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Business News/ News / Chinese-Owned Pork Producer Smithfield Prepares for U.S. Listing
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Chinese-Owned Pork Producer Smithfield Prepares for U.S. Listing

wsj

WH Group, the Chinese parent of pork giant Smithfield Foods, is working with banks to take the 87-year-old business public again in the U.S.

A WH Group processing plant in Zhengzhou, China. The company’s businesses in the U.S. and Mexico contributed more than half its revenue last year. Premium
A WH Group processing plant in Zhengzhou, China. The company’s businesses in the U.S. and Mexico contributed more than half its revenue last year.

The Chinese parent of pork giant Smithfield Foods is working with banks to take the 87-year-old business public again in the U.S.

Smithfield, the largest U.S. pork producer, could list its shares as early as next year, according to people familiar with the matter. Deliberations are ongoing and the timing could change, the people said.

Smithfield was acquired in 2013 by China’s top meat producer, which is known today as WH Group. The $4.7 billion deal marked one of the biggest takeovers of an American business by a Chinese company at the time and resulted in the delisting of Smithfield, which used to trade on the New York Stock Exchange. The combined company became the world’s largest hog farmer and pork producer, and went public in Hong Kong in 2014 after raising more than $2.3 billion.

WH’s shares have recently languished and are trading near a record low, giving WH a market capitalization of more than $7 billion. The company was valued at about $18 billion at its highest closing price in 2018, until hog herds in China, the world’s top pork consumer, were devastated by an African swine-fever outbreak that year.

Pork exports from the U.S. surged following the outbreak, and American pork producers expanded farms and processing plants as Chinese demand boomed. U.S. exports began plummeting last year after China rebuilt its hog population, creating an industrywide glut that is squeezing pork industry profits. High livestock feed prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have added to the challenges, industry executives say.

WH had been in talks with bankers on ways to boost its slumping valuation, people familiar with the matter said. The U.S. IPO market recently hosted some prominent listings after an 18-month lull, with heavyweights like British chip designer Arm, grocery-delivery company Instacart and marketing-automation platform Klaviyo offering their shares.

Smithfield’s Chinese ownership has been a point of criticism in Washington, with lawmakers saying they want to ensure the U.S. food supply chain is protected and that China can’t use U.S. farmland to facilitate spying. Smithfield Chief Executive Shane Smith has said the concerns were misplaced and that WH’s backing has helped it boost sales.

“In today’s market the deal that happened in 2013, I think, would face a lot more scrutiny," Smith said at The Wall Street Journal’s Food Forum in June about the heightened tensions between China and the U.S. “It probably, in all reality, would be more difficult to accomplish in today’s environment."

Virginia-based Smithfield slaughters roughly 30 million hogs a year, it has said, more than any other company in the U.S. The company supplies hams and other fresh pork cuts to grocers’ meat cases and sells products under brands including Armour, Farmland and Nathan’s Famous.

Company officials have said that since the WH acquisition, Smithfield has increased its annual sales from $13 billion to roughly $18 billion. The Luter family founded the company in 1936 in Smithfield, Va., and it continues to be managed by American executives.

Smith told the Journal earlier this year that the company has had frequent discussions about relisting Smithfield’s stock in the U.S. but that there was no time frame for it. Expanding into other meat categories in the U.S. through acquisitions is also an option and a possible part of the company’s growth in the future, he said at the time.

WH has said the Smithfield acquisition was partly aimed at importing technology and expertise from Smithfield to improve WH’s operations, especially in China. The takeover caused a rift between WH’s chairman, Wan Long, and his son, Wan Hongjian, who was dismissed from WH in 2021. The younger Wan has said he long opposed the deal and that WH overpaid for Smithfield.

A U.S. listing for Smithfield would follow what has been a tough time in the American meat industry when all three major meat sectors—beef, pork and chicken—have struggled to make consistent profits. Pork processors such as Smithfield are grappling with an oversupply of pork in the U.S. from flat demand domestically and an industrywide drop in exports.

“The industry is seeing a scenario today that it hasn’t seen at least in my 20 years of Smithfield," Smith said on a conference call in August.

Smithfield isn’t the only major meat company exploring a U.S. listing. One of Smithfield’s rivals, Brazil’s JBS, said during the summer that it plans to restart its yearslong effort to list its shares publicly in the U.S. sometime this year. JBS is the world’s largest meatpacker and has a sizable U.S. pork business that competes with Smithfield.

WH’s business includes hog slaughtering and distribution of packaged meats in China, the U.S. and some European markets. Its businesses in the U.S. and Mexico contributed 56% of the company’s revenue in 2022, while its China business comprised 34%. It employed about 104,000 employees globally at the end of last year, including roughly 40,000 in the U.S. and Mexico.

Write to Dave Sebastian at dave.sebastian@wsj.com, Patrick Thomas at patrick.thomas@wsj.com and Ben Dummett at ben.dummett@wsj.com

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