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ZTO Spurns Huge China Valuations For Benefits of U.S. Listing — Reuters

October 21st, 2016 No comments

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By Elzio Barreto and Julie Zhu | HONG KONG

Chinese logistics company ZTO Express is turning up the chance of a much more lucrative share listing at home in favor of an overseas IPO that lets its founder retain control and its investors cash out more easily.

To steal a march on its rivals in the world’s largest express delivery market, it is taking the quicker U.S. route to raise $1.3 billion for new warehouses and long-haul trucks to ride breakneck growth fueled by China’s e-commerce boom.

Its competitors SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda Express all unveiled plans several months ago for backdoor listings in Shenzhen and Shanghai, but ZTO’s head start could prove crucial, analysts and investors said.

“ZTO will have a clear, certain route to raise additional capital via U.S. markets, which their competitors, assuming they all end up quoted in China, will not,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China-focused investment bank China First Capital.

With a backlog of about 800 companies waiting for approval to go public in China and frequent changes to the listing rules by regulators, a New York listing is generally a quicker and more predictable way of raising funds and taps a broader mix of investors, bankers and investors said.

“ZTO will have a built-in long-term competitive advantage – more reliable access to equity capital,” Fuhrman added.

U.S. rules that allow founder Meisong Lai to retain control over the company and make it easier for ZTO’s private equity investors to sell their shares were some of the main reasons to go for an overseas listing, according to four people close to the company. U.S. markets allow a dual-class share structure that will give Lai 80 percent voting power in the company, even though he will only hold 28 percent of the stock after the IPO.

Most of Lai’s shares are Class B ordinary shares carrying 10 votes, while Class A shares, including the new U.S. shares, have one vote. China’s markets do not allow shares with different voting power.

ZTO’s existing shareholders, including private equity firms Warburg Pincus, Hillhouse Capital and venture capital firm Sequoia Capital will also get much more leeway and flexibility to exit their investment under U.S. market rules. In China, they would be locked in for one to three years after the IPO.

As concerns grow about a weakening Chinese currency, the New York IPO also gives it more stable dollar-denominated shares it can use for international acquisitions, the people close to the company said.

IN DEMAND

Demand for the IPO, the biggest by a Chinese company in the United States since e-commerce giant Alibaba Group’s $25 billion record in 2014, already exceeds the shares on offer multiple times, two of the people said.

That underscores the appeal of the fast-growing company to global investors, despite a valuation that places it above household names United Parcel Service Inc and FedEx Corp.

The shares will be priced on Oct. 26 and start trading the following day.

ZTO is selling 72.1 million new American Depositary Shares (ADS), equivalent to about 10 percent of its outstanding stock, in the range $16.50 to $18.50 each. The range is equal to 23.4-26.3 times its expected 2017 earnings per share, according to people familiar with the matter.

By comparison, Chinese rivals SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda shares trade between 43 and 106 times earnings, according to Haitong Securities estimates.

UPS and FedEx, which are growing at a much slower pace, trade at multiples of 17.8 and 13.4 times.

“The A-share market (in China) does give you a higher valuation, but the U.S. market can help improve your transparency and corporate governance,” said one of the people close to ZTO. “Becoming a New York-listed company will also benefit the company in the long-term if it plans to conduct M&A overseas and seek more capital from the international market.”

China’s express delivery firms handled 20.7 billion parcels in 2015, shifting 1.5 times the volume in the United States, according to consulting firm iResearch data cited in the ZTO prospectus.

The market will grow an average 23.7 percent a year through 2020 and reach 60 billion parcels, iResearch forecasts.

Domestic rivals STO Express and YTO Express have unveiled plans to go public with reverse takeovers worth $2.5 billion and $2.6 billion, while the country’s biggest player, SF Express, is working on a $6.4 billion deal and Yunda Express on a $2.7 billion listing.

ZTO plans to use $720 million of the IPO proceeds to purchase land and invest in new facilities to expand its packaged sorting capacity, according to the listing prospectus.

The rest will be used to expand its truck fleet, invest in new technology and for potential acquisitions.

“It’s a competitive industry and you do need fresh capital for your expansion, in particular when all your rivals are doing so or plan to do so,” said one of the people close to the company.

 

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-zto-express-ipo-idUSKCN12L0QH

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Quietly But Successfully, US Companies Are Buying Chinese Businesses

September 14th, 2016 1 comment

--FILE--RMB (renminbi) yuan and US dollar bills are pictured at a bank in Huaibei city, east Chinas Anhui province, 16 September 2011. Chinas yuan edged down versus the dollar on Tuesday (11 October 2011), consolidating its biggest single-day gain a day earlier, brushing aside a record central bank mid-point as US lawmakers prepare to vote on a bill aimed at punishing Beijing for alleged currency manipulation. The Peoples Bank of China, the countrys central bank, set the yuan central parity rate at 6.3483 against the dollar, compared with 6.3586 on Monday.

Is China really buying up America? Or is it the opposite?

Chinese investments in the US draw lots of headlines and occasional handwringing about China’s growing influence and ownership. It is true that Chinese investors, especially SOE, have been throwing billions of dollars around, mostly for US real estate.

Far more quietly, and perhaps with better overall results, US investors have been buying businesses in China. The US acquirers do their utmost to stay out of the headlines. They prefer to shop quietly, without competitors finding out. This does a lot to keep prices down and give these US buyers maximum negotiating leverage. A lot of these US acquisitions in China stay secret long after they close.

Contrast this style with that of Chinese investors in the US. Most end up bidding against one another for the same assets. Overpaying has become a hallmark of Chinese purchases in the US.

Compared to the huge number of Chinese companies shopping for assets in the US, not nearly as many US companies are sizing up deals and kicking tires in China. Partly this stems from some misunderstandings among less-experienced US acquirers about what kinds of Chinese businesses can be targeted. Topping the list of sweeping generalizations: Chinese companies, especially privately-owned ones, are said to have owners who rarely wish to sell. Those that do, want to sell their deeply troubled companies at Neiman Marcus prices.

There is some truth to this arm-chair analysis. But, equally, there are good deals being done. I’ve written before about the most successful US acquisition in China, by food giant General Mills. (Click here to read.) It’s a textbook case of how to do M&A in China and also how to build a billion dollar business there without anyone really noticing.

Why buy rather than build in China? For one thing, China has huge and fast-growing markets in almost all industries except the smoke-stack ones. For buyers that choose and execute well, the China market is proving lucrative ground to do M&A. It’s a truth that remains a known to a select group of smart buyers.

Lifting the veil a bit, here are some of the largely-unpublicized acquisitions done by smart American buyers in China.

 

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In April 2015, 3D Systems, a New York Stock Exchange-quoted manufacturer of 3D printers, purchased 65% of a Chinese 3D printing sales and service company Wuxi Easyway. The Chinese company’s customers in China include VW, Nissan, Philips, Omron, Black & Decker, Panasonic and Honeywell. 3D Systems has an option to purchase the remainder of the business within five years.

Along with acquiring a developed sales network and increased distribution in China, another key aspect of the deal was to make the founder of Easyway, a Western-educated Chinese, the CEO of a newly-formed subsidiary,  3D Systems China.  The plan is to make the Chinese founder the king of a larger kingdom, a carrot frequently dangled by American companies to persuade Chinese founders to sell to them.

Since the deal closed, 3D Systems also accelerated the build-out of its operational infrastructure in China. What lies behind the deal? 3D Systems acquired a local management team as well sales channels, customer relationships.  It did not acquire manufacturing capability.

3D Systems manufactures high-quality 3D printers that sells at significantly higher prices than Chinese domestic competitors. Owning a Chinese business with established customer relationships in China will make it easier for 3D Systems to penetrate more deeply what should become the world’s largest market for 3D printers. The shift is particularly strong among Chinese private sector manufacturing companies making products for China’s consumer market.

Prior to the acquisition, Easyway was not a major client or partner of 3D Systems. As the integration moves forward, Easyway will likely expand its product offerings in China beyond relatively commoditized business of producing 3D prototypes. 3D Systems’ printers have broader capabilities, including the production of end-use parts, molds for advanced tool production, medical and surgical supplies.

The dual-track strategy is for Easyway to maintain its existing comparatively low-end service business in China while adding two new sources of revenue: the sale of 3D Systems’ 3D printers in China and an enhanced/upgraded service business of using 3D Systems printers to produce higher-quality and more complex parts to order for Chinese customers.  Both should positively impact 3D Systems’ P&L.

3D Systems used a deal structure that often works well in China. They bought a majority of Easyway, while leaving the target company founder/owner with a 35% minority stake in an illiquid subsidiary of 3D Systems. 3D Systems has the option to buy out the remaining shares and assume 100% control. But, the option may never be exercised. 3D Systems now enjoys the benefits of holding corporate control, including consolidation, while also keeping the previous owner aligned and incentivized.

The deal isn’t without its risks, of course. 3D Systems previously had no corporate presence in China. It therefore did not have its own management team in place and on-the-ground in China to manage the integration of Easyway and monitor the business going forward.

 

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In July 2013, Illinois Tool Works (“ITW”), a huge and hugely-successful US industrial conglomerate, purchased 100% of a Chinese kitchen supply manufacturer Gold Pattern Holdings, based in Guangzhou, from global private equity firm Actis.

The acquisition fits well with the expansion strategy of ITW of looking to make tuck-in acquisitions in their core business segments. ITW has a large food equipment business with over $2 billion in annual revenue, 15% of ITW’s total.  Gold Pattern’s business is selling Western-style kitchen equipment to restaurants and hotels in China.

From discussions we’ve had with ITW since the acquisition, the deal is considered a solid success within ITW. The company says it has a strengthened appetite to make more such acquisitions in China, a key market for the company going forward.

ITW owns some of the most well-known brands in the food equipment industry, including Hobart mixers and Vulcan ranges. Buying Gold Pattern was part of a strategy to increase sales and distribution of these ITW brands in the fast-growing China market. Gold Pattern’s own commercial kitchen equipment is lower-priced and generally considered lower-quality.  But, the domestic sales channels used to sell Gold Pattern’s equipment is also suitable to distribute ITW’s US brands.

ITW expects that as China continues to grow more affluent, the demand among the Chinese middle class for European and American food will expand significantly. This will create a long-term market opportunity for ITW to sell Western style commercial kitchen equipment. More and more four-and-five star hotels in China are being equipped with Western kitchens as well as Chinese ones.

ITW mitigated its deal risk by buying Gold Pattern from a well-regarded international PE fund. As a result, Gold Pattern already had fully-compliant GAAP accounting, established corporate governance structures, and a professional management team. No less important, ITW knew from the outset that Gold Pattern had already successfully undergone the forensic due diligence process that preceded Actis buying control of the company. This significantly lower due diligence risk, a prime reason many deals in China – both minority and control – fail to close.

ITW has significant experience buying and integrating businesses globally. They had operations in China for twenty years prior to this acquisition.  ITW and another diversified Midwestern industrial company, Dover Corporation, are both actively, but ever-so-quietly seeking more acquisitions in China, aimed primarily at expanding their sales and distribution in China’s growing domestic market.

