Hong Kong probe into Crafar farm bidder

By Karyn Scherer

Jack Chen. Photo / Supplied
Jack Chen. Photo / Supplied

Hong Kong authorities are understood to be investigating the Chinese company which is refusing to back away from its bid for the Crafar dairy farms.

The Serious Fraud Office revealed last October that it was examining land transactions involving Hong Kong-listed company Natural Dairy in New Zealand.

At the time, the SFO promised a speedy investigation.

However, the situation is believed to have been complicated by the fact that Hong Kong authorities are also pursuing the company.

SFO head Adam Feeley yesterday confirmed it was "still very much an on-going investigation".

However, it had yet to be decided whether New Zealand authorities or those in Hong Kong would take the lead, he said.

The Government last year turned down the company's bid to buy 16 Crafar farms in the central North Island, saying not all those involved met "good character" requirements.

Frontwoman May Wang is now bankrupt, and one of the company's backers, Auckland businessman Jack Chen, has admitted being banned as a director for "serious breaches" of securities regulations by the Chinese authorities in 2004.

Chen is believed to be still backing a Chinese newspaper in Auckland, and a new political party that fielded a candidate in the Botany byelection.

Property records show he and his wife paid $4 million to buy Hanover director Mark Hotchin's former home in the up-market Auckland suburb of Parnell in the middle of last year, and he is also believed to be still involved in a business lobby group known as the Chinese Business Roundtable Council.

Meanwhile, the Overseas Investment Office has yet to decide what action to take over Natural Dairy's purchase last year of another four farms from the Crafar family.

A retrospective application to buy the farms was also turned down by the Government last year and the OIO may have to go to court to force their resale.

A spokesman for the office said yesterday that the office was seeking legal advice before deciding what to do next.

In February, Natural Dairy appeared to acknowledge it might have to surrender the four farms.

However, it has since told its shareholders it has not given up hope of resubmitting its bid for all the Crafar farms.

In its latest announcement to the HKSE, Natural Dairy has revealed it made a HK$60.2 million ($9.93 million) loss in the six months to the end of November, owing to the cost of establishing subsidiaries in New Zealand and China. Its revenue was just HK$4 million.

The announcement breached HKSE rules by being late, and came after the company switched auditors for the second time in two years.

It has also changed its balance date, and has had yet another company secretary resign because of ill-health - the second to do so in the past year.

The company claims it has invested HK$552 million in its New Zealand dairy business so far, and says it has received an independent valuation that it is currently worth HK$647 million.

However, questions remain over exactly what happened to money it provided to companies linked to the bankrupt Wang last year.

In its last annual report, the auditors questioned whether tens of millions paid in deposits to the companies would be able to be recovered if its bids for the Crafar farms failed.

The accounts also reveal the company has recently received a HK$145 million refund from Inland Revenue.

Earlier this year, the company began exporting UHT milk to China from a dairy factory it has established in Tauranga.

According to Natural Dairy, it intends to sell 150 million 250ml cartons in its first year, as well as 300 million cartons of flavoured milk, and 20 million cans of infant formula.

The company has admitted that the prolonged halt in the trading of its shares has led to a "slight weakening" of its cash position, although it continued to raise more money by issuing new shares at the end of last year.

Last week, it claimed it had begun joint venture negotiations with local authorities in FuQing to establish a US$57 million factory within a huge industrial park to produce beverages and rice wine.

It also announced plans to open 3000 specialty stores in 24 provinces in China.

Natural Dairy has noted that consumption of dairy products in China is only one-quarter of that in developed countries, and that it has been growing by 30 per cent over the past fouryears.

Last year alone, it said, foreign infant formula brands had raised their prices by 10 to 20 per cent.

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