Greece's biggest company, bottler CCH, quits for Switzerland

Greece's biggest company, Coca Cola Hellenic, is leaving the country, the drinks bottler said on Thursday as its move to Switzerland with a London listing for its shares dealt a blow to the crippled Greek economy.

The material impact on Greece may be limited - Greek plants will go on working and CCH said the five percent of its business that the world's second-ranked Coke bottler has in Greece will be unaffected. But analysts quickly saw it as bad news for a nation struggling to compete inside the euro zone.

Coca Cola Hellenic, which already has secondary stock market listings in London and New York, said in a bourse filing in Athens that shareholders, most of whom are abroad, will exchange all their stock for shares in Coca Cola HBC AG, based in Switzerland. That stock will have its primary quote in London.

"A primary listing on Europe's biggest and most liquid stock exchange reflects better the international character of Coca Cola Hellenic's business activities and shareholder base," the company said in its regulatory statement.

The firm, in which The Coca-Cola Co of the United States has a 23-percent stake, bottles Coke and other drinks in 28 countries from Russia to Nigeria. About 95 percent of its shareholders and business activity are outside Greece.

"This transaction makes clear business sense," chief executive Dimitris Lois told analysts in a conference call. An overwhelming majority of shareholders have already accepted moving a company which has long complained about Greek taxes.

Analyst Manos Hatzidakis of Beta Securities in Athens said that the move made sense for the firm, which follows Greek dairy group FAGE this month in seeking a low-tax, low-volatility haven for its corporate base - in FAGE's case Luxembourg.

"The Greek bourse is losing a very good company and the London Stock Exchange is gaining a very important group," said Hatzidakis.

"It's very bad news for the Greek economy and bourse."


Another analyst said the firm, which rose to the top of corporate rankings as the values of Greek banks collapsed, was out to rid its share price of risks associated with Greece; the country is mired in recession and facing mass discontent as its leaders slash budgets to meet international creditors' terms for loans intended to keep Athens inside Europe's single currency.

"This is a healthy company that does not want to suffer from Greece's high country risk," said the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Foreign investors have been steadily reducing their investment in the Athens Stock Exchange since the country was engulfed by the sovereign debt crisis in 2009. Greece's future in the 17-nation euro zone still remains in doubt.

Aided by the fact that it is doing most of its business outside Greece, CCH consistently outperformed the general Athens stock market index, which has slumped to 20-year lows.

CCH has become the country's biggest firm by market value with a capitalization of around 6 billion euros ($7.7 billion), representing about a fifth of the Athens bourse's total. Typical daily trading in its shares has represented close to 10 percent of average volume on a Greek stock market where trade had already halved over the past year, squeezing broking firms.

The company, which last year made net profit of 330 million euros on sales of 6.85 billion, has also complained of high taxes imposed under Greek government austerity measures.

CCH said it would delist from the Athens Stock Exchange and then seek to re-enter that bourse with a secondary listing.

Coca Cola Hellenic shares were down 5.8 percent at 15.49 euros in Athens after the news. Analysts explained the drop by the low cash price of 13.58 euros the company is offering to those shareholders who refuse the offer of new Swiss shares.

(Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Matt Robinson and Alastair Macdonald)