Petr Kellner reportedly in talks with Telenor on sale of CEE assets

By bne IntelliNews February 7, 2018

Petr Kellner, Central Europe’s richest man, is reportedly the bidder for the assets of Norwegian telecommunications group Telenor in Hungary, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia. 

In January, Telenor confirmed rumours that it has received an unsolicited offer for its business in Central and Eastern Europe and said that will decide on the possible sale in Q1. The deal is reportedly worth €2bn.

Kellner’s investment group PPF is in talks with Telenor, Bulgarian news outlet Capital reported on February 7, quoting three unnamed sources close to the deal. It is still unclear whether Telenor will sell its assets in Hungary.

Telenor's mobile operations in the four countries, Hungary, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia, contributed 9% of the group’ revenue and 8% of Ebitda in 2017. In terms of revenue, the Hungarian unit was the largest with NOK4.3bn (€450mn), followed by Serbia and Montenegro NOK3.7bn (€387mn), and Bulgaria NOK3.12bn (€312mn).

The company has some 10mn customers in the four markets – 3.4 mn in Bulgaria, 3.3mn in Serbia and Montenegro, and 3.1mn in Hungary – or 5.5% of its total base, but the company has lost around 1mn subscribers in the last three years, Hungarian business portal Portfolio.hu writes. The divestment of the assets would fit with Telenor’s fundraising and cost-cutting strategy as the company is planning to refocus the business and pursue its digital transformation strategy.

Telenor entered the Bulgarian market in 2013, acquiring mobile operator Globul and retailer Germanos Bulgaria from Greece's OTE for €717mn, later merging the two companies. In the first nine months of 2017, Telenor Bulgaria's Ebitda edged down 0.2% y/y to €99mn. On the Bulgarian market, Telenor competes with Mtel - the local unit of Telekom Austria, and Bulgarian telecommunications group BTC, which operates under the brand Vivacom.

Telenor entered the Serbian market in 2006, acquiring a 70% stake in Mobi63 for €1bn. Subsequently, the Norwegian company also acquired the remaining 30% stake. Its wireless unit competes with Telekom Srbija's mobile arm, MTS, and VIP Mobile, a unit of Telekom Austria Group. The company said in 2016 that it planned to invest over €40mn in the development of 4G services for the Serbian market during the year, and could launch 5G services by 2020.

In Montenegro, Telenor has owned the biggest telecommunications company since 2004. It competes with T-Mobile, owned by the Hungarian unit of Deutsche Telekom, Magyar Telekom, and with M:tel, which is majority owned by Telekom Srbija.

In Serbia and Montenegro, Telenor's combined Ebitda remained almost unchanged y/y at €110mn in the first nine months of 2017.

The suspicion that Hungary might also be involved the sale was based on the fact that the four countries belong to Telenorʼs Central European cluster, overseen by Alexandra Reich, CEO of Telenor Hungary since October 2016.

Telenor’s possible exit from the Hungarian market has raised speculation about potential state involvement. Government office chief Janos Lazar said recently that if the ruling Fidesz wins the April election, the government will make renewed efforts to establish a state-owned mobile company.

Hungary tried to bring a domestic player to the market using a consortium of state-owned companies in 2012, when MPVI Mobil was awarded a license and seemed about to become the country's fourth mobile operator. However, a year later, Hungary’s highest court, the Curia, annulled the mobile frequency auction, ruling that it was unlawful. 

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