Russia’s top mobile phone company Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) wants to expand in the former Soviet Union as much as possible and may also consider moves into other emerging markets, its chief executive said.
MTS had a consolidated loan of US$1.5 billion last year, which is still under-used, and was discussing a 30 billion rouble (US$1.2 billion) facility but did not see any problems raising credit because of its strong balance sheet, Leonid Melamed said at the Reuters Russia Investment Summit on Tuesday.
"We are very much under-leveraged now, our balance sheet is very strong," Melamed told the Summit, held at the Reuters offices in Moscow. "We understand that without reduction of our credit rating we can attract two times as much."
MTS’s priority market remained the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose grouping of 12 former Soviet states, which it considered its home turf, Melamed said.
The company already operates in five CIS markets -- Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- and believes it can exploit its knowledge of similar consumption patterns and consumer behavior across the vast and fast-growing region, Reuters reported.
"It’s a strategic issue for us and we have to be prepared to do normal deals in the CIS in accordance with the current prices that exist," he added. "Outside the CIS the strategic importance does not merit going with aggressive pricing."
Nonetheless, MTS is studying the feasibility of expanding into other fast-growing markets, for example parts of Asia and Africa.
"In the next six to nine months we will be prepared to say either we are totally not interested or there are areas of interest," Melamed said, adding: "I would not rely on MTS’ plans anywhere outside the CIS as we remain focused on achieving organic and non-organic growth in core CIS markets."
MTS is 52.8%owned by Russian services conglomerate Sistema, which is in turn controlled by billionaire businessman Vladimir Yevtushenkov.
Melamed said MTS’s ownership structure "has been very stable and it is stable for the time being".
The MTS chief also played down any possibility of political risk affecting his business as Russia heads into parliamentary elections in December and presidential polls next March.
"In telecoms, the situation is quite predictable," he said. "I don’t see any significant changes....the normal development of the economy needs stability and predictability and I don’t see anyone who wants the economy to be ruined or who wants the country to be destroyed."
Melamed said MTS would be prepared to discuss at any point raising its 49% stake in a Belarussian associate, but this would depend on its partner’s willingness to enter talks. The remainder of the company is held by the Belarussian state.