Croatian tycoon Pavao Vujnovac plans to prepare Fortenova Grupa d.d. for an initial public offering as soon as the new majority owner of the Balkan retail giant refinances the company’s expensive rescue loan.
“As far as I’m concerned, an IPO is the only serious solution for Fortenova,” Vujnovac said in an interview Wednesday in his Zagreb office. Preparations for the offering will start as soon as refinancing is secured for the company’s €1.2 billion ($1.3 billion) loan, which matures in November, he said. “The right timing and a good presentation are essential.”
Vujnovac, who amassed wealth through gas supplier Prvo Plinarsko Drustvo d.o.o., or PPD, became the majority owner of the biggest retailer and food producer in the former Yugoslav region in December after the company’s non-sanctioned shareholders agreed to buy it out and oust blacklisted Russian banks that owned about half of the firm. The continued presence of sanctioned owners had hamstrung Fortenova’s efforts to negotiate better refinancing conditions for its main debt, which was extended last year with the existing creditor HPS Investment Partners at an interest rate of Euribor plus 7.3%.
“Refinancing the loan is best done with regional banks. Fortenova is already in talks with some of them, and I don’t think there will be a problem to refinance it,” Vujnovac said. “We are the biggest corporate system in the region. There are several banks that are interested.”
The buyout by Vujnovac and other shareholders was valued by the group at between €500 million and €660 million. While the terms stipulate the new owners will pay the sanctioned Russian banks, Sberbank PJSC and VTB Bank PJSC, for their stakes, the money would go to accounts the two lenders wouldn’t be able to access as long as they are under European Union sanctions. The purchase likely will be finalized as early as April.
Read more: Fortenova Owners Buy Out Firm to End Russian Banks’ Stake
After the IPO, the company won’t have a majority owner, Vujnovac said. “The key is that the ownership is diversified, that owners come from different industries,” he said. “The best thing for Fortenova would be a group of strong, strategic investors who know the region.”
The company, which employed 45,000 people in 2022, was formerly known as Agrokor until after it underwent a state-run restructuring in 2018 that turned former creditors into shareholders. The group reported annual revenue of €5.4 billion for 2022 and said that it had halved its debt-to-Ebitda ratio.
The 49-year-old Vujnovac rose to prominence as a successful entrepreneur in fewer than 15 years. Today, assets under his control are worth at least $765 million, according to a Bloomberg Billionaires Index estimate.
He got his start with the 2010 purchase of the gas transmission company PPD, then a money-losing unit of E.ON SE that would go on to benefit from the liberalization of Croatia’s gas market. The company’s main partner was Russia’s Gazprom PJSC until the cooperation ended in November 2022. Since then, PPD has imported natural gas through Croatia’s only liquefied natural gas terminal on the island of Krk and has booked the majority of the facility’s capacity between 2030 and 2037.
Vujnovac said he has filed for arbitration against Gazprom in Vienna for breach of contract, but declined to elaborate. Gazprom didn’t respond to a request for comment from Bloomberg News.
His holding company Energia Naturalis d.o.o. has invested in renewable energy and transport logistics and owns a significant stake in cargo shipper Luka Ploce dd. It partnered with Maersk to develop a container terminal in Croatia’s main port of Rijeka.
Though Vujnovac has inherited the helm at Fortenova, he’s loathe to be compared to forbearer Ivica Todoric, another prominent Croatian tycoon who had a far bigger presence in the public eye as he built up the retailer’s predecessor, Agrokor, before it was driven to near-bankruptcy in 2017.
“Todoric was part of another generation, another era. I’m part of the new generation of Croatian business,” Vujnovac said. “I have a philanthropy unit, but otherwise have no ambition to be a society or a political figure. I focus on my work.”