 

 amazon

This deal happened a long time ago, but continues to pay dividends for Amazon. In August 2004, they bought 100% of Chinese e-commerce company Joyo, paying a total of $75mn including an earn-out.  At the time, e-commerce in China was in its infancy, while Amazon was less than one-tenth its current size. The purchase of Joyo was a calculated gamble that China’s online shopping industry, despite huge impediments at the time including no established online payment systems would eventually achieve meaningful scale.

The gamble has paid off handsomely for Amazon. The e-commerce industry in China is now at least 50X larger than in 2004, with revenues last year of over $700bn. E-commerce revenues are projected to double in China by 2020. Amazon is the only non-Chinese company with meaningful market share and revenues in this hot sector. That said, Amazon is dwarfed by Alibaba’s Taobao, which has a market share in China estimated at 75%.

But, Amazon in 2012 spotted an opportunity to use its China-based business to establish a highly-lucrative cross-border business facilitating direct export sales by Chinese manufacturers and individual traders on Amazon’s main US and UK websites.  This is a business Alibaba has tried and so far failed to enter.  As a result, Amazon’s senior management, if they know no one is listening, will tell you the Joyo acquisition is a big success. It generates meaningful revenue in China (approx. $3bn), while supporting the infrastructure to build out the cross-border exports.  Amazon continues to invest aggressively in China, with enormous warehouse facilities (800,000 total sqm) and wholly-owned logistics business.

When Amazon bought Joyo, it knew full well that Chinese law, as written, forbids foreign companies from owning a domestic internet company. The Chinese government views the internet and e-commerce as “strategic national industries”. At the time, Amazon got around this by using an ownership structure for its China business called a “Variable Interest Entity” (“VIE”) also used by some domestic Chinese e-commerce companies that listed on the US stock market. The Chinese government, if they chose to, could probably shut Amazon down in China, because it’s using this loophole to operate in China. That could leave Amazon scrambling to find a way to stay in business in a country in which it now has hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

The boards of many other large US companies would blanch at approving a deal where the assets are owned indirectly and control could be so easily forfeited by Chinese regulatory action. But, Amazon, with founder Jeff Bezos firmly in control, has shown itself time and again to be comfortable with making rather bold bets. Success in China often requires that mindset.

 

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Of course, US buyers have also slipped on their share of Chinese banana peels. Three well-known Silicon Valley technology companies tried and mainly failed to do M&A successfully in China. All three followed a similar strategy to acquire domestic Chinese technology companies started and owned by Chinese who had previously studied and worked in the tech field in the US. The acquisitions followed the general strategic logic of most tech M&A within the US: to identify and acquire companies with complimentary proprietary IP. But, the results in China fell well short of expectations.

The three deals were:

  1. Cirrus Logic acquired Caretta Integrated Circuits in 2007. By 2008, the acquired company was shut down and Cirrus recorded a $12mn loss.
  2. Netgear acquired CP Secure in 2008. There is now no trace of the original CP Secure business, nor any indication it is ongoing concern.
  3. Aruba Networks acquired Azalea Networks in 2010, a Chinese wireless LAN provider.

Over the last five years, no similar M&A deals in China were announced by larger Silicon Valley companies. The strategy has shifted from acquiring companies for their IP to targeting companies for their domestic Chinese distribution and sales channels.  This reflects the fact that indigenous innovation in China has not made much of a global impact. IP protection in China is still inadequate by US standards. China is also a late adopter market, which further impedes the development of globally-competitive domestic technology companies.

The successful US acquisitions in China were all rooted in a different, more viable strategy: to buy one’s way directly or indirectly into China’s burgeoning consumer market.

 

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Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

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Can China Succeed Where the Japanese Failed Investing in US Real Estate?

July 13th, 2016 1 comment

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Chinese money is cascading like a waterfall into the US real estate market. Chinese institutional money, individual money, state-owned companies and private sector ones, Chinese billionaires to ordinary middle-class wage-earners, everyone wants in on the action. This year, the amount of Chinese money invested in US real estate assets is almost certain to break new records, surpassing last year’s total of over $40 billion, and continue to provide upward momentum to prices in the markets where Chinese most like to buy, the golden trio of major cities New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus residential housing on both coasts.

To many, it summons up memories of an earlier period 25 years ago when it was Japanese money that flooded in, lifting prices spectacularly. For the Japanese, as we know, it all ended rather catastrophically, with huge losses from midtown Manhattan to the Monterrey Peninsula.

There is no other more important new force in US real estate than Chinese investors. Will they make the same mistakes, suffer the same losses and then retreat as the Japanese did? Certainly a lot of US real estate pros think so. There is some evidence to suggest things are moving in a similar direction.

But, there are also this year more signs Chinese are starting to adapt far more quickly to the dynamics of the US market and adjusting their strategies. They also are trying now to dissect why things went so wrong for the Japanese, to learn the lessons rather than repeat them.

This week, one of China’s leading business magazines, Caijing Magazine, published a detailed article on Chinese real estate investing in the US. I wrote it together with China First Capital’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang. It looks at how Chinese are now assessing US real estate investing.  What kinds of investment approaches are they considering or discarding?

Here is an English version I adapted from the Chinese. It is also published this week in a widely-read US commercial real estate news website, Bisnow. The original Chinese version, as published in Caijing, can be read by clicking here.

 

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headSome of the biggest investors in America’s biggest industry are certain history is repeating itself. The Americans believe that Chinese real estate investors will invest as recklessly and lose as much money as quickly in the US as Japanese real estate investors did 25 years ago. The Japanese lost – and Americans made — over ten billion dollars first selling US buildings to the Japanese at inflated prices, then buying them back at large discounts after the Japanese investors failed to earn the profits they expected.

Chinese investors are now pouring into the US to buy real estate just as the Japanese did between 1988-1993. To American eyes, it all looks very familiar. Like the Japanese, the Chinese almost overnight became one of the largest foreign buyers of US real estate. Also like the Japanese, the Chinese are mainly still targeting the same small group of assets — big, well-known office buildings and plots of land in just three cities: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pushed up by all the Chinese money, the price of Manhattan office buildings is now at a record high, above $1,400 square foot, or the equivalent of Rmb 100,000 per square meter.

The term “China price” has taken on a new meaning in the US. It used to mean that goods could be manufactured in China at least 33% cheaper. Now it means that US real estate can be sold to Chinese buyers for at least 33% more. Convincing US sellers to agree a fair price, rather than a Chinese price, takes up more time than anything else we do when representing Chinese institutional buyers in US real estate transactions.

While there are similarities between Chinese real estate investors today and Japanese investors 25 years ago, we also see some large differences. American investors should not start counting their money before its made. Based on our experience, we see Chinese investors are becoming more disciplined, more aware of the risks, more professional in evaluating US real estate.  There is still room to improve. The key to avoiding potential disaster: Chinese investors must learn the lessons of why the Japanese failed, and how to do things differently.

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Twenty-five years ago, many economists in the US believed the booming Japanese investment in US real estate was proof that Japan’s economy would soon overtake America’s as the world’s largest. Instead, we now know that Japanese buying of US property was one of the final triggers of Japanese economic collapse. The stock market, property prices both fell by over 70%. GDP shrunk, wages fell. Japanese banks, then the world’s largest, basically were brought close to bankruptcy by $700 billion in losses. To try to keep the economy from sinking even further, the Japanese government borrowed and spent at a level no other government ever has. Japan is now the most indebted country in the developed world, with total debt approaching 2.5X its gdp. There are some parallels with China’s macroeconomic condition today — banks filled with bad loans, GDP growth falling, domestic property prices at astronomical levels.

Just how much money are Chinese investors spending to buy US property? Precise data can be difficult to obtain. Many Chinese investors are buying US assets without using official channels in China to exchange Renminbi for dollars. But, the Asia Society in the US just completed the first comprehensive study of total Chinese real estate investment in the US. They estimate between 2010-2015 Chinese investors spent at least $135 billion on US property. Other experts calculate total Chinese purchases of US commercial real estate last year rose fourfold. Chinese last year became the largest buyers of office buildings in Manhattan, the world’s largest commercial real estate market.

This year is likely to see the largest amount ever in Chinese investment in the US. While most Chinese purchases aren’t disclosed, large Chinese state-owned investors, including China Life and China Investment Corporation have announced they made large purchases this year in Manhattan. While the Chinese government has recently tried to restrict flow of money leaving China, a lot of Chinese money is still reaching the US. One reason: many Chinese investors, both institutional and individual, expect the Renminbi to decline further against the dollar. Buying US property is way to profit from the Renminbi’s fall.  Other large foreign buyers of US real estate — European insurance companies, Middle East sovereign wealth funds — cannot keep up with the pace of Chinese spending.

With all this Chinese money targeting the US, many US real estate companies are in fever mode, trying to attract Chinese buyers. The large real estate brokers are hiring Chinese and preparing Chinese-language deal sheets. Some larger deals are now first being shown to Chinese investors. The reason: like the Japanese 25 years ago, Chinese investors have gained a reputation for being willing to pay prices at least 25% higher than other foreign investors and 40% above domestic US investors.

Twenty-five years ago, anyone with a building to sell at a full price flew to Japan in search of a buyer. Today, something similar is occurring. Major US real estate groups are now frequent visitors to China. Their first stop is usually the downtown Beijing headquarters of Anbang Insurance.

Eighteen months ago, just about no one in US knew Anbang’s name. Now they are among US commercial real estate owner’s ideal potential customer. The reason: last year, Anbang Insurance paid $2bn for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The seller was Blackstone, the world’s largest and most successful real estate investor. No one is better at timing when to buy and sell. A frequently-followed investment rule in the US Chinese investors would be wise to keep in mind:  don’t be the buyer when Blackstone is the seller.

Based on the price Anbang paid and Waldorf’s current profits, Anbang’s cap rate is probably under 2.5%. US investors generally require a cap rate of at least double that. Anbang hopes eventually to make money by converting some of the Waldorf Astoria to residential. It agreed to pay $149mn to the hotel’s union workers to get their approval to the conversion plan.

Earlier this year, Blackstone sold a group of sixteen other US hotels to Anbang for $6.5bn. Blackstone had bought the hotels three months earlier for $6bn. “Ka-Ching”.

Anbang’s chairman Wu Xiaogang now calls Blackstone chairman Steve Schwarzman his “good friend”.

 

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Another Chinese insurance company, Sunshine, paid an even higher price per room for its US hotel assets than Anbang. Sunshine paid Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group $2 million per room for the Baccarat Hotel. It is still most ever paid for a hotel. In order to make a return above 4% a year, the hotel will need to charge the highest price per room, on average, of just about any hotel in the US.

Another famous New York hotel, the Plaza, is also now for sale. The Plaza’s Indian owners, who bought the hotel four years ago, are now facing bankruptcy. They are aggressively seeking a Chinese buyer. We’ve seen the confidential financials. Our view: only a madman should consider buying at the $700mn price the Indians are asking for.

The common view in the US now — the Chinese are, like the Japanese before, buying at the top of the cycle. Prices have reached a point where some deals no longer make fundamental economic sense. At current prices, many buildings being marketed to Chinese have negative leverage. It was similar in the late 1980s. Japanese paid so much to buy there was never any real possibility to make money except if prices continue to rise strongly. Few US investors expect them to. That’s why so many are convinced it’s a good time to sell to Chinese buyers.

