Kuok: SCMP sale just a "business decision"

Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, whose family controls the South China Morning Post, has spoke on the record for the first time about the sale of the English-language newspaper.

Kuok, who has controlled the SCMP Group through his Kerry Group since 1993, told Singapore's The Straits Times that if the timing was right to offload its shares, it would be nothing more than a business decision.

"We have no influence on politics," he said.

Kuok was asked to weigh in over rumours that the decision was in part due to the Kerry Group's vast business interests in China. He said the publisher’s decision is purely based on business and not political concerns.

It was the first time the billionaire had spoken on the rumoured sale.

His comments come as the SCMP confirmed reports it had received advances from an as yet unnamed buyer.

"The board confirms that the company has received a preliminary approach from a third party regarding its interest in a possible purchase of the company’s media assets," it said in a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

"Consideration of such proposal is at a very early stage and the terms of any potential transaction remain subject to discussion and to regulatory review. In the event that any such transaction materialises, the company will comply with the applicable requirements relating to it under applicable laws and the listing rules."

So far, the only name to keep appearing is Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Reports of the possible sale surfaced when mainland state paper China Daily wrote that Alibaba was in talks to invest in SCMP Group. Other media including Bloomberg, citing unnamed sources, said talks were are at an advanced stage.

Since Kuok bought a 35% stake in SCMP for US$349 million from media baron Rupert Murdoch 22 years ago, the broadsheet's fortunes have waned. Like other newspapers facing competition from online sites, it is battling dropping circulation numbers and uncertainty over its future direction.

Today's front page of SCMP, quotes Group CEO Robin Hu saying that a potential purchaser would like to have continuity in the media business’ operations, and that minimal disruption of the media business is expected.

“We would also use our best endeavour to ensure the interests of employees would be well taken care of.”

Hu said that the SCMP Group remained a profitable and professionally managed company with a robust print business, supplemented by a growing digital business.

According to the group’s annual report, it has recorded consolidated annual revenues of over $1 billion in the past three years, and has consistently outperformed peers on profit margin.

“In serving our readers in Hong Kong and globally, and consistent with our long and distinguished history, the board and management remain committed to continue to run the South China Morning Post as an independent and insightful newspaper admired by peers and opinion leaders alike.”

“Editorial independence is fundamental to our global reputation and success, and is a key reason the SCMP is seen as a valuable asset. We believe it is in the best interest of shareholders large and small to preserve this core value.”