KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Over nearly two decades, Malaysia's second richest man Ananda Krishnan has quietly initiated a number of deals that have left observers perplexed but earned him a reputation of being an impeccable timer of markets.
Now Ananda, as he is known in business circles, is again in the midst of a mega-asset sale that is shrouded in secrecy and has everyone guessing about the intent of the deal.
The 73-year-old tycoon is nearing a sale of $3 billion worth of power assets to a government company, according to sources, and is said be eyeing the sale of a satellite operator for around $500 million.
The moves have prompted speculation that Ananda who has a net worth of $9.9 billion, according to Forbes may be winding down after years at the helm of a business empire that spans telecoms, gaming, property, oil exploration and payTV.
Photographs of the businessman are frequently plastered in the country's newspapers, but to many dealmakers and industry executives Ananda remains a mystery.
Many believe that the sales are likely part of a strategic decision to pull back from risky businesses.
"He has a reputation of timing the markets, like what he did with Maxis and Bumi Armada," said the head of equities at a local brokerage, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, adding that Ananda could be making the most of investors' increased risk appetite in recent months.
Ananda angered shareholders by taking Malaysia's top telecoms firm Maxis private in 2007 before the global financial crisis struck, only to relist it in 2009 with a $3.3 billion IPO of his flagship firm.
That deal cemented Ananda's reputation over the years for taking his firms private and relisting them for maximum gain.
Offshore oil and gas services company Bumi Armada was listed in July, raising $890 million just before market volatility forced the cancellation of many IPOs in Asia.
Ananda keeps such a low profile that he doesn't hold any executive positions in the four main Malaysian firms he controls and is said to leave the execution of his business strategies to trusted aides Ralph Marshall and Chan Chee Beng. Both are directors of the privatelyheld Usaha Tegas, Ananda's investment vehicle.
"He's hardly seen at conferences and even during our meetings with his close associates. He's like an invisible dealmaker," said one executive at a fund management firm, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
Ananda could not be contacted by Reuters for comments.
Some investors believe Ananda could be tapping his assets in response to political volatility in the Middle East and ahead of national elections in Malaysia expected this year that could stoke market volatility.
He has also been facing problems in India, where police have been investigating one of his companies in a telecoms case. Company officials have denied any wrongdoing.
"The internal rate of return that he is getting from some of his power assets may also not be lucrative, especially with the problems in Egypt and Pakistan. This could be the right time to sell," the fund manager said.
FIRST MILLIONS FROM OIL
Ananda, known to friends as TAK from the initials of his full name Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan, graduated from Harvard and made his first millions as an oil trader.
He was a founding director of state oil giant Petronas and was a low profile director of the central bank, Bank Negara, between 1982 and 1987. He forged close ties with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, selling the leader the idea of building the iconic 88storey Petronas Twin Towers in the early 1990s.
Born to a Sri Lankan Tamil civil servant, Ananda rarely makes public appearances. Perhaps the only time he hit the limelight, and that too briefly, was in the mid1980s when he financed the Live Aid concert organized by rock star Bob Geldof.
An avid collector of modern art, Ananda spends his time mostly in the south of France with his wife and young daughter, visiting Kuala Lumpur occasionally.
Media reports say the tycoon's two other children from a first marriage are not keen on taking roles in his business empire. The son became a monk and the daughter a doctor in Britain, the reports say.
Earlier Reuters had rported from Dubai/Singapore that Ananda Krishnan's plans to sell a stake in satellite operator MEASAT Global Bhd to Saudi-based Arabsat has stalled over differences on valuation, sources familiar with the matter said.
Krishnan, Malaysia's second richest man, has been looking to sell a stake in MEASAT for several months, but that deal was overshadowed by his plans to offload $3 billion worth of power assets in a bid to shed risky operations.
Initial plans had been for a sale of the entire satellite firm, which operates regional satellite networks and was taken private by Ananda in 2010. A sale of the entire firm may fetch about $500 million.
"MEASAT is looking for a partial exit," one of the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Morgan Stanley is advising MEASAT on the sale or merger with another satellite firm, according to three banking sources aware of the matter.
J.P. Morgan Chase is advising Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat, which is owned by the 21 member states of the Arab League and is the main satellite operator in the Gulf Arab region.
French satellite operator Eutelsat has also been in the running, a second source said.
The sources were not aware if Eutelsat had picked an advisor for the sale.
"Eutelsat has no comment on the speculation around MEASAT," a Eutelsat spokeswoman said.
MEASAT, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan declined to comment. Arabsat officials in Riyadh were not immediately available for comment.
Harvard-educated Ananda started MEASAT in the early 1990s as part of then-prime minister Mahathir Mohammad's plan to boost the southeast Asian country's communications infrastructure and attain developed-nation status by 2020.
The firm is a premium supplier of satellite communication services to leading international broadcasters, direct-to-home platforms and telecom operators, providing satellite services to 145 countries.
Arabsat carries over 400 TV channels and 160 radio stations in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Central Asia.
Krishnan, reckoned by Forbes to have assets of $9.5 billion, was taking advantage of the higher risk appetite in the market to hive off riskier assets from his empire that runs from telecoms to pay-TV, analysts have said.
On Monday, sources told Reuters that Krishnan is nearing a deal to sell his $3 billion worth of power assets to government company 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Malaysia's Star Newspaper reported that the sale to 1Malaysia was indicated at a price range of 9.92 billion ringgit ($3.30 billion) and 11.16 billion ringgit ($3.71 billion).
The billionaire has relisted companies with strong cash flows in recent years, relaunching part of his Maxis Bhd telecommunications services provider in what was Southeast Asia's biggest initial public offering in 2009. Last year, his team relisted Malaysian oil and gas services provider Bumi Armada Bhd.