No deal better symbolized the mistakes Japanese real estate investors made than the purchase in 1989 of New York’s Rockefeller Center, a group of 12 commercial buildings in the center of Manhattan. Since the time it was built by John Rockefeller in 1930, it’s been among the most famous high-end real estate projects in the world. In 1989, Mitsubishi Estate, the real estate arms of Mitsubishi Group, bought the majority of Rockefeller Center from the Rockefeller family for $1.4 billion. At the time, the Rockefeller family needed cash and they went looking for it in Japan. Mitsubishi made a preemptive bid. They bought quickly, then invested another $500mn to upgrade the building. The Japanese analysis at the time: prime Manhattan real estate on Fifth Avenue was a scarce asset that would only ever increase in value.

Mitsubishi had no real experience managing large commercial real estate projects in Manhattan. They forecasted large increases in rent income that never occurred. The idea to bring in a lot of Japanese tenants also failed. Rockefeller Center began losing money, a little at first. By 1995, with over $600 million in overdue payments to its lenders, Rockefeller Center filed for bankruptcy. Mitsubishi lost almost all its investment, and also ended up paying a big tax penalty to the US government.

A group of smart US investors took over. Today Rockefeller Center, if it were for sale, would be worth at least $8 billion.

It was a similar story with most Japanese real estate investments in the US. They paid too much, borrowed too much, made unrealistically optimistic financial projections, acted as passive landlords and focused on too narrow a group of targets in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

According to Asia Society figures, over 70% of Chinese commercial real estate purchases have been in those same three cities. If you add in Silicon Valley and Orange County, the areas next to Los Angeles and San Francisco, then over 85% of Chinese investment in US real estate is going into these areas of the US. Prices in all these locations are now at highest level of all time. They are also the places where it’s hardest to get permission to build something new or change the use of the building you own.

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It’s easy enough to understand why almost all Chinese money is invested in these three places. They have the largest number of Chinese immigrants, the most flights to China, the deepest business ties to PRC companies. They are also great places for Chinese to visit or live.

But, all this doesn’t prove these are best places to invest profitably, especially for less-experienced Chinese investors. In fact, the Japanese relied on a similar local logic to justify their failed investment strategy. These are also the places with the largest number of Japanese-Americans. A quick look through financial history confirms that no two places in the world have made more money from foolish foreign investors than New York and California.

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Many of the largest US real estate groups are selling properties in New York and California to reinvest in other parts of the country where the financial returns and overall economy are better. Most of the gdp and job growth in the US comes from states in the South, especially Texas, Arizona and Florida.

Chinese investors should consider following the US smart money and shift some of their focus to these faster-growing markets. Another good strategy — partner with an experienced US real estate investor. The Japanese never did this and paid a very high price trying to learn how to buy, rent and manage profitably real estate in the US. In their most recent deals in Manhattan, both Fosun and China Life have chosen well-known US partners.

Another important difference: Japanese real estate investment in the US was almost entirely done by that country’s banks, insurance companies and developers.  With Chinese, the biggest amount of money is from individuals buying residential property. According to the Asia Society report, last year, Chinese spent $28.6bn buying homes in the US. That’s more than double the amount Chinese institutional investors spent buying commercial property. Residential prices, in most parts of the US, have still not returned to their levels before the financial crash of 2008.

Another big pool of Chinese money, almost $10bn last year, went into buying US real estate through the US government-administered EB-5 program. In the last two years, 90% of the EB-5 green cards went to Chinese citizens.

The original intention of the EB-5 program was to increase investment and jobs in small companies in America’s poorest urban and rural districts. Instead, some major US real estate developers, working with their lawyers, created loopholes that let them use the EB-5 program as a cheap way to raise capital to finance big money-making projects in rich major cities, mainly New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  Congress is now deciding if it should reform or kill the EB-5 program.

Chinese are by far the largest source of EB5- cash. Even so, Chinese should probably be happy to see the EB-5 program either changed or eliminated. There’s also been a lot of criticism about the unethical way some EB5 agents operate within China. They are paid big fees by US developers to find Chinese investors and persuade them to become EB-5 investors. Many of these agents never properly inform Chinese investors that once they get a Green Card, they have to pay full US taxes, even if they continue to live in China. The concept of worldwide taxation is an alien one for most Chinese.

Taxes play a huge role in deciding who will and will not make money investing in US real estate. All foreign investors, including Chinese, start at a disadvantage. They aren’t treated equally. They need to pay complicated withholding tax called FIRPTA whenever they sell property, either commercial or residential. To make sure the tax is paid, the US rules require the buyer to pay only 85% of the agreed price to a foreign seller, and pay the rest directly to the IRS.  The foreign seller only gets this 15% if they can convince the IRS they’ve paid all taxes owed.

Many larger real estate investors in the US use a REIT structure to buy and manage property. It can reduce taxes substantially. Up to now, few Chinese investors have set up their own REITs in the US. They should.

Another key difference between Japanese and Chinese investors: it is very unlikely that Chinese will ever, as the Japanese did between 1995-2000, sell off most of what they own in the US. The Chinese investors we work with have a long-term view of real estate investing in the US. They say they are prepared stay calm and steadfast, even if prices either flatten out or start to fall.

This long-term view actually gives Chinese investors a competitive advantage in the US. If the US real estate industry has a weakness, it is that too few owners like to buy and hold an asset for 10 years or longer.  Many, like Blackstone and GGP, are listed companies and so need to keep up a quick pace of buying and selling to keep investors happy. As a result, there are some long-term opportunities available to smart Chinese investors that could provide steady returns even if there is no big increase in overall real estate prices.

Two examples: The US, like China, is becoming a country with a large percentage of people 65 years and older. As the country ages, American biotech and pharmaceutical companies, the world’s largest, are spending more each year to develop drugs to treat chronic diseases old people suffer from, like dementia and Parkinson’s. There’s a growing shortage of new, state-of-the-art biotech research facilities. The buildings need special construction and ventilation that require significantly higher upfront cost than building an ordinary office building. They also need to be located in nice areas, with large comfortable offices for 800 – 1,500 management and researchers. The total cost to build a biotech center is usually between $200mn-$400mn. But, rents are higher, leases are longer and there are usually tax subsidies available.

 

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The other good way to make long-term money investing in US real estate is to take advantage of the fact American companies, unlike Chinese ones, do not like owning much real estate. It tends to hurt their stock market valuation. So, bigger US companies often build long-term partnerships with reliable real estate developers to act as landlord.   Starbucks is still growing quickly and is always interested to find more real estate partners to build and own dozens of outlets for them. Starbucks provides the design and often chooses the locations. It is happy to sign a 15-20-year lease that gives landlords a rate of return or 7%-8.% a year,  higher if the developer borrows money to buy and build the new Starbucks shops. The only risk if at some point in the next 10-20 years the 2%-3% of the US population that buy a coffee at Starbucks every day stop coming.

The Japanese never developed a similar long-term strategy to make money investing in US real estate. Instead, they just spent and borrowed money to buy famous buildings they thought would only go up in value. They not only lost money, they lost face. After staying away for 20 years, Japanese investors, mainly insurance companies, have just begun investing again in New York City.

Japanese investors arrived 30 years ago confident they would be as successful buying real estate in the US as they were selling cars and tvs there. They learned a bitter lesson and left with their confidence shattered. Chinese can, should and must do better

 

(Charts courtesy Asia Society and National Association of Realtors)

 

As published by Bisnow

财经杂志 《美国房地产投资负面清单》

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In China, Yum and McDonald’s likely need more than an ownership change — Nikkei Asian Review

April 25th, 2016 No comments

Nikkei 1

NAR

HONG KONG — China’s fast-food sector has been dominated by U.S. chains like Yum’s KFC and Pizza Hut as well as McDonald’s. But now a question hangs over these household brands: Can new owners reverse their declining fortunes?

China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, is reportedly leading a consortium that also includes Baring Private Equity Asia and KKR & Co. to acquire as much as 100% of Yum’s China division, valued at up to $8 billion. According to a Bloomberg report, Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, teaming with Primavera Capital, is also vying for a stake in Yum China, whose spinoff plans were announced on Oct. 20 — five days after Keith Meister, an activist hedge fund manager and protege of corporate raider Carl Icahn, joined the board.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s is likely to start auctioning its North Asian businesses in three to four weeks. Among its would-be suitors are state-owned China Resources, Bain Capital of the U.S. and South Korea’s MBK Partners, among other buyout firms. The winner or winners would oversee more than 2,800 franchises — plus another 1,500 to be added during the next five years — in China, Hong Kong and South Korea.

The company on Friday reported that sales in China surged 7.2% in the first quarter ended in March.

Yum’s and McDonald’s goal to become pure-play franchisers comes as competition in China’s food services market is heating up and as middle-class consumers grow increasingly concerned about food safety and nutrition.

Click here to read complete article

 

http://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Trends/In-China-Yum-and-McDonald-s-likely-need-more-than-an-ownership-change?page=1

China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape — China First Capital new research report published

July 20th, 2015 No comments

China First Capital research report

 

Slowing growth and a gyrating stock market are the two most obvious sources of turbulence in China at the midway point of 2015. Less noticed, perhaps, but certainly no less important for China’s long-term development are deeper trends radically reshaping the overall business environment. Among these are a steady erosion in margins and competitiveness in many, if not most, of China’s industrial and service economy. There are few sectors and few companies that are enjoying growth and profit expansion to match last year and the years before.

China’s consumer market, while healthy overall, is also becoming a more difficult place for businesses to earn decent returns. Relentless competition is one part. As problematic are rising costs and inefficient poorly-evolved management systems.  From a producer economy dominated by large SOEs, China is shifting fast to one where consumers enjoy vastly more choice, more pricing leverage and more opportunities to buy better and buy cheaper. Online shopping is one helpful factor, since it allows Chinese to escape from the poor service and high prices that characterize so much of the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail sector. It’s hard to find anything positive to say about either the current state or future prospects for China’s “offline economy”.

Meanwhile, more Chinese are taking their spending money elsewhere, traveling and buying abroad in record numbers. They have the money to buy premium products, both at home and abroad. But, too much of what’s made and sold within China, belongs to an earlier age. Too many domestic Chinese companies are left manufacturing products no longer quite meet current demands. Adapting and changing is difficult because so many companies gorged themselves previously on bank loans. Declining margins mean that debt service every year swallows up more and more available cash flow. When the economy was still purring along, it was easier for companies and their banks to pretend debt levels were manageable. In 2015, across much of the industrial economy, the strained position of many corporate borrowers has become brutally obvious.

These are a few of the broad themes discussed in our latest research report, “China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape”. To download a copy click here.

Inside, you will not find much discussion of GDP growth or the stock market. Instead, we try here to illuminate some less-seen, but relevant, aspects of China’s changing business and investment environment.

For those interested in the stock market’s current woes, I can recommend this article (click here) published in The New York Times, with a good summary of how and why the Chinese stock market arrived at its current difficult state. I’m quoted about the preference among many of China’s better, bigger and more dynamic private sector companies to IPO outside China.

