Greece’s biggest company, Coca-Cola Hellenic, is pulling out of the near-bankrupt country and seeking refuge by listing on the London stock exchange.
The €5.7bn (£4.6bn) company, which bottles Coke in 28 countries from Russia to Nigeria, said it would move its headquarters to Switzerland and hopes to list its shares on the FTSE 100 in London.
Coca-Cola Hellenic, which makes up a fifth of the Greek stock market, said it was ditching Greece after credit rating agencies downgraded the company’s rating following the country’s downgrade deeper into “junk” status.
The firm, which is 23%-owned by Coca-Cola, hopes switching to London will rid it of the “Greek discount”, which has depressed its shares because many international investors are afraid of putting money into the debt-ridden country.
Dimitris Lois, CCH’s chief executive, said listing in London would “give us greater recognition among international investors, will increase the liquidity of our stock and improve our access to the international equity and debt markets.”
Lois said it made “clear business sense” to leave Greece because 95% of its operations and nearly all its investors were outside of Greece, with 16% of sales coming from Russia, 15% in Italy and 9% in Nigeria.
In a statement, Lois said he hoped the company would be able to join the FTSE 100 index of the UK’s biggest companies. CCH’s market value of £4.6m would, in theory, make it Britain’s 74th-biggest company, just ahead of British Land.
The announcement – a heavy blow to Greece’s Treasury as CCH is among the nation’s biggest taxpayers – came on the same day that official figures showed Greek tax revenues fell €1.3bn short of the target set by the Troika of international lenders as part of its bailout agreement.
Analysts said Greece’s high corporation taxes, which can reach 45%, were likely to have been a big factor in CCH’s decision. Sources close the company confirmed its big shareholders had been pushing for CCH to move out of Greece for some time.
Manos Hatzidakis, an analyst at Beta Securities, said: “The Greek bourse is losing a very good company and the London Stock Exchange is gaining a very important group.
“It’s very bad news for the Greek economy and bourse.”
Because most of its activities are outside Greece, CCH has consistently out-performed the Athens stock market, which has slumped to a 20-year low. The company, which employs more than 40,000 people, became Greece’s biggest after the nation’s banks plummeted in value. CCH said its Greek bottling plants would be unaffected by the move, which is scheduled to take place next year pending a shareholder vote.
CCH is the second big firm to leave Greece for a low-tax jurisdiction this week following the withdrawal of dairy company FAGE to Luxembourg, and analysts say many other big Greek businesses are weighing up plans to leave the country.
The news came as Greece released figures on Thursday showing unemployment soared to a record 25.1% in July. The Greek statistical service ELSTAT said unemployment had risen for the 35th consecutive month and was 0.3% higher than in June.
More than 1.26m Greeks were actively seeking employment in July, a 43% increase on a year earlier. Young people are the worst affected with 54% of Greeks aged 15-24 out of work.