Blackstone, Carlyle, Bain among suitors fine-tuning bids for Asian distributor of Fancl's beauty products ahead of Friday deadline

Alison Tudor-Ackroyd alison.t-a@scmp.com
·4 min read

In crowded Hong Kong malls, shoppers can walk into local retailers and buy Fancl's skincare and cosmetics products at knock-down prices, dramatically undercutting sales at branded Fancl stores throughout the city.

Unofficial wholesalers of beauty products have been selling into Asian markets for years, but volumes surged during the coronavirus pandemic last year as they offloaded surplus stock. As a result, CMC Holdings, the sole legal distributor of Fancl in the region outside Japan is selling out.

Sensing opportunity, private equity firms Blackstone, Carlyle, Bain Capital, Sequoia Capital, and Citic Capital are fine-tuning their bids for the distributor ahead of a deadline on Friday, people familiar with the matter said.

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Their offers could peg the company's value at somewhere between US$600 million and US$900 million.

Chinese internet giants Tencent and JD.com as well as Japanese financial services group Orix are waiting in the wings to team up with the winner of the auction and craft a strategy for boosting sales in mainland China, the people said.

It will also need to negotiate distribution contracts expiring for Hong Kong and China in 2026 and the rest of Asia at the end of 2029.

The next owner of CMC could also hammer out a new growth strategy for the region after years of underinvestment stemming from disagreements between the partners over the imports and strategy. Fancl's sales into mainland China could skyrocket with a refreshed e-commerce strategy, the people familiar said.

The auction kicked off last year and attracted over a dozen bids. CMC and its financial adviser Morgan Stanley have since narrowed the field of suitors down to five.

After Friday, only one or two will move forward to make binding bids and conduct due diligence. The final step would see one of these suitors signing a purchase agreement, probably before the end of February, the people said.

Founded by Christopher Chan and his wife Michelle in 1996 with around HK$7.5 million (US$970,000 at Tuesday's exchange rate), CMC Holdings now has over 250 points of sale in Asia outside Japan, spanning mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Taiwan.

The Chans discovered the Fancl brand, known for its preservative-free products, during a trip to Japan in the 1990s.

The Chans recognised that the region's increasingly affluent consumers were embracing natural wellness products. Fancl's preservative-free skincare and cosmetics chimed with this change in attitudes and the brand gained traction in the key China market.

The Chans' strategy was to build a loyal following who would pay a premium for the products, partly by employing skincare consultants who help customers establish a long-term skincare regime. The result is that around 75 per cent of its customer base is made up of repeat buyers.

Don Don Donki's new store in popular retail district Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Photo: Nora Tam alt=Don Don Donki's new store in popular retail district Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Photo: Nora Tam

However, CMC's ability to command a premium has gradually eroded because of the wave of so-called parallel imports from Japan. Industry sources estimate that about 2.5 times the volume of official sales via CMC are being sold via unofficial channels in Asia.

A cross-shareholding between Tokyo-listed Fancl Corp and CMC Holding was ultimately unwound in around 2016.

Founded by Kenji Ikemori in 1980, Fancl Corp's wholesale revenues have grown from 14.6 billion yen (US$140 million) in the financial year to March 2016 to 23.6 billion yen in the year to March 2020.

Fancl products are stocked on the shelves of Sa Sa International Holdings, Hong Kong's biggest cosmetics retailer as well as Japanese discount chain Don Don Donki. Don Don Donki said in September that it would double the number of Hong Kong outlets to six by early 2021.

A final structure for the deal has yet to be decided. Chan could remain as a minority shareholder or sell out entirely.

Credit Suisse is advising Blackstone while Nomura is advising Carlyle.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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