In our new report, I can point to a few articles that may be of special interest, for the signals they provide about future opportunities for growth and profit in China:

  1. China’s most successful cross-border M&A ever, General Mills of the USA acquisition and development of dumpling brand Wanchai Ferry (湾仔码头), using a strategy also favored by Nestle in China
  2. China’s new rules and rationale for domestic M&A – “buy first and pay later”
  3. China’s most successful, if little known, recent start-up, mobile phone brand OnePlus – in its first full year of operations, 2015 worldwide revenues should reach $1 billion, while redefining positively the way Chinese brand manufacturers are viewed in the US and Europe
  4. Shale gas – by shutting out most private sector investment, will China fail to create conditions to exploit the vast reserves, larger than America’s, buried under its soil?
  5. Nanjing – left behind during the early years of Chinese economic reform and development, it is emerging as a core of China’s “inland economy”, linking prosperous Jiangsu and Shanghai with less developed heavily-populated Hubei, Anhui, Sichuan

We’re at a fascinating moment in China’s story of 35 years of rapid and remarkable economic transformation. The report’s conclusion: for businesses and investors both global and China-based, it will take ever more insight, guts and focus to outsmart the competition and succeed.

 

Focus Media Reaches $7.4 Billion Deal to List in Shenzhen — New York Times

June 4th, 2015 No comments

NYT

NYT2

 

HONG KONG — Years after delisting in the United States after a short-selling attack, one of China’s biggest advertising companies is hoping to cash in on a market rally on its home turf.

Focus Media, a company based in Shanghai that was privatized and delisted from the Nasdaq two years ago after being targeted by short-sellers, on Wednesday reached a 45.7 billion renminbi, or about $7.4 billion, deal for a listing on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The transaction values Focus at about twice the $3.7 billion that its management and private equity backers — led by the Carlyle Group — paid to take the company private in 2013.

Focus and its investors, which also include the Chinese companies FountainVest Partners, Citic Capital Partners, CDH Investments and China Everbright, are trying to tap into China’s surging domestic stock markets. The main Shanghai share index has risen 51 percent this year, while the Shenzhen index, where Focus will be listed, has more than doubled, increasing by 114 percent.

Other Chinese companies that retreated from American markets, as well as their private equity backers, are likely to be watching the Focus deal closely. If it goes through and the new shares rise sharply, it could offer an incentive for others to follow suit — and give private equity firms an easier way to sell their stakes.

Some other big Chinese companies that delisted from the United States market in recent years include Shanda Interactive Entertainment, which was valued at $2.3 billion when it was privatized by its main shareholders in 2012; and Giant Interactive, which was privatized last year in a $3 billion deal.

Focus is coming back to the market through a so-called backdoor listing, in which its main assets are sold to a company already listed in exchange for a controlling stake in the listed firm. Such an approach can offer a more direct path to the market than an initial public offering — especially in mainland China, where hundreds of companies are waiting for regulatory approval for their I.P.O.s.

But such deals can also be complex. In mainland China, they often subject shareholders to lengthy periods during which they are prohibited from selling or transferring shares. Also, unlike an I.P.O., the moves tend not to help the companies involved raise cash.

“All backdoor listings are convoluted exercises, not capital-raising events,” said Peter Fuhrman, the chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen, which is in southern China. “When you do them domestically in China, they become even more hair-raising.”

Dozens of Chinese companies retreated from American exchanges in the last five years after a wave of accounting scandals and attacks by short-sellers. Some of those companies were forcibly delisted by the Securities and Exchange Commission; others were taken private by management after their share prices slumped.

Focus was the biggest of those privatizations. In November 2011, the company was targeted by Muddy Waters Research, a short-selling firm founded by Carson C. Block. Muddy Waters accused Focus of overstating the number of digital advertising display screens it operated in China, and of overpaying for acquisitions.

Focus rejected the accusations, but its shares fell 40 percent on publication of the initial report by Muddy Waters. In summer 2012, the company’s chairman, Jason Jiang, and a group of Chinese and foreign private equity firms announced plans to delist Focus and take it private, a deal that was completed in early 2013.

On Wednesday, Jiangsu Hongda New Material, a Shenzhen-listed manufacturer of silicone rubber products, said it would pay 45.7 billion renminbi, mostly by issuing new stock, to acquire control of Focus. Shares in Jiangsu Hongda have been suspended from trading since December, when it first announced plans for a restructuring that did not mention Focus. The shares remain suspended pending further approvals of the Focus deal, including from shareholders and regulators in China.

If completed, the deal would leave Mr. Jiang, the Focus chairman, as the biggest single shareholder of Jiangsu Hongda, with a 25 percent stake.

The mainland China brokerages Huatai United Securities and Southwest Securities are acting as financial advisers on the deal.

Just a few of the Chinese companies delisted from stock exchanges in the United States in recent years have attempted a new listing elsewhere.

Last year, China Metal Resources Utilization, a small metal recycling company, successfully listed in Hong Kong. It had been listed on the New York Stock Exchange, under the name Gushan Environmental Energy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/business/dealbook/focus-media-in-shenzhen-listing-deal.html?_r=0

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China’s Most Successful Startup?

May 14th, 2015 No comments

 

Nikkei

OnePlus Never Settle

China’s most successful startup?

PF

Ask people in China to name the country’s most successful and innovative new mobile phone brand and most will immediately declare Xiaomi. Ask tech-savvy Americans and Europeans and they will just as quickly suggest OnePlus. Though largely still unknown in China, Shenzhen-headquartered OnePlus, established less than 18 months ago, has achieved more success more quickly in US and European markets than any other Chinese mobile phone company. It is also possibly the China’s most successful startup since Xiaomi was established five years ago.

OnePlus, by my estimate, has now joined the most exclusive club in the technology world, a “unicorn”, meaning technology startups with a valuation of over $1 billion. Other Chinese unicorns besides Xiaomi are China’s Uber, Kuaidi Dache and group buying site Meituan. Unlike those other Chinese companies, OnePlus has not yet raised any money from venture capitalists.   OnePlus is also the only truly international Chinese unicorn, since most of its sales and growth are outside China.

With just a tiny amount of seed capital,  the company began selling its phones little more than a year ago in late April 2014. Its 2014 full-year revenues were $300mn, well behind Xiaomi’s $12 billion.  But, unlike Xiaomi, OnePlus chose to focus its efforts on the US, Western Europe and India. In these places, OnePlus is doing far better than Xiaomi, and is now considered a legitimate competitor to major international Android phone brands like Korea’s Samsung, Taiwan’s HTC, Japan’s Sony and America’s Google Nexus. OnePlus is cheaper than these others, but that doesn’t seem to be the main reason its winning customers as well as enthusiastic reviews from experts. It’s mainly because of the quality of both OnePlus’s hardware and Android software.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the One Plus phone is “exceptional” and it “beats Apple iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5 in many ways.” The New York Times has called the OnePlus phone “fantastic, about the fastest Android phone you can buy, and its screen is stunning “.  Time Magazine chimed in with OnePlus is “exactly how a smartphone should be.” Engadget, the widely-read US technology blog, recently rated the best phones to buy in the US. Oneplus came out on top. That’s certainly a first for a Chinese brand.

Engadget smartphone rankingIn my seven years as an investment banker in China and before that as CEO of a California venture capital firm, I’ve never met quite such a mold-breaking company. OnePlus set out to achieve what no other Chinese company has ever done, to excel not just at making low-cost fast-to-market products but making ones of the highest quality, in engineering and design, hardware and software.

They next did something else no Chinese, and few American companies have done successfully: use social media sites Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to market its products at almost zero cost, and build a brand with a high reputation and a growing band of loyal customers and followers in the US and European markets.

Both Xiaomi and OnePlus say they plan to make most of their money from selling services and software, not from selling phones. Xiaomi has the advantage of much larger scale, with far more users. But, OnePlus may actually do better with this strategy and make more money for the simple reason that in the US and Europe, compared to China, a lot of people are accustomed to paying for mobile software and services.

OnePlus sold over one million phones last year between May and December, mainly in the US and Europe. It spent a total of about $10,000 on advertising worldwide. Samsung, by contrast, spends over $350mn a year in the US advertising its mobile phones. Worldwide, Samsung is spending over $14bn in advertising and its mobile phone market share has been declining since 2013.

On many fundamental levels, OnePlus thinks and acts differently than any other successful startup in China. Start with its two founders, Pete Lau and Carl Pei. They met while working at a Chinese domestic mobile phone and Blu-ray player manufacturer called Oppo. Lau is responsible for OnePlus’s manufacturing and product engineering, including overseeing a network of outsourced suppliers and manufacturers in and around Shenzhen. “We want to tell the world: Chinese products are great,” Lau says.

Pei’s background is more unusual. He is responsible for the company’s international growth and unique marketing strategy.  Everything about Pei – his background, his way of thinking and his approach to selling mobile phones successfully in the US and Europe – sets him well apart from all other Chinese tech entrepreneurs I’ve met. He is ethnically Chinese, but before coming to Shenzhen three years ago, had never lived or worked in China and his Chinese language ability, by his own admission, is so-so. Now 25, Pei was raised mainly in Sweden.

To understand Pei’s approach to business, it’s useful to understand something about business and culture in Sweden. It’s a small country, with less than 10 million people and fewer than 17,000 Chinese. Yet, it has arguably produced more innovative, world-changing companies, per capita, than any other country in the world. There’s a long list of them. My five favorites are furniture retailer IKEA, milk packaging company Tetra-Pak, bearing manufacturer SKF, fashion retailer H&M and music streaming company Spotify. In each case, these companies now dominate entire industries, with high-quality products and fair prices. Sweden has no real luxury brands. Instead it has a lot of great companies that have changed the ways a huge mass of people across the world live their lives, from the milk they drink to the beds they sleep on, the clothes they wear and now even the music they pay to listen to.

Sweden’s last attempt at success in mobile phones ended up badly. Ericsson once had a decent business selling basic phones, but the birth of smartphones was the death of Ericsson’s mobile business. OnePlus stands a better chance, in part because it’s a mix of Swedish focus on targeting a mass customer market together with Chinese speed and adaptability. I expect to see more of these “mixed blood” companies emerging in China, as China becomes more globalized and more welcoming to non-natives immigrating to start new businesses.

By basing itself in Shenzhen, OnePlus sits inside the world’s most densely-packed ecosystem of component, chip and contract manufacturing companies. It’s hard to imagine OnePlus could have been built as successfully anywhere else in the world. Foxconn, manufacturer of iPhones, is among the companies with its China base in Shenzhen.  Intel has also moved in in force to win business from these small, nimble Chinese electronics companies.

Manufacturing smartphones in Shenzhen is comparatively easy. Far harder is convincing Americans to buy a mobile phone without a subsidy and a service contract from a network provider like Verizon or AT&T. Yet, OnePlus is so far succeeding.  One reason: other companies that tried ended up spending millions of dollars on advertising to try to explain to Americans why they should buy a phone directly. It was mainly burned money. OnePlus spent nothing on advertising but used Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and Youtube to build up a group of early adopters, who then went out and evangelized their friends.

OnePlus has 1.1mn “likes” on Facebook, double Xiaomi’s, along with four times as many followers on Twitter. On Youtube, the Oneplus channel has five times more subscribers than Xiaomi. Keep in mind Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, where all of OnePlus’s employees are. OnePlus has become an expert at selling and brand-building using websites OnePlus’s own team aren’t supposed to even be looking at.

