GNC Courting Chinese Buyers

Poor Third Quarter 2016 earning report may be motivation to sell.

Pittsburgh, PA—As Chinese consumers become more health conscious, and rely more heavily on vitamins and supplements, Chinese companies are looking to cash in on the trend by looking for companies abroad.  The country’s vitamins and dietary-supplement market is expected to increase by 53% to $28.7 billion by 2021, according to Euromonitor International Ltd.

One reason for the increasing interest: Chinese consumers are searching for products that can help counteract the heavy pollution in many Chinese cities. And they are putting greater trust in Western brands after a string of scandals involving counterfeit drugs and poisonous infant formula made in China.

Enter the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based GNC Holdings.  According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the retailer has met with a range of Chinese buyers in recent weeks to discuss a potential buyout worth approximately $4 billion, including debt.  The company’s market value is roughly $1.3 billion, and it has nearly $1.6 billion of debt outstanding, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

This could be just the boost GNC needs, given its increasing debt.  The company recently reported less than stellar sales reports in 2015 and 2016, with same store sales decreases of 8.5% in domestic company-owned stores (including sales) and 8.9% in domestic franchise locations in the third quarter of 2016. The company’s net income for the third quarter of 2016, GNC reported, was $32.4 million, compared to $45.8 million in the same quarter the previous year.

Robert F. Moran, Interim Chief Executive Officer, said in a recent press release, “Our results for the quarter fell short of our expectations, but we have been moving quickly to address the key issues that are critical to returning GNC to growth.  We are focused on eliminating confusion regarding our product pricing, providing customers with an improved loyalty program, enhancing the customer experience in our stores and reinvigorating the GNC branded product innovation pipeline.”

Some of the companies that are interested in GNC include Fosun Group, a Shanghai-based conglomerate, and ZZ Capital International Ltd., a Chinese investment firm. A number of Chinese pharmaceutical companies also have expressed an interest.

China has been a positive market for GNC. While GNC sells vitamins and herbal supplements in over 9,000 locations world-wide, with only eight stores in mainland China, since entering the market in 2011 GNC has become one of the top sellers on China’s online shopping sites such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Tmall and rival Inc. For example, despite revenue in GNC’s international business falling 4.6% to $79.9 million in the first half of 2016, a $3.5 million increase in GNC’s China business helped mitigate the decrease.