14 May 2019

Vodafone NZ sold to private investors for $3.4b

1:13 pm on 14 May 2019

New Zealand's largest mobile company Vodafone has been sold to local infrastructure investor Infratil and Canadian investment firm Brookfield for $3.4 billion.

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Vodafone's British parent confirmed the sale to a consortium of Infratil and Brookfield Asset Management Photo: 123rf.com

The deal was announced today, but had been signalled last week when Infratil confirmed speculation it was it was in talks with the company's British parent, and was placed in a stock exchange trading halt.

Vodafone New Zealand chief executive Jason Paris said the company would have the same strategy and staff, and retain the benefits of being part of the global group, such as preferential roaming.

"What changes is our owners, who back our ambitious plans for New Zealand and who share our views on the importance of creating sustainable, long-term profitability in order to reinvest in the future."

Vodafone New Zealand has been cutting costs, as it eyed a potential public share float next year, although it would not say how many jobs it had axed.

The business was put up for sale after the Commerce Commission rejected its bid to merge with Sky TV in 2017.

Its British parent, Vodafone Group, has been looking to offload it to reduce debt.

Mr Paris said the business would reap the benefits of having both local and international owners, which both take a long-term investment view.

"Customers will benefit as we look to maximise the opportunities presented by new and emerging technologies, such as IoT (internet of things), 5G, artificial intelligence and data analytics."

The acquisition was a compelling one for Infratil, according to chairman Mark Tune, with telecommunications forming critical infrastructure for New Zealand and offering the company exposure to next generation 5G technology.

Mr Tune pointed to the company's previous experience taking an overseas-owned company and giving it a new life.

"Our 2010 acquisition of Shell's New Zealand downstream assets (now Z Energy) is an example of our ability to enhance a significant New Zealand infrastructure business."

Infratil joined with the Superannuation Fund to buy the Shell service stations and reorganised the business into Z Energy, which it then turned into a listed company on the stock exchange through a share sale to investors.

Telecommunications Users' Association chief executive Craig Young was worried Infratil and Brookfield would look to cut costs further and focus on the bottom line.

"Obviously our biggest concern in those sorts of arrangements are frontline and services to customers, none of us want to be waiting on a call for an hour waiting to get service," he told Nine to Noon

Mr Young said on the positive side, Vodafone NZ now had a local co-owner and that had to be good for infrastructure investment.

The buyers

Infratil is a New Zealand-owned investment company, with stakes in Wellington Airport, Trustpower, wind farm operator Tilt Renewables, a group of Australian retirement villages, and a data centre in Australia.

Its chief executive, Marko Bogoievski, was the chief financial officer at Telecom, now Spark, before joining Infratil in 2008.

Brookfield Asset Management is a Canadian firm with more than US$365bn worth of investments. It used to own a stake in electricity lines company Powerco, which it sold in 2013, and forestry logistics company C3.

The pair have each committed just over $1bn, with the balance coming from Vodafone NZ debt and a sale of shares to Vodafone NZ's executives.

Infratil said it will look to a $400m capital raising for a portion its share, likely from existing shareholders.

The sale needs approval by the Overseas Investment Office and the Commerce Commission, but was expected to be completed in August.

However, there might be a competition issue because Trustpower, of which Infratil owns 54 percent, is also involved in providing broadband and mobile phone services. Infratil said that might require it to sell out of the power company or for Trustpower to sell its telecommunications interests.