Ask Carl how he figured out how to do things in the US market that American companies, including hundreds with millions of dollars in VC money, weren’t able to do and he just shrugs, like it was all pretty easy. OnePlus still has no office in the US, no staff there, no repair centers, nothing. In the beginning you could only buy a OnePlus in the US and Europe with an invitation. Even with one, OnePlus only accepted orders from new customers one day a week, on Tuesdays.  As OnePlus’s reputation grew, the invitations became themselves valuable commodities. They still sell on eBay for $10-$20 each. OnePlus is now gradually loosening up and letting those without an invitation buy its phones, but again, only one-day-a-week, on Tuesdays.

Selling by invitation only may seem counterproductive. But, it’s proved vital to OnePlus’s success up to now. The reason: making mobile phones is generally a very cash-intensive business, since you need to have huge amounts of working capital to buy parts, build phones, supply to retail channels, and then wait for cash to return. OnePlus had no access to a big pot of working capital. So they have basically built phones to order, after the customer has paid.

One-third of the OnePlus’s 400 staff, including about 50 non-Chinese, are dedicated to customer service, which mainly means answering emails and responding to comments and questions on the company’s website and forums. This is another core thing OnePlus does better than any company I’ve seen in China. It’s establishing a new idea in the US and Europe about what a Chinese company is and does. Not just a source of cheap manufactured goods, but a company with a clear and powerful brand identity, one knows how to communicate well and sell things to college-educated 20-30 year-olds who live in San Francisco, Berlin and London.

Success has come quickly, but Pei, from my discussion over dinner with him, is certainly not complacent. He sees risks everywhere, not only from the obvious examples of Nokia and Blackberry, two once world-conquering mobile phone companies that have all but disappeared from the market. Apple remains very powerful. It and Google also own a lot of the key intellectual property patents for mobile phone signal processing, software and chip design. If either chooses to sue OnePlus, they have far more money to fight a patent lawsuit in a US court. Legal fees could easily top $20mn, money OnePlus does not now have. The US patent law system has been abused before, a big company sues a small but fast-growing one, not because it has a good legal case, but knowing that fighting the lawsuit, paying the legal bills, can put this new competitor out of business.

Pei’s three burning concerns are the OnePlus fails to attract enough talented global executives to join the company, loses its edge in designing hardware and software, or grows too large to maintain its quirky brand image and identity. OnePlus is in the process of opening new offices and moving key people from Shenzhen to Bangalore and Berlin because Pei believes it will be easier to find talented staff there.

Another worry, surprisingly, is how and when to bring in venture capital investors. OnePlus will likely try to raise money from one of the world’s famous Silicon Valley VCs. They have the most experience investing in disruptive businesses, helping startups like OnePlus to grow, especially in the US market, and they also can provide lots of help finding top executives and distribution partners. But, these Silicon Valley VCs have also not seen anything exactly like OnePlus before, a Chinese startup, likely with some core operations in India, and a magical ability to sell to Americans without having any Americans involved.  If successful, OnePlus could have one of the largest Series A VC rounds in history, raising perhaps $100mn-$200mn. Will money spoil the company or improve it?

OnePlus’s revenues are on track to more than triple this year to over $1 billion. But, there are lots of places where OnePlus could stumble and fall. Its new model launches and software upgrades could get delayed. Cost pressures could force them to raise prices in the US as they recently had to do in Europe, because of steep fall in the Euro. Also, US and European early-adopters are a fickle bunch. They could start throwing bricks at OnePlus instead of kisses. Case in point, in less than two years, Taiwanese mobile phone company HTC went from the most talked-about and fastest-growing company in the industry to an also-ran.

China’s mobile phone industry, as well as much of the TMT sector, have a reputation for being not much more than a bunch of knock-off artists, with no real innovation worthy of the name. OnePlus and Xiaomi both point the way towards a different and better future for China industry. Yes, OnePlus is good at assembling components cheaply. But, its core strengths as a company are too rarely found in China: an obsessive focus on product design, product quality, branding and customer engagement. These are what determine a company’s value as well as competitive strength. OnePlus is the first Chinese company to gain a large number of buyers and fans in the US and Europe by being simultaneously good at all these.

China’s long-term economic competiveness requires that more companies like OnePlus emerge. But, until it came along, China didn’t have a single one. It’s the most concrete sign that China may transition away from being a source of copy-cat products sold cheap and begin to play in the global big leagues, generating buzz while competing and taking market share from large, rich incumbents like Google and Samsung.

http://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Companies/China-s-most-successful-startup

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US Private Equity Soars While China Stalls

February 9th, 2015 1 comment

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In 2014, the gap between the performance of the private equity industry in China and the US opened wide.  The US had a record-breaking year, with ten-year net annualized return hitting 14.6%. Final data is still coming in, but it appears certain US PE raised more capital more quickly and returned more profits to LPs than any year previously.  China, on the other hand, had another so-so year. Exits picked up over 2013, but still remain significantly below highs reached in 2011. As a result profit distributions to LPs and closing of new China-focused funds are also well down on previous highs.

China’s economy, of course, also had an off year, with growth trending down. But, it’s hard to place the blame there. At 7.5%, China’s economy is still growing at around triple the rate of the US. China’s publicly-traded equities market, meanwhile, turned in a stellar performance, with the overall Chinese stock exchange average up 52% in 2014, compared to a 11.4% rise in the US S&P. When stock markets do well, PE firms should also, especially with exits.

While IPO exits for Chinese companies in US, HK and China reached 221, compared to only 66 in 2013, the ultimate measure of success in PE investing is not the number of IPOs. It’s the amount of capital and profits paid back to LP investors. This is China PE’s greatest weakness.

Over the last decade, China PE firms have returned only about 30% of the money invested with them to their LPs. This compares to the US, where PE firms over the same period returned twice the money invested by LPs. In other words, in China, as 2015 commences, PE firm investors are sitting on large cash losses.

China private equity distributions to LPs

 

China PE firms say they hope to return more money to their LPs in the future.  But, this poor pay-out performance is already having an adverse impact on the China PE industry. It is getting harder for most China PE firms to raise new capital. If this trend continues, there will be two negative consequences – first, the China PE industry, now the second largest in the world,  will shrink in size. Second, and more damaging for China’s overall economic competitiveness, the investment capital available for Chinese companies will decline. PE capital has provided over the past decade much-needed fuel for the growth of China’s private sector.

What accounts for this poor performance of China private equity compared to the US? One overlooked reason: China PE has lost the knack of investing and exiting profitably from Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies. Broadly speaking, this sector was the focus of about half the PE deals done up to 2011 when new deals peaked. That mirrors the fact manufacturing accounts for half of China’s GDP and traditionally has achieved high levels (over 30%) of value-added.

Manufacturing has now fallen very far from favor in China. Partly it’s the familiar China macro story of slowing export growth and margin pressures from rising labor costs and other inputs. But, another factor is at work: China’s own stock market, as well as those of the US and Hong Kong, have developed a finicky appetite when it comes to Chinese companies. In the US, only e-commerce and other internet-related companies need apply for an IPO. In Hong Kong, the door is open more widely and the bias against manufacturing companies isn’t quite so pronounced, especially if the company is state-owned. But, among private sector companies, the biggest China-company IPO have been concentrated in financial services, real estate, food production, retail.

For China-investing PE firms, this means in most cases their portfolios are mismatched with what capital markets want. They hold stakes in thousands of Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies representing a total investment of over $20 billion in LP money.  For now, the money is trapped and time is growing short. PE fund life, of course, is finite. Many of these investments were made five to eight years ago. China PE need rather urgently to find a way to turn these investments into cash and return money to LPs. Here too the comparison with US private equity is especially instructive.

The colossus that is today’s US private equity industry, with 3,300 firms invested in 11,000 US companies, was built in part by doing successful buyouts in the 1980s and 1990s of manufacturing and industrial companies, often troubled ones. Deals like Blackstone‘s most successful investment of all time, chemicals company Celanese, together with American Axle and TRW Automotive, KKR‘s Amphenol Corporation, Bain‘s takeover of  Sealy Corporation and many, many others led the way. Meanwhile, smart corporate investors like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Emerson Electric and were also pouring billions into acquiring and shaping up industrial businesses. So successful has this strategy been over the last 30 years, it can seem like there are no decent industrial or manufacturing companies left for US PEs to target.

Along the way, US PEs became experts at selecting, acquiring, fixing up and then exiting from industrial companies. US PEs have shown again and again they are good at rationalizing, consolidating, modernizing and systematizing industrial companies and entire industrial sectors. These are all things China’s manufacturing industry is crying out for. Market shares are fragmented, management systems often non-existent, inventory control and other tools of “lean manufacturing” often nowhere to be found.

So here’s a pathway forward for China PE, to use in China the identical investing skills honed in the US. It should be rather easy, since among the US’s 100 biggest private equity firms, the majority have sizeable operations now in China, including giants like Carlyle, Blackstone, KKR, TPG, Bain Capital, Warburg Pincus. For these firms, it should be no more complicated than the left hand following what the right hand is doing.

It isn’t working out that way. This is a big reason why China PE is performing poorly compared to the US. PE partners in China in the main came into the industry after getting an MBA in the US or UK, then getting a job on Wall Street or a consulting shop. Few have experience working in,  managing or restructuring industrial companies. They often, in my experience, look a little out of place walking a factory floor. This is the other big mismatch in China PE — between the skill-sets of those running the PE firms what’s needed to turn their portfolio companies into winners.

Roll-up, about the most basic and time-tested of all US PE money-making strategies, has yet to take root in China. Inhospitable terrain? No, to the contrary. But, it requires a fair bit of sweat and grit from PE firms.

This may account for the fact that China PE firms are now mainly herding together to try to close deals in e-commerce, healthcare services, mobile games and other places where no metal gets bashed. PE firms formed such a crush to try to invest in Xiaomi, the mobile phone brand, that they drove the valuation up in the latest round of funding to $46 billion, so high none of them decided to invest. China PE is that paradoxical – fewer deals are getting done, fewer have profitable exits and yet valuations are often much higher than anywhere else.

Another worrying sign: of the big successful China company IPOs in 2014 – Alibaba, Dalian Wanda‘s commercial real estate arm, CGN, CITIC Securities, Shaanxi Coal, JD.com, WH Group  – only one had large global PE firms inside as large shareholders. That was WH Group, a troubled deal that had a hard time IPOing and has since sunk rather sharply. For the big global PE firms, 2014 had no big China IPO successes, which is probably a first.

The giant US PEs (Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, Bain Capital, TPG and the others) all voyaged to China a decade or more ago with high hopes. Some even dared predict China would become as important and profitable a market for them as the US. They were able to raise billions at the start, build big teams, but it’s been getting noticeably harder both to raise money and notch big successful deals. And so their focus is shifting back to the US.

China has so much going for it as an investment destination, such an abundance of what the US lacks. High overall growth, a government rolling in cash, a burgeoning and rapidly prospering middle class, rampant entrepreneurship, huge new markets ripe for taking. Why then are so many of the world’s most professional and successful investors finding it so tough to make a buck here?

