Veon sells stake in Wind Tre in retreat from Western Europe

CK Hutchison will enter a partnership with Veon. (Reuters pic)

AMSTERDAM: Russia and emerging markets telecom operator Veon is to sell its stake in Italian mobile network Wind Tre to partner CK Hutchison, in a move to reduce debt that also marks its exit from Western Europe.

The Amsterdam-based mobile operator also said it had made an offer to Egypt-based Global Telecom Holding (GTH) to buy the parts of its businesses in Pakistan and Bangladesh it doesn’t already own at a cash cost of about US$400 million (RM1.6 billion).

The sale of the Wind Tre stake, for 2.45 billion euros (RM11.6 billion), is a painful but necessary move by loss-making Veon, which has been cutting jobs and struggling with more than 10 billion euros (RM47 billion) of long-term debt.

Veon’s shares were 6.5% higher in early trade on Tuesday, but still down around 30% this year. Mikhail Fridman’s investment vehicle LetterOne is Veon’s largest shareholder.

Veon, formerly known as VimpelCom, acquired Italian operator Wind in 2011 and merged it into a joint venture with Hutchison in 2016 to form Wind Tre.

The joint venture was the flagship business where Veon launched its mobile app as part of a plan to reinvent the company as an internet services provider.

However, Italy’s telecoms market has faced bruising competition among three established players and the entry in May of a fourth, cut-price player, France’s Iliad.

Veon has been run by chairwoman Ursula Burns since former CEO Jean-Yves Charlier stepped down in March. In April, the company warned its business in Russia, its largest market, was slowing.

The company has operations in 11 markets, including Russia, Algeria, and Bangladesh.

Burns said in a statement that immediate priorities included simplifying the group’s structure, increasing the focus on emerging markets and strengthening the group’s balance sheet.

Veon already owns a 57.7% stake in GTH, whose brands include Pakistan’s Jazz and Bangladesh’s Bangalink.

GTH said in a statement it was considering the Veon offer which values the businesses at US$2.55 billion (RM10.32 billion), including debt.

Veon said it will continue to hold its stake in GTH, which also owns Algerian mobile provider Djezzy. In April, Veon withdrew an offer to buy the remaining 42.3% of GTH.

For Hutchison, the Wind Tre purchase consolidates its ownership of one of Italy’s three largest mobile providers.

Frank Sixt, group finance director of CK Hutchison, said the deal was important for the group in “a million small ways”, notably the profitability it will bring.

“With next-generation services – it will all have to be based on compatible systems and when you have only 50% of a venture, that may not work,” he said.

In February, Veon said Wind Tre’s revenue had slumped 11% to 1.6 billion euros (RM7.5 billion) in the fourth quarter, driven by an 8.1% decline in mobile service revenue, as competition saw its customer base fall almost 6%.

Completion of the Veon-Hutchison transaction is expected to occur in the third or fourth quarter of 2018, the companies said.