The buyers of Imperial Brands Plc’s premium cigar business, including world-renowned Cohiba, have been shrouded in a smoky veil of secrecy. But one group of investors is being fronted by a Hong Kong businessman who helps run some of Asia’s biggest gambling operations.
Last month, Imperial agreed to sell its premium cigar business outside of the U.S. to Allied Cigar Corp. for 1.04 billion euros ($1.1 billion), part of a disposal of its high-end cigar portfolio that also includes the Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo brands. A spokesman for Imperial declined at the time to provide details on the suitor, while the cigarette maker’s management described the acquirers as “the right long-term owners” for the cigar business in a statement.
Hong Kong corporate registry filings show that Allied Cigar, a private firm incorporated in the city on March 10, counts Chiu King-yan as one of three board members. He’s the chief financial officer of SunCity Group Holdings Ltd., the publicly traded unit of Macau’s biggest junket operator, which extends credit to casino high rollers.
Other directors of Allied Cigar are Chiu Ping-shun and Joyce Lam. The record doesn’t have any details on the ownership of Allied Cigar. Aside from Chiu King-yan’s inclusion, there has been no evidence to suggest SunCity is directly involved in the Imperial Brands transaction. A representative for Imperial Brands declined to comment for this report. A representative for SunCity said the Allied Cigar deal is not related to Suncity Group and any of its affiliated business, and declined to make Chiu available for an interview.
While the identities of parties in a deal can sometimes be obscured by layers of holding companies, it is exceedingly rare in a transaction as large as this for their identities to remain a secret. The fact that the cigar deal includes the sale of Imperial Brands’ 50-50 joint venture in Cuba, which distributes and sells the Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo brands, adds to the intrigue. Cuba has been isolated by U.S. sanctions for decades, making it difficult if not impossible for companies to do business in both countries.
Investors in Imperial Brands seemed unperturbed by the mystery, bidding up the shares as much as 4.8% on April 27, the day the deal was announced. They have fallen nearly 14% in the year to date, less than the almost 22% plunge in the FTSE 100.
Chiu is also an executive director of Summit Ascent Holdings Ltd., the Hong Kong-listed firm behind Tigre de Cristal, a hotel and casino complex near Vladivostok, Russia. SunCity owns a majority stake in Summit Ascent.
Both Summit Ascent and SunCity Group are controlled by chairman Alvin Chau, an entrepreneur whose businesses span across entertainment and travel. In recent years, SunCity has been expanding outside of Macau, which is the world’s biggest gambling hub. It’s operating a $4 billion Vietnam casino resort project and is also looking for investment opportunities in the Philippines, Cambodia and Japan.
Imperial had said the proceeds from the cigar business sale will be used for debt reduction and the transaction is expected to close in the third quarter.
Shares in SunCity Group Holdings closed 3.2% higher, while Summit Ascent ended the day down 1.6%. The Hang Seng index slipped 1.5%.