate investment trust arm, VistaREIT Inc., would go public via a P9-billion IPO.

Villar controls five listed companies: AllDay Marts Inc., AllHome Corp., Golden MV Holdings, Vista Land & Lifescapes Inc. and Vistamalls Inc., which have a combined market value of over P500 billion.

But recent IPOs such as AllDay and AllHome were sharply lower from their offer price amid the general stock market downtrend. Villar said new listing plans would proceed.

“I wouldn’t list a company if it’s bad,” he said.

The media sector was the next foray as Villar planned to consolidate assets under Advanced Media Broadcasting System Inc. (AMBS), whose 25-year broadcast franchise was extended in 2019.

The National Telecommunications Commission, on Jan. 5, awarded the Channel 2 analog and Channel 16 digital TV frequencies previously held by ABS-CBN to AMBS despite the company having no track record in broadcasting.

Villar, who said the controversial award was aboveboard, explained there was no hurry to operate a TV network.

He was also open to partnering with ABS-CBN for its content but was mum on their general strategy.

“I am not limiting myself to anything,” Villar said.

Meanwhile, the group was exploring formats similar to US news and entertainment conglomerates such as The Walt Disney Co. and American billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

“You have to go beyond TV and radio. When you say Disney, they have other businesses [like] theme parks. I will go there as part of AMBS. My approach will be like Disneyland,” Villar said.

“But when you say ‘beyond’ that means you also have TV and radio,” he added. “We will operate Channel 2. We are Channel 2.”

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