Graff Diamond’s Hong Kong adventure ends in disaster

David Hellier
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IN an ideal world, ahead of the Jubilee weekend, we would now be looking forward to the listing of Graff Diamonds shares in London.

Graff's history is London through and through. Founder Laurence Graff started as a jewellery apprentice here in 1950 and then 12 years later opened his first two stores in the capital.

But the Mayfair-based jewellers chose instead to go to Hong Kong to try to raise $1bn. Sadly on Wednesday evening we learnt that its efforts had failed.

So why didn’t the company and its advisers Rothschild choose to float in London and would it have made any difference to the outcome if it had?

The most obvious reason is that the London IPO market is virtually dead. There have been barely any decent-sized IPOs in London since Glencore last year, with the Eurozone crisis overshadowing a market in which both buyers (institutional and retail investors) and sellers (private equity groups and entrepreneurs) massively distrust each other.

There have been far too many underperforming new issues, from companies such as Ocado to Debenhams, to make would-be investors comfortable.

The reason often given for UK luxury companies listing in Asia is that they are better understood there. To many bankers, this is short-hand for saying that the Asian markets will be sympathetic to higher multiples and (some also think) they will be less suspicious than their peers in either Europe or New York of the reasons for listing.

Graff’s failure to list shows that the Asian investors are not quite so easily pleased.

46 intended IPOs have already failed in Asia ex Japan already this year, 33 per cent up on last year. In the case of Graff investors were unnerved by the fact that 44 per cent of the company’s revenues came from 20 clients; that Graff's wife was selling some shares in the float and that founder Graff stood to gain from the sale of inventory if the share issue went ahead.

In other words the Asian investor base was no more convinced than a European one would have been that the company had a real plan that would benefit from a listing and that it was not all happening mainly for the interests of the founder and his family.

Graff’s IPO plans would have been torn apart in London just as they were in New York.

But it is possible to float in Europe, or at least it was until a few weeks ago, if you have the right strategy. Bruno Cucinelli, the expensive menswear group, recently floated on the Milan stock exchange and it has seen its shares perform well since. It was in many ways a model flotation.

Investors around the world need less greedy sellers with more thought through plans.

Runing away to Hong Kong or Singapore as an act in itself without the other factors being put in place will prove to be no solution.
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