 

China’s Caijing Magazine on America’s All-Conquering Dumpling Maker

January 16th, 2015 1 comment

caijing

Caijing Magazine

 

The secret is out. Chinese now know, in far greater numbers than before, that the favorite brand of the favorite staple food of hundreds of millions of them is made by a huge American company, General Mills, best known for sugar-coated cereals served to American children. (See my earlier article here.) In the current issue of China’s weekly business magazine Caijing is my Chinese-language article blowing the cover off the well-hidden fact that China’s tastiest and most popular brand of frozen dumplings, known in Chinese as 湾仔码头, “Wanzai Matou”, is made by the same guys who make Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms in the US.

You can read a copy of my Caijing article by clicking here.

Getting these facts in print was not simple. I’ve been an online columnist for Caijing for years. When I sent the manuscript the magazine’s editor, he did the journalistic version of a double take, refusing to believe at first that this dumpling brand he knows well is actually owned and run by a non-Chinese company, and a huge American conglomerate to boot. He asked many questions and apparently did his own digging around to confirm the truth of what I was claiming.

He asked me to reveal to him and Caijing’s readers the secret techniques General Mills has used to conquer the Chinese market. That further complicated things. It wasn’t, I explained,  by selling stuff cheap, since Wanzai Matou sells in supermarkets for about double the price of pure domestic brands. Nor was it because they used the same kind of saturation television advertising P&G has pioneered in China to promote sales of its market-leading products Head & Shoulders and Tide. General Mills spends little on media advertising in China, relying instead on word of mouth and an efficient supply chain.

My explanation, such as it is, was that the Americans were either brave or crazy enough, beginning fifteen years ago, to believe Chinese would (a) start buying frozen food in supermarkets, and (b) when they did, they’d be willing to pay more for it than fresh-made stuff. Wanzai Matou costs more per dumpling than buying the hand-made ones available at the small dumpling restaurants that are so numerous in China just about everyone living in a city or reasonably-sized town is within a ten-minute walk of several.

In my case, I’ve got at least twenty places within that radius. I flat-out love Chinese dumplings. With only a small degree of exaggeration I tell people here that the chance to eat dumplings every day, three times a day, was a prime reason behind my move to China. For my money, and more important for that of many tens of millions of Chinese, the Wanzai Matou ones just taste better.

The article, though, does explain the complexities of building and managing a frozen “cold chain” in China. General Mills had more reason to master this than any company, domestic or foreign. That’s because along with Wanzai Matou they have a second frozen blockbuster in China: Häagen-Dazs ice cream, sold both in supermarkets and stand-alone Häagen-Dazs ice cream shops. Either way, it’s out of my price range, at something like $5 for a few thimblefuls, but lots of Chinese seem to love it. Both Wanzai Matou and Häagen-Dazs China are big enough and fast-growing enough to begin to have an impact on General Mills’ overall performance, $18 billion in revenues and $1.8bn in profits in 2014.

For whatever reason, General Mills doesn’t like to draw attention to its two stellar businesses in China. The annual report barely mentions China. This is in contrast to their Minnesota neighbor 3M which will tell anyone who’s listening including on Wall Street that it’s future is all about further expanding in China. But, the fundamentals of General Mills’ business in China look as strong, or stronger, than any other large American company operating here.

The title of my Caijing article is “外来的厨子会做饺子” which translates as “Foreign cooks can make dumplings”. It expresses the surprise I’ve encountered at every turn here whenever I mention to people here that China’s most popular dumpling company is from my homeland not theirs.

 

General’s Mills’ Stunning Success in China

December 16th, 2014 3 comments

Wanzai Matou 湾仔码头

America’s most successful M&A deal in China is also possibly its most clandestine. The reason: an old-line Midwestern Fortune 500 company around since 1856 owns a company that is the dominant brand-name supplier in China of a vital Chinese national asset. No, it’s not missile fuel or encrypted handsets for battlefield command-and-control. It’s dumplings.

America’s General Mills, the iconic maker of US breakfast cereals Lucky Charms and Cheerios as well as Häagen-Dazs ice cream, owns a similarly iconic brand in China – Wanzai Matou (湾仔码头), or Wanchai Ferry, as it’s known in English. It is China’s major premium-priced and premium-quality supplier of frozen dumplings. Since acquiring the business thirteen years ago, it’s become a large and especially fast-growing business for General Mills, with China revenues of at least $300mn. Better still, the margins are probably a lot higher than Cheerios and just about any other product General Mills sells worldwide. The Wanzai Matou dumplings sell in China for equivalent of about $3.50 a pound. You can buy fresh hand-made ones just about everywhere in China for quite a bit less. But, people flock to the General Mills product, because it’s considered both tastier and healthier.

Dumplings are a central aspect of Chinese life and culture, a more potent part of national identity and the national diet than the Thanksgiving turkey, Big Mac, beef hotdog or apple pie are to us Americans. Dumplings (whether boiled, steamed or pan-fried) have been a daily staple of the Chinese diet, as far as anyone can judge, for about 1,800 years. They’re eaten here at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dumplings are also the mainstay for many Chinese at the most important meal of the year, the one that rings in the Chinese New Year. Dumplings symbolize a prosperous year to come.

For all the many global corporates still edgy about investing in or acquiring businesses in China, General Mills is prime evidence that inbound cross-border M&A can work in China. This one deal combines four aspects often thought to be unattainable in China deal-making: a large US company buys a smaller local Chinese brand, builds it into a national leader while piling up big profits. It is, hands down,  my favorite case study of how to do M&A right in China.

Not that General Mills is eager for the world to know. It doesn’t talk about its booming China business in its annual report. Packages of Wanzai Matou sold in China don’t include the General Mills name or famous blue logo.

While everyone knows about KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks big success in China, they are actually doing something much easier: introducing and selling exotica, American products to Chinese with a whim to try something from afar. General Mills is making money in China the hard way. Not only do they make the most popular brand of frozen dumplings in China (estimated market share of about 50%) , they also had to convert a large number of Chinese to buy in a supermarket a frozen version of a product only available previously fresh, hand-made.

As General Mills foresaw, making dumplings at home, once a daily chore,  has become something fewer and fewer Chinese have the time routinely to do. Done properly, it can take even experienced hands two hours or longer.

General Mills got control of Wanzai Matou in 2001 when it acquired US rival Pillsbury from British company Diageo. Pillsbury had bought majority stake in Wanzai Matou in 1997, when it was a rather tiny Hong Kong company with very limited presence in the PRC. Today, the freezer section of most larger big city supermarkets in China is stocked to bursting with different flavors and fillings of Wanzai Matou dumplings, along with Wanzai Matou frozen wontons and stuffed buns.

General Mills buys some tv advertising, but mainly the success here in China was earned by word-of-mouth. I’ve been a customer for as long as I’ve been living in China. Take it from me. There is no tastier frozen food sold anywhere than the boiled Wanzai Matou pork-and-corn dumplings (see package above).

Pillsbury made a vital strategic move in the early years after buying control of the Hong Kong Wanzai Matou. It was also an atypical one for big corporate buyers. They decided to keep Wanzai Matou founder, Kin Wo Chong, involved. Her photo is still prominently-featured on every package, in much the same way as Betty Crocker used to be pictured on every box of brownie mix made by that General Mills brand.

Betty Crocker is pure fiction, a made-up name for a made-up housewife. Ms. Chong is very much a genuine entrepreneur, a Hong Kong immigrant from dumpling-loving Shandong province. She started her professional life in 1977 selling dumplings from a push cart in a not-too-tony part of Hong Kong.

Keeping Ms. Chong involved, as both a senior executive and minority shareholder, has evidently worked well for both sides. General Mills gets all the benefits of her extensive knowledge of how to make tasty dumplings. She gets a deep-pocketed partner with the skills and resources required to make her small company into a Chinese household name.

This sort of arrangement is rare in the M&A world outside China. Generally, the buyer gives the current owner a two-to-three year earn-out period and then is sent packing. That’s the way MBA textbooks recommend M&A deals get done. The thinking is founders, once they’ve put a large chunk of cash in their pockets, are distracted, demotivated and anyway not amenable to taking orders on how to run their business from a large, often bureaucratic global corporation.

But, in China, the most successful M&A deals we know of all tend to have this same structure, that the founding entrepreneur stays on, stays active, long after the earn-out period expires. By contrast, the list of failures is long where an acquirer gets control of an entrepreneur-founded Chinese company, shows the owner the door and then tries to run it on its own.

General Mills also did add something Ms. Chong never would have managed to do on her own. It started up a frozen stir-fry-it-yourself business for the US market, under the Wanchai Ferry brand. In its first year, it had revenues in the US of over $50 million. Impressive.

As anyone living here can attest, when it comes to food, Chinese are every bit as jingoistic as the French or Italians. It would shock many of them to think Americans can produce dumplings better and more profitably than any domestic competitor. But, even if General Mills is outed, and more Chinese come to know who’s behind Wanzai Matou, I’m confident they will go on buying dumplings made for them by the company from Golden Valley, Minnesota. “Eating”, as the Chinese saying aptly has it, “is more important than the Emperor”. “吃饭皇帝“.

Nanjing: A Special Kind of Chinese Boomtown

November 18th, 2014 No comments

Nanjing City Investment Promotion Consultant

In 1981, when I first arrived in Nanjing as a student,  the ancient and rather sleepy city had a population of four million and a GDP of Rmb 4 billion. Today, the population has doubled to eight million and GDP is two hundred times larger. Yes, you read that right. This year’s GDP will exceed Rmb 850bn. Even by recent Chinese standards, that kind of growth rate for a major city is just about unheard of. Since 1981, Nanjing’s GDP has grown almost twice as fast as China as a whole. It is now richer in per capita terms than Beijing, and its economy continues to expand more quickly than the capital, Shanghai and just about every other major city in the country.

I was back in Nanjing in the last week to visit friends and clients, as well as receive from the Nanjing city government an official appointment as an “investment promotion consultant”. That’s me in the photo above celebrating with Mr. Kong Qiuyun, the cultured an charismatic director-general of Nanjing Municipal Investment Promotion Commission. It’s an especially welcome honor since I consider Nanjing, all these years later, my hometown in China, my  “laojia”. Every return is a homecoming.

With or without the official status, saying good things about Nanjing comes easily. It’s a special kind of boomtown. Despite the steep economic ascent over the last 33 years, today’s Nanjing is visibly woven from strands of its 2,500 year-old history as a city at the core of Chinese civilization. Old parks, streets and buildings stand. Though stained by tragedy – including the Nanjing Massacre in 1937 and bloody civil war at the end of the Taiping Rebellion civil war 73 years earlier — Nanjing is a city with a lightness of spirit and an intimate association with Chinese traditional culture of painting, calligraphy, poetry.

There is an ease, prosperity and comfort to life in Nanjing that is largely absent in Beijing. One is built upon the parched steppes below the Gobi Desert. Camel country. The other is set amid China’s most fertile, well-irrigated patch of bottomland –a kind of Chinese Eden, saturated by rivers, lakes, ponds and paddies, where just about everything can be grown or reared in abundance. The city is a symbiosis of man and duck. In a typical year, the people of Nanjing will consume over one hundred million of them. Every trip, including this most recent one, I return to Shenzhen with a suitcase padded out with three or four salt-preserved Osmanthus-scented ducks. Each trip back to the US I carry several with me and deliver them to my father in Florida. Somehow, age 82, he has developed a fine appreciation for them.

