PPF, the leading Czech private financial group, is refocusing on Southeast Europe as part of its shift out of Eurasia, according to Jan Ruzicka, its chief external affairs officer.
PPF is in the process of selling or scaling down its once sizeable consumer credit operations in Russia, China and Southeast Asia, and has been investing in the US and Europe as part of a drive to reduce risks and stabilise returns for its owners, the family of the late PPF founder, Petr Kellner.
“PPF is moving west [for] practical, strategic and even geopolitical reasons,” Ruzicka told bne IntelliNews in an interview at the Aspen-GMF Bucharest Forum last week.
Southeast Europe is now seen as a key area for investments, given its expected strong growth, and its closeness to, and historical and cultural similarities with, PPF’s Central European base.
“For them we are the good Westerners. There is an amity that in a good way can be beneficial for business,” says Ruzicka.
Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, PPF has virtually pulled out of Russia, leaving only a joint venture in real estate and a small life insurance business, which are both up for sale. “This is the strength of being a private family business,” says Ruzicka, “the owners can make quick decisions”.
In Asia, PPF’s Home Credit consumer credit business had an early mover advantage but, lacking bank licences, it then struggled to compete against local banking rivals with access to cheap deposits. It disposed of its operations in Indonesia and the Philippines last year, and has been winding down its once sizeable operations in China, blaming over-regulation and growing nationalism. It is now believed to be close to selling its Vietnam business to Thailand’s KBank, and it is currently looking for a partner for its Indian business.
Child of globalisation
Ruzicka explains PPF’s strategic shift westwards in broad geopolitical terms:
“PPF was a happy child of globalisation, the era of what I would call the long 90s…In those days it was possible for a company from the Czech Republic with no legacy money but just the entrepreneurial spirit of one man – Petr Kellner – to go to the world.
“Now the world is more complicated. From this perspective those wonderful 30 years were an interregnum. So now it's normal the world is full of cleavages, clashes, geopolitics.”
In the Balkans PPF has already invested more than $1bn by buying Telenor’s telecom operations in Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro in 2018, and by taking over CME’s television businesses in Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia in 2020 (to which it last year added Croatia’s RTL Hrvatska). It is also active in real estate in Romania, and in e-commerce across the region through its price comparison site Heureka.
PPF CEO Jiri Smejc also has his own private interests in the Balkans, largely in energy and gambling, through Emma Capital.
“We are successful here also because of historical, cultural similarities, no doubt about that,” says Ruzicka.
The PPF group is now looking to expand its SEE telecom business through a tie-up with e& of the UAE, which should close early next year. It is reportedly keen on buying an operator in Romania, with Telekom Romania Mobile seen as a potential target.
Ruzicka refused to comment on ongoing transactions but he confirmed that PPF is looking at opportunities in all its four pillars: telecoms, media, finance and e-commerce. Telecom and media in particular offer the group potential synergies.
“In these markets – Romania, Serbia, Croatia – we don’t have only one pillar, we have many,” says Ruzicka.
In all businesses, the group remains focused on mass-market retail offerings, and it highlights the way it tries to localise its products for domestic tastes. “You have to always look for your local opportunity, your niche,” says Ruzicka.
Local international group
In television, PPF’s stations can benefit from sharing international news resources and bought-in global content, while also developing domestic shows tailored to specific local tastes. It also has a regional video on-demand group, Voyo.
“[Viewers] would also like to see stories from their home towns,” says Ruzicka. “This is where we see our value.”
Pro-TV in Romania, like PPF’s other channels in the region, often take international formats such as The Voice and adapts them. “It depends on how well you manage to localise them,” chief executive Aleksandras Cesnavicius told bne IntelliNews in a separate interview. “The big trick is how you localise it,” he points out.
In the Balkans, PPF is investing at a time when some Western companies are still reluctant to do so. “I think it is a mistake that US and British companies are not investing here as well,” says Ruzicka.
He says Western investors often see Southeast Europe as sub-scale and think it will be “painful” to operate in so many jurisdictions.
This is now beginning to change, because the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made investors retreat west and take another look at the Balkans.
“There is renewed interest – in Brussels and Washington – in the region, rightfully so. I think it is our task … to use this positivity because it won’t be here forever,” points out Ruzicka.