ECONOMY

HELPE refinances and expands

Greece’s biggest oil refiner, Hellenic Petroleum, will restructure its debt and cut costs as it seeks to expand in Southeast Europe, the company’s chief executive said yesterday. Now controlling 73 percent of the wholesale oil market at home, Hellenic Petroleum is looking for new areas of growth in the Balkans as the countries of Southeast Europe liberalize their economies and sell off state assets. «We will soon announce a significant (debt) refinancing package,» Panos Cavoulacos told Reuters in an interview. «It will be multi-year, multicurrency, in the order of a billion dollars.» The package will be similar to ones announced by other Greek companies, such as the country’s largest phone company OTE, he said. He gave no further details. Last year OTE issued a 650-million-euro bond due in 2011 under its offer to exchange bonds maturing in February 2007 for new debt. Hellenic Petroleum has also started a procurement cost-reduction project to streamline expenditure which, along with its fuel retailer EKO, comes to about 450 million euros a year, he said. «We believe we can save roughly 10 percent of that by designing things differently, by buying smarter and managing demand,» Cavoulacos said. «This is money you can spend in developing the business; it’s very important.» Growth abroad Hellenic Petroleum will participate in the planned privatization of energy assets in Southeast Europe as growth opportunities in Greece dry up, he said. «Our growth in the core refining and marketing business has to come primarily through geographic expansion,» he said. «European oil product demand is flat, while in the Balkans demand is growing. We are fortunate to have high growth markets near us.» But the Balkans are not the company’s sole regional focus. Earlier this month, a consortium in which Hellenic Petroleum participates said it had made a natural gas find in Libya, while it has also initialed a contract with Egypt to search for oil. «(In Libya) our success rate has been quite high, but we haven’t yet discovered enough hydrocarbons cumulatively to declare it a commercial discovery,» Cavoulacos said. He said the company would make an announcement when it had more news. Hellenic Petroleum has also moved into the deregulated energy market in Greece with the purchase and operation of a power plant in the north of the country. The move raised some concerns among investors over whether the investment would pay off. The company will continue to operate the plant for a year or so before coming to a decision on its future, Cavoulacos said. «If we’re not happy with its performance, we’ll consider selling it,» he said. «Otherwise, we need to create a portfolio of at least 1,000 megawatts with a partner to make it a viable player in the Greek and southern Balkans power sector.» Hellenic Petroleum’s shares trade at 10.9 times estimated 2006 earnings, at a slight discount to the 12.9 multiple for its European peers, according to Reuters Estimates. Its stock is down 16.8 percent since the beginning of the year.