The Chinese state grid operator's hunt for $50 billion in overseas assets makes it a potential bidder for ABB's power grids business in what would be another step towards creating a dominant supplier of global electricity infrastructure.
Swiss engineering group ABB this week announced $1 billion in cost cuts, possible layoffs and a fusion of its low-margin Power Systems business with Power Products, which makes transformers. A review on whether to keep this newly created Power Grids unit and its $12.6 billion in revenue is under way.
With Swedish activist investor Cevian -- which owns 5.2 percent of ABB's shares -- breathing down his neck, Chief Executive Ulrich Spiesshofer must close a profitability gap to rivals like General Electric.
Selling Power Grids could help, since its profitability is only a third of ABB's best performing divisions.
Potential buyers include State Grid Corp of China , looking to amass $50 billion in overseas assets by 2020 in a diversification push. Several analysts who follow the industry identify State Grid as a potential buyer.
"Strategically, the Chinese government has set aside markets they want to dominate," said James Stettler, an analyst at Barclays Capital in London. "They're thinking big."
Wholly state-owned State Grid, which distributes electricity to 1.1 billion people across 90 percent of China, is seeking to tap into steady income streams.
As well as expanding Chinese influence, its relatively low yield requirements give it an edge over Western infrastructure funds and European sector rivals.
State Grid has already moved into countries including Portugal, Italy, Brazil and Australia.
UBS estimates that ABB's grid operations are worth about $4 billion. ABB declined to comment and there was no immediate response from State Grid's European office.
Spiesshofer, in the role for two years, is under pressure to improve margins in the medium term after trimming revenue growth targets this week.
Cevian typically aims to double the value of investments in as few as three years. Its ABB stake is now worth 2.2 billion Swiss francs ($2.25 billion), but ABB shares have fallen some 10 percent since Cevian announced its move in June.
Spiesshofer told Reuters this week all options are open for Power Grids -- a sale, break-up or acquisitions.
"We will say what is the best way of running this business in the future...in terms of adding to or departing from parts, and what's the best ownership structure," Spiesshofer said.
The division employs 39,000 and utilities are its main customers. Its operations include high-voltage transformers, substation equipment like gas- and air-insulated switchgear, microgrids, as well as a high-voltage direct current business and services.
If Spiesshofer does decide to unload it, Asia is home to other potential bidders. These could include Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries or Hitachi, with whom ABB has a partnership as the country seeks a post-Fukushima solution to moving electricity around the nation.
The sector is consolidating. General Electric won approval this week to buy Alstom's power business. The GE-Alstom combination is a rival to ABB Power Grids, as is Japan's Toshiba and Germany's Siemens.
A Toshiba Corp spokeswoman said the company was still interested in expanding in the global power transmission and substation business and saw M&A as a possible way to achieve that, but declined to comment on ABB.
A Mitsubishi Heavy company spokesman declined to comment.
A spokesman for South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries says the company was currently not interested in the unit.
STATE GRID'S EXPANSION
Snapping up ABB's power grids business would give State Grid an important foothold in the EU power equipment market.
Unlike Western firms, State Grid both builds and operates power grids.
In recent years, it bought 25 percent of Portuguese power grid operator REN and 35 percent of Italy power and gas grid holding company CDP Reti. Stakes in power grids in Brazil, Australia and Asia, have taken it halfway to its $50 billion overseas goal.
State Grid, whose Chinese grids span thousands of kilometers from hydro dams to in the west to population centers on the east coast, is a specialist in ultra high-voltage (UHV) lines which lose less power than the lines in use in most of Europe.
For the Chinese company, the acquisition of foreign grids would create demand for transformers, switchgear and power cables -- products at the heart of ABB's Power Grids.
"With ownership, you can have an impact on purchasing," Barclays' Stettler said.
ABB has carefully shifted more profitable assets out of the division to elsewhere. Medium-voltage products have been slipped into ABB's existing Low Voltage division that makes everything from cable ties to mini circuit breakers. ABB also won't sacrifice flagship power plant control systems.
That saddles Power Grids with operating profitability of just 4.7 percent, dragging on ABB's goal of between 11 percent and 16 percent and amplifying Spiesshofer's urgency to act.
"This shape makes the Power Grids division look less core to the (ABB) Group, considering the group and margin targets," wrote Credit Suisse analyst Andre Kukhinin, in a note.