Nanjing took awhile to get its economic act together. During much of the 1980s, it was a backwater, trailing far behind the nearby cities of Shanghai and Suzhou as well as the coastal cities of Guangdong and Fujian. Earlier it had a reputation for being not very well-managed. Today the opposite is true.

Nanjing is the most ideally-situated large city in China. It is at the back door of China’s richest, most developed region, the Yangtze River Delta, stretching from Shanghai through Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou. It is also now the front door for China’s huge market of the future, the inland regions where growth is now strongest, particularly the provinces of Hubei, Sichuan, Chongqing, Anhui farther up the Yangtze.

Nanjing’s is a large economy but without especially large and dominant companies. Few even in China can name its largest businesses or employers. This sets it apart from Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Tianjin. Credit Nanjing government’s hands-on far-sighted economic management. It’s made up for the lack of large businesses by encouraging the growth of smaller mainly private-sector entrepreneurial businesses, as well as bringing in investment from abroad. Sharp, BASF, A.O. Smith, ThyssenKrupp are among the larger foreign companies with significant investment in Nanjing.

Major American investors are still comparatively few. This needs correcting. I hope to help in my new role as a consultant. Americans in the first half of the 20th century played a conspicuously positive role in Nanjing’s development. US academics and missionaries helped establish the city’s two oldest universities, Nanjing University (where I studied) and Nanjing Normal University. They remain the rock-solid backbones of Nanjing’s outstanding university system with over 25 institutions of higher learning.

An American team of architects and urban designers were responsible for creating the layout of much of the modern city of Nanjing, including the city’s main shopping district of Xinjiekou. The city was designed to combine elements of Paris and Washington D.C., with wide boulevards, stately traffic roundabouts like the Place de l’Etoile, and an elegant diplomatic quarter with large mansions spread along arching plane tree-shaded streets.

During the pre-1949 era, American companies were the most prominent and successful businesses in Nanjing. Two in particular – Socony (then the world’s leading petroleum company, a part of the Rockefeller Standard Oil group, and now ExxonMobil.) and British American Tobacco – managed large operations in China from their headquarters in Nanjing. They were then among the largest companies in China of any kind. They left in 1949 never to return to Nanjing and their previous prominence.

An individual American, a long-term resident of Nanjing, wrote while there the most popular and influential book about China in English. It was then made into a successful film which etched in the minds of many Westerners the enduring image of China’s Confucian values and pre-revolution rural poverty. Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” was for years a best-seller and played an influential role in winning her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. *

To my thinking, America has an unfulfilled destiny in Nanjing. It’s a smart place for smart capital to locate. In modernizing, it has kept its soul intact.

* For sharing his rich and consummate knowledge of America’s multi-facetted engagement with  Nanjing in the first half of the 20th century, I’m indebted to John Pomfret. John’s book “Chinese Lessons”, about his years as a student at Nanjing University and the lives thereafter of his Chinese classmates, is as good as anything published about China’s remarkable transformation these last thirty years. You can read more about the book, and about John, by visiting http://www.johnpomfret.org/

 

Alibaba grabs the IPO money but the future belongs to Jeff Bezos and Amazon China

September 10th, 2014 5 comments

Amazon China & Alibaba

Alibaba Group should next week collect the big money from its NYSE IPO. But, Seattle’s Amazon owns the future of China’s $400 billion online shopping industry. Amazon’s China business is better in just about every crucial respect: customer service, delivery, product quality even price when compared to Alibaba’s towering Taobao business. Hand it to Jeff Bezos. While few have been watching, he is building in China what looks to me to be a better, more long-term sustainable business than Alibaba’s Jack Ma.

Amazon’s China business fits a familiar pattern. The company is often mocked for keeping too much secret, investing too much and earning too little. In China, far away from the Wall Street spotlight, Amazon has invested hugely, with a long-term aim perhaps to overtake Alibaba and become a dominant online retailer in the country. But, it has zero interest in letting its shareholders, competitors, or the world at large know what it’s doing in China. Open the company’s most recent SEC 10-K filing and there are three passing mentions of China, and nothing about the size of its business there, the strategy.

Amazon shareholders may well wake up one day and suddenly find Bezos has built for them one of the most valuable online businesses in the world’s largest e-commerce market, the only one not owned and managed by a Chinese corporation. No rickety and risky VIE structure, unlike Alibaba and virtually all the other Chinese online companies quoted in the US.  (Read damning report by US Congress investigators on these Chinese VIE companies here. )

Jeff Bezos has been in the online shopping business from its genesis, in 1994. He first got serious in China ten years later, by buying a small online shopping business called Joyo in 2004. Taobao was founded by Jack Ma a year earlier. Within three years Taobao had demolished eBay’s then-lucrative China online auction business, by making it free for sellers to list their products on Taobao. Buyers and sellers both pay Taobao zero commission. It earns most of its money from advertising. EBay China closed its doors in 2006. Since then, Alibaba has grown from about $170mn in revenues to over $6 billion in 2013. Approximately three out of every four dollars spent online shopping in China goes through Alibaba’s hands. Overall, online shopping transaction value is on track to exceed $1 trillion by the end of this decade.

online shopping China

The champagne and baijiu will flow at Alibaba next week. Meantime, Bezos will continue executing on his plan, begun in earnest around 2012, to first gain on Taobao, and one day outduel it in China. How? To buy from Amazon China is to see Bezos’s mind at work. He has clearly assessed Taobao’s pivotal weaknesses, and is targeting them with precision.

Taobao has done phenomenally well. But, it is much the same business today as a decade ago. It is mainly a raucous collection of individual sellers where counterfeit, used-sold-as-new or substandard goods are rife. Everything is ad hoc. Sellers can appear and disappear overnight. They charge whatever they like to ship you your merchandise. Try to return things and it can be anything from complicated to impossible. Most payments are processed by Alipay, a business with similar ownership to Alibaba, but not fully consolidated as part of the IPO. Alipay tries to act like an impartial escrow service between Chinese buyers and sellers who too often seem to be out to try to cheat one another.

Taobao is a product of its time, a China where getting stuff cheap, of whatever origin, authenticity and quality, was paramount. It’s also been a great way to create an army of small entrepreneurs in China, eight million in total, with their own shops selling merchandise to over 200 million different individual customers on Taobao. But, Chinese are much richer and more discriminating today than ten years ago. They are getting richer by the day. The larger trends all point in Amazon’s favor.

Here’s why. When you buy things on Amazon China, you mainly purchase direct from Amazon, not from individual sellers. As in the US, Amazon China sells a full range of merchandise not just books. While it has far fewer items for sale than Taobao, it does many things that Taobao cannot. First, it has its own nationwide delivery service. Where I am in Shenzhen, I get delivery the next morning from a guy in an Amazon shirt with his electric motorcycle parked on the sidewalk in front of my building. You can either pay online by credit card, or pay the delivery guy in cash, COD. Delivery is free and reliable. Parcels are professionally packaged in Amazon boxes and generally arrive in mint condition. It’s a limousine service compared to Taobao.

Stuff ordered on Taobao can take days to arrive, and is sent using any of a group of different independently-owned parcel delivery companies. They don’t accept returns, or cash, and often in my experience as a Taobao customer for the last five years the parcels arrive pretty badly roughed up. The Taobao sellers do their own packaging, sometimes good and sometimes no, usually with boxes rescued from the trash, then call whichever parcel company offers them the cheapest rate. The seller usually takes a mark-up since delivery on Taobao is generally not included.

Amazon China is putting its brand and reputation behind everything it sells. This provides a quality guarantee that no individual seller on Taobao can match. I’ve also found over the course of the last year that prices for similar items are often now cheaper on Amazon than on Taobao. How so? For one thing, unlike the Taobao army, Amazon can use its buying power to extract lower prices and better payment terms from its suppliers. Taobao has a subsidiary business called TMall, where major brands directly sell their products. Here at least there should be no worries about the quality and authenticity of what’s being sold. But since each brand manages its own store on TMall, the prices are often higher than on Amazon China. Delivery is also less efficient, in my experience.

What does Taobao still do better than Amazon China? Its website seems a bit easier for Chinese to navigate than Amazon China’s, which looks and acts a lot like the main Amazon website designed and managed in Seattle.

As Bezos’s shareholders know well and occasionally grumble about, he loves spending money on warehouses, shipping technology and other expensive infrastructure. The China business is a marvel of its kind, a kind of “Bezosian” tour de force. The scale and complexity of what Amazon China are doing is formidable. Bezos started and prospered originally with a no inventory business model, letting outside wholesalers hold and so finance the inventory of books he was selling online.

In China, Amazon must stock huge inventories to get products delivered to customers overnight. Where these facilities are and how much Amazon has spent is beyond knowing. Anything I buy on Amazon China — most recently three books, an electronic garlic-mincer and some ceramic carving knives — is delivered to me next day, within about 15 hours of when I ordered it. In a country China’s size, where moving things around long-distance by truck as UPS and Fedex do in the US is difficult and expensive, Amazon has apparently invested in a large nationwide distributed network of warehouses to hold all this inventory. Whether these are owned by Amazon or third parties is also not disclosed. But, it all works smoothly. I get what I order quickly and efficiently, direct from Amazon’s own liveried delivery team, at prices Taobao can’t match.

Every delivered package drives home the message how much faster, cheaper and more reliable Amazon China is compared to Taobao. Try us once, Bezos seems to be saying here in China, and you’ll try us again.

Amazon China delivery guyCan Amazon China be making any money here? My guess is No, that the current operation in China is a big money sink. How big? China’s other big online shopping business, JD.com, which went public earlier this year and has a business model more like Amazon China than Alibaba’s, is losing money every quarter. (Nonetheless, it has a current market cap of $40bn.)

Alibaba, by contrast, is making money hand-over-fist, Rmb8 billion ($1.3bn) in net income the last quarter of 2013. To get noticed, those eight million individual Taobao sellers, as well as TMall brands, need to pay more and more to Taobao for ads and preferential placement.

Longer term, though, the Taobao ad-supported model looks ill-adapted to where China is headed. Traditional store retailers in China are getting slaughtered by online competitors. Among those online players, it seems likely business will shift to those that can guarantee quality, authenticity, easy product returns and efficient next-day-delivery. That describes Amazon.

One reason it’s crazy to bet against Bezos is he has shown no compunction about using shareholder money to build a business that can only start to make real money in ten maybe fifteen years. Jack Ma has no such luxury, especially now that Alibaba will be quoted on the NYSE. Alibaba is not likely to attract the kind of patient shareholders drawn to Amazon.

This is perhaps one reason why Ma has been out spending a huge pile of Alibaba money buying into all kinds of businesses to tack onto Alibaba. These include US car service Lyft, messaging business Tango, and all sorts of domestic Chinese businesses, including a big slice of China’s Twitter, Weibo, the digital mapping company AutoNavi,  16.5% of China’s YouTube knockoff, NYSE-quoted Youku and a Hong Kong-quoted film studio that seems to have been cooking its books. He also bought control of a professional soccer team in China, hoping to upgrade the much-maligned image of the domestic game. Add it up and it looks like even Ma isn’t fully convinced Taobao will be able to keep spinning money for years to come.

