By Paul Sandle and Arno Schuetze
LONDON/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Vantage Towers, the mobile masts company spun out of Vodafone Group, plans to float in Frankfurt by the end of March in a deal that could value it at up to 18 billion euros ($22 billion), making it Europe's largest listing so far this year.
Duesseldorf, Germany-headquartered Vantage operates 82,000 towers across 10 countries, where it is usually the leading or second largest supplier. Germany is its largest market.
Vodafone said on Wednesday it would sell a "meaningful minority" stake to create a liquid market in Vantage Towers' shares. It will use proceeds to cut debt, which totals around 69 billion euros, according to Refinitiv data.
No new shares will be sold, meaning Vantage will not make money from the deal.
People familiar with the matter said stock worth about 3 billion euros would be sold, possibly giving the company a valuation of 15-18 billion euros.
That would make Vantage the largest European listing of the year in a busy season that has seen $12 billion Polish firm InPost, $10 billion German used-car trading platform AUTO1 and $5 billion British boot brand Dr. Martens join stock markets.
The deal would also be the largest European telecoms IPO since that of Belgacom in 2014, and Germany's largest listing since that of Knorr Bremse in 2018, both of which raised $4.4 billion, according to Refinitiv data.
Vantage's CEO Vivek Badrinath said growth in data traffic, the roll-out of 5G and tougher coverage requirements, for example in Germany and Britain, underpinned its prospects.
"These three factors will drive demand for new tenancies and new tower sites," he said, adding he aimed to increase the average number of mobile operators using each mast from 1.39 to more than 1.5.
The value of mobile infrastructure - masts, energy supply and backhaul connections - has surged as investors look for secure long-term income.
Vodafone rival Orange launched its own towers unit this month, while Spain's Cellnex, Europe's biggest towers company, is raising 7 billion euros for expansion.
Despite recent deals, room for more consolidation remains, as about 170,000 towers in Europe are still owned by telecoms companies and not by specialized tower firms, Badrinath said.
Vantage will also have 1 billion euros of leverage for deals, he added, and the ability to issue more equity.
Its focus on listing meant it was not in talks at the moment, he said, "but the market is moving, so we expect that there'll be action in the latter part of the year for sure".
Vantage said late last year it expected to report pro forma adjusted core earnings of up to 540 million euros in the financial year to the end of March.
Rivals such as Cellnex, American Tower, Crown Castle and SBA Communications trade at 25-30 times their core earnings.
Vantage said it would pay 60% of recurring cash flow in dividends, and intended to pay out 280 million euros this financial year.
It is on track for a leverage ratio of four times core earnings at the end of March, allowing it to balance investment, acquisitions and returns, it added.
Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and UBS are organising the IPO with the help of Barclays, Berenberg, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and Jefferies.
($1 = 0.8224 euros)
(Reporting by Paul Sandle and Arno Schuetze; Editing by Louise Heavens, Mark Potter and Jan Harvey)