Has Yum Worked Out How Fast-Food Firms Can Crack China?

Global consumer companies trying to find a business model for China’s burgeoning domestic market will be watching closely as one of the oldest Western brands in the country starts a new strategy.

Yum! Brands Inc., which opened its first KFC restaurant in China in 1987 and also operates Pizza Hut outlets, has been losing market share thanks to a food-safety scare, changing tastes, increasing local competition and a host of other challenges that foreign companies face in China. It carved out its China operations into a separate company, Yum China Holdings Inc., which begins trading today in New York.

Ring-fencing the business, the largest independent restaurant company in China with 7,000 outlets and more than $900 million cash on hand, offers Yum a number of advantages in dealing with a fast-changing market. Yum’s example could provide a roadmap for other global consumer brands in the world’s most populous nation.

“When their China operations get so big and are clearly catering just to the China market, splitting off could unlock a lot of value for shareholders,” said Shaun Rein, Shanghai-based managing director of China Market Research Group. “If I were an activist hedge fund investor, I would be looking at carving out brands within large conglomerates that are China plays.”

Doing so allows Yum’s management of the China business to tailor its operations and products more swiftly to changing local conditions, such as the menu preferences of diners in different parts of the country, mobile-based payments systems, hiring and other factors.

Local Competition

It also helps tap Chinese investors willing to pay high premiums for a stake of an international brand’s China operations. Yum sold a combined $460 million stake in its Chinese business to Primavera Capital Group and an Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. affiliate, Ant Financial Services Group, in September.

In recent years, Yum has ceded market share to local competitors because it was slow to react to market changes, said Rein.

“They didn’t make corporate decisions quickly enough, such as in adopting mobile payments, or adapting to consumers wanting more premium offerings,” said Rein. “Their ability to deal with the more complex environment here was held back by the lack of knowledge, the slowness of the U.S.”

An activist hedge fund investor upset with the company’s handling of its China business is how Yum China came into being.

After a food-safety scandal in 2014 and cheaper local competition torpedoed Yum’s sales and profit in China, Corvex Management founder Keith Meister in mid-2015 urged the company to split off its Chinese operations -- which contribute about half the group sales -- saying that the move could generate an additional $16 a share in value for the Louisville, Kansas-based company.

Yum’s total share of China’s market for fast-food chains dropped to 30 percent last year, from 40 percent in 2012, according to data from Euromonitor International. While sales have been growing again in China in the mid single digits since late last year, the company has suffered as some consumers shifted to healthier options and domestic chains sprouted offering more variety.

Volatility Reduction

Unlike Yum’s U.S. operations, where most of its restaurants are run by franchisees, Yum China directly operates over 90 percent of its outlets and plans to triple the number to more than 20,000 in the long term.

Yum’s spin-off would reduce volatility for its remaining business, while “giving investors with a higher risk tolerance access to a more pure-play China growth story,” said Jonathan Morgan, an analyst for Edge Consulting Group LLC, a Morristown, New Jersey-based research firm. “China’s economic slowdown could induce other US-listed restaurant stocks to spin off their China businesses, to protect their core businesses.”

So far, companies with China consumer arms have often chosen instead to sell the division to a local competitor and take a stake in that business instead.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in June sold its e-commerce platform Yihaodian to China’s second-largest e-commerce company, JD.com Inc., for a 5 percent stake in JD. In August, Uber surrendered after a year-and-a-half battle with Didi Chuxing and agreed to sell its business in China and depart the country for $1 billion in cash and a 17.7 percent stake in Didi.

McDonald’s Corp. is seeking to sell its 20-year mass franchise rights for China and Hong Kong for a reported $2 billion.

Jackpot Valuations

“What we’ve seen across various industries is that foreign players eventually pull out or find a local partner,” said Hong Kong-based S&P Global Ratings’ restaurant and retail analyst Shalynn Teo. “It’s the local market knowledge and local relationships that determine which foreign businesses survive in China, and local players will always have an edge.”

With Chinese investors paying a premium for market share, such deals can prove attractive, said Peter Fuhrman, chief executive officer of Shenzhen-based investment bank and advisory firm China First Capital. “As long as Chinese investors are offering jackpot valuations, Western companies will all want to look hard and long at selling up,” he said.

Those that don’t face the need to tailor their businesses to China’s widely diverse and morphing consumer market. Only from March this year did KFCs in China began accepting Wechat Pay; they started accepting Alipay mobile payments in July last year. Yet the country leads the world in the use of such transactions, with 4 out of 10 Chinese consumers using mobile payments at physical stores, research firm eMarketer estimated.

As China’s consumer market continues to grow, more overseas companies may consider following Yum down the path of segregation.

“Four out of ten spin-offs do not generate a return in the first year of separation,” said Edge Consulting’s Morgan. “How Yum China performs will help US-listed companies evaluate their strategic options in China.”

— With assistance by Rachel Chang

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