CEFC setting up Central European travel network to ship in Chinese investors

CEFC setting up Central European travel network to ship in Chinese investors
By Brian Kenety in Prague March 23, 2016

China Energy Company Limited (CEFC) has bought a large stake in Invia, local media reported on March 23, just weeks after the Central European online travel agency was bought by Rockaway Capital, a technology fund backed by a group of Czech and Slovak oligarchs busy getting into bed with the mysterious Chinese company. CEFC says the purchase is part of a plan to set up a network to bring Chinese investors to Central Europe.

CEFC, which is reportedly looking to rapidly step up its acquisitions in the Czech Republic and the rest of Central Europe, appears to have sealed the purchase of a 50% stake in Czech-based Invia from Rockaway. The tech fund, which is backed by closely-held Slovak/Czech J&T Finance Group (JTFG) and Czech billionaire Petr Kellner, who controls PPF Group, finalised the purchase of the travel agency earlier this month. The Chinese investor will now seek permission from the anti-monopoly office (UOHS) to acquire an up to 90% stake from the tech fund.

"We will ask UOHS for approval and we expect that CEFC will control 50 to 90% of the shares in Invia,” CEFC vice president Marcela Hrda told Mlada fronta Dnes. Rockaway will continue to own a stake, she added, and Invia will be a joint endeavor.

Over the past 10 months, CEFC has reportedly invested around CZK20bn (€740m) in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, mainly through buying stakes in domestic companies, including JTFG. More deals could be announced during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to the Czech Republic from March 28-30 to sign a “strategic partnership” between the two countries in the works since 2014.

CEFC entered the Czech market last year with a spate of relatively small investment deals, buying a building in downtown Prague, a football club, a travel company and a brewery. Said to be connected to the country's security services or military, CEFC is now reportedly looking to take over a 23.7% stake in Prague-listed Unipetrol, via a joint venture with JTFG. It is also eyeing a majority in JTFG itself, as well as GE's Czech unit GE Money Bank, as the basis for a Central European banking group.

Another potential target is the largest Czech telecom. PPF has denied speculation that it plans to sell the retail part of O2 CR to a Chinese buyer.

The company is also planning to help facilitate more links between Chinese investors and the region. CEFC has already bought a Czech hotel and is raising its stake in budget airline Travel Service from 10% to 49.92% as part of what Hrda called logical steps for arranging travel for and accommodating Chinese visitors to Prague and beyond.

"Prague and China will be connected by three regular flights. And we will be able to accommodate Chinese tourists in our Prague hotel, and through Travel Service take them elsewhere in Europe, and through Invia it can all be connected,” Hrda says. “We are already looking for business partners in China. Moreover, we are interested in other hotels in the Czech Republic."

Rockaway won UOHS approval to buy a majority stake in Invia from private equity fund MCI Management of Poland in February. It paid €56mm for 80% of Invia.cz, which had revenues of CZK4bn (€148m) in 2015.

Rockaway, which has offices in Prague, San Francisco and Sao Paulo, Brazil, bought Czech online retailers Mall.cz and Heueka.cz from global platform operator Naspers of South Africa for €200mn in November 2015, with a loan from PPF and Czech Media Invest, which is controlled by J&T partners Patrik Tkac and Daniel Kretinsky.

Rockaway’s internet business in the Czech Republic is now comparable to market leader Alza, which had 2014 revenue of CZK11.5bn, according to Hospardske noviny. Invia has more than 100 franchised offices and revenues four times higher than the next-biggest player on the Czech market.