His most successful recent venture begun last year is an online money management business called Yuebao that pays Chinese savers about 4% on deposits, compared to the less than 0.5% offered by local Chinese banks. As of early September, it had Rmb574 billion, nearly $100 billion, under management. This business is not included in the Alibaba entity going public in New York. That points up another worrying aspect of Jack Ma’s business style. He has shown a proclivity to put some of the more valuable assets into vehicles that only he, rather than the shareholder-owned company, controls. Yahoo! and Japan’s SoftBank have some bitter direct experience with this.

How far can Bezos go in China? After all, he doesn’t speak Chinese and doesn’t seem to visit China all that often. Can a kid from a Miami high school really build a better China business than scrappy Hangzhou-native Jack Ma? One pointer is that the most successful traditional retailers are now mainly foreign-owned and managed. Domestic retailers couldn’t adapt to this new era of rampant low-price online competition. But, Zara, H&M and Sephora are all thriving here. They, too, focused on details often overlooked here, like good customer service, no-questions-asked return policy, competitive prices and great merchandising.

Alibaba’s market cap next week, after its biggest-of-all-time IPO, may temporarily overtake Amazon’s, at $160 billion. But, make no mistake, Amazon will likely prove the more valuable business over time, both in China and globally.

 

Investment in China PIPEs grows on Alibaba’s coattails — The Deal

September 9th, 2014 No comments

deal

 

Investment in China PIPEs grows on Alibaba’s coattails

By Bill Meagher    Updated 07:45 PM, Sep-09-2014 ET

 

Fueled by the anticipated initial public offering of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., a renewed wave of investor interest has swept into U.S.-registered Chinese companies.

Such companies have raised $4.43 billion in 35 private-investment-in-public-equity transactions this year, compared to $276.8 million in 13 PIPEs last year, according to PrivateRaise, The Deal’s data service that tracks the PIPE market. Those figures exclude transactions that raised less than $1 million.

“Everything ultimately comes back to Alibaba,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China First Capital, an investment bank in Shenzhen, China.

Alibaba’s imminent IPO has increased investor awareness that all things related to Internet shopping in China could be a “money-spinner,” Fuhrman said in an e-mail.

“Pretty much all the China IPOs in US this past 12 months have been internet-related. Now comes the Daddy of them all,” he wrote. “This perception of a boom of titanic proportions in online shopping in China is well-founded. The challenge for US investors is whether the companies that have gone public, with exception of Alibaba and to a lesser extent Jingdong will be able to scale up and make real money over time in China.”

To read complete article, click here.

 

Going for broke: the PE world’s big risky bet on China’s internet and mobile industries

June 18th, 2014 No comments

China fortune-teller

The World Cup has begun. Along with being the globe’s most watched event it is also certainly the most gambled upon. Thirty-two teams, sixty-four matches to determine the winner on July 13th in Rio de Janiero. To choose the winner, you want to look at the individuals, the team management, the history of past success, the competition. In other words, it’s a lot like the process a private equity or venture capital firm uses to choose which companies to invest in.

It would be ill-advised, if not borderline crazy, to bet one’s life savings on the USA team to win the World Cup this year. Coral, the big British bookmaker itself owned by three PE firms, is offering odds of four hundred to one.

While no one is offering odds or a betting pool, the current mania among PE firms in China for investing in loss-making internet and mobile services businesses looks like an even wilder bet. Herd behavior is a familiar enough phenomenon across the PE and VC world. But, the situation in China has reached almost comical proportions. At the moment, there is little, if any, PE money going to large, profitable, mature, comparatively “de-risked” manufacturing companies. Instead, almost all the publicly-announced deals are investments in a variety of mainly online shopping sites or mobile-phone travel, game and taxi-booking services, none of which has a true technological barrier to entry, and all of which seem to hinge mainly on the same prayed-for low-probability outcome: a purchase down the road by China’s two internet leviathans, Tencent or Alibaba.

A US IPO is also at least theoretically possible. This year has already seen successful IPOs for Chinese internet and mobile companies, including Zhaopin, Cheetah Mobile, Qihoo 360, Leju, Chukong Technologies, Sina Weibo, Tuniu. But, deals being done now are for smaller, newer less well-established China companies that mainly face a steep failure-filled mountain climb of at least two to three years to even reach a point at which an IPO in New York might even be possible.

It is true that China’s online shopping and services industry is booming. Problem is, almost all the money is being earned by these same two large firms. In online shopping, 80% goes to Alibaba. In online gaming, a far smaller money-maker, Tencent is about as dominant. Both have done a few deals in the last year, buying out or investing alongside PE firms in smaller Chinese companies which have gained some traction. At the same time a few Chinese internet companies have gone public in the US and Hong Kong. But, the overall environment is much less positive. There are far too many “me too” businesses with business models copy-catted from the US pouring out PE and VC cash to buy customers or a thin allotment of a 20 year-old Chinese male’s online gaming budget.

China is the world’s best mass manufacturer with the world’s largest, or second-largest, domestic market in just about every imaginable category. Simply put: there are so many better, less risky, more defended Chinese companies out there than the ones now getting most of the PE and VC time and money.

My bet is that Tencent and Alibaba will also soon lose their appetite for buying smaller Chinese internet players. They are at a similar phase as companies like Amazon, Google, eBay, Cisco, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, IAC/InterActiveCorp, once were. These giants at one time bought small US internet companies by the bucket-load. But, most have either quit or cut back doing so. The businesses usually fail to prosper, are non-core, and prove hard to integrate. Minority deals usually turn out worse. Corporate investors make bad VCs.

In other key respects, there is every difference in the world between the US VC scene and this current activity in China. The US has far more trade buyers for successful VC-backed companies, far more genuine innovation, far more success stories, far less monopolistic internet and mobile industries, and a far richer “early adaptor” market to tap. You don’t need to look back very far to see where this kind of investing activity can lead. It’s only a little more than two years since PE firms poured hundreds of millions of Renminbi into Chinese group shopping sites modeled to some extent on US Groupon. Almost all these companies are now out of business or losing serious money. Chinese like group-buying. They just don’t let any company make any money from offering such a service.

Scan through the last three weekly summaries of new PE and VC deals in China, as digested by Asia Private Equity in Hong Kong. Virtually all involve deals to invest in online and mobile services. (Click here to look at the list of these deals.)

I talk or meet with PE partners on a regular basis. I can recall only a single discussion, over the last six months, where the PE firm’s primary focus was not on these kind of deals. This lonesome PE is the captive fund of one of China’s largest state-owned automobile groups. At this stage, about as differentiated as Chinese PE investment gets is whether the money should go into one of the many online sites for takeaway meals or one of the even larger number selling cosmetics.

China PE is slowly emerging from a prolonged period of inactivity and crisis, the result of both a slowdown in IPO activity and PE portfolios bloated with unexited deals. It’s good to see some sign of animal spirits again, that some PE firms at least are looking to do deals. But at least up to now, it looks like some bad old habits are being repeated: too many PE firms enslaved to the same investment thesis, chasing the same few companies, bidding up their valuations, inadequate diversification by industry or stage.

In the US, in most VC-backed companies, one of the busiest members of senior management is the head of business development. This job is often to find strategic partnerships, barter and co-bundling deals to generate more growth at less expense. This kind of thing is much rarer in China. Instead, for most, the primary method of customer acquisition is to spend a lot of money on Baidu advertising.

Baidu is far more accommodating than Google. It’s the dirty, not-so-well-kept secret of China’s internet industry. Baidu, which handles over 60% of all Chinese search requests, lets advertisers buy placement on the first page of what are called  “organic search results”. There is basically no such thing in China as “most relevant” search results. The only search algorithm is: “who has paid us the most”. It’s one reason Google’s pullback from the China market is so damaging overall for the Chinese internet.

The “pay to play” rules in China’s internet leads to companies taking lots of expensive short cuts, often using PE and VC firm cash. There’s more than a little here to remind me of the Internet Bubble years in the US. I ended up running a VC firm in California right after the bubble burst. I still shake my head at some of the deals this VC firm invested in before I got there, when, as is now in China, pouring lots of LP money in any kind of dot.com or shopping site was seen as prudent fiduciary investing. Things turned out otherwise. They turned out messy. They will too with this PE infatuation with online and mobile anything in China. A bet on the USA to win the World Cup offers more attractive odds and upside.

 

Alibaba files for IPO in US — China Daily article

May 8th, 2014 No comments

China Daily

 

 

Updated: 2014-05-07 06:56

By MICHAEL BARRIS in New York (chinadaily.com.cn)

Alibaba files for IPO in US

Alibaba Chairman and Non-executive Director Jack Ma participates in a teleconference in Hong Kong in this October 22, 2007 file photo, one day before its initial public offering in the territory. [Photo/Agencies]

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding officially filed on Tuesday to go public in the US in what could be the largest initial public offering ever.

A regulatory filing gave a $1 billion placeholder value for the offering, but the actual amount is expected to be far higher, possibly exceeding $20 billion and topping not only Facebook’s $16 billion 2012 listing, but Agricultural Bank of China Ltd’s record $22.1 billion offering in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 2010.

Alibaba, founded by former English teacher Jack Ma in a Hangzhou apartment, and its bankers have been moving to throw their own shares behind the IPO, analysts have said.

In its filing Alibaba gave no date for the proposed IPO or whether it would be on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. It cited its advantageous placement in a nation in which e-commerce is fast becoming a way of life, as Chinese consumers turn to the Internet to buy innumerable items. But Alibaba’s prospectus cited statistics showing that the market hasn’t been fully tapped. Just 45.8 percent of China’s population used the Internet, while 49 percent of customers shopped online.

Often described as a combination of eBay and Amazon, Alibaba handled $240 billion of merchandise in 2013. With more than 7 million merchants, it has more than $2 billion in revenue and profit of more than $1 billion.

Alibaba’s sheer size could weigh on the stock price of US rival Amazon.com if the Chinese company’s shares are added to indexes and portfolios targeting e-commerce and related sectors, analysts said.

“Amazon simply doesn’t measure up to the size of Alibaba’s earnings and earnings growth rate,” analyst Robert Wagner wrote.

Shares aren’t expected to begin trading for several months, as the US Securities and Exchange Commission reviews Alibaba’s offering materials and the company promotes its prospects to institutional investors.

The offering managers are Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup.

Ma, who has described the challenge of providing what he calls personal business as “my religion”, is Alibaba’s biggest individual shareholder, with an 8.9 percent stake.

Alibaba’s announcement continues a flurry of IPO filings by Chinese technology companies. Internet security application developer Cheetah Mobile is expected to go public on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday and is expected to raise $153.75 million to $178.35 million. Three weeks ago, Weibo Corp, the Chinese micro blogging service owned by Sina Corp and Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd, raised $285.6 million in a Nasdaq IPO, while real-estate listings website Leju Holdings Ltd raised $100 million in an initial offering on the NYSE.

“The key question for China is how much new money, if any, Alibaba will raise in this US IPO,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of China First Capital, told China Daily.

“If all the cash goes to Japan’s Softbank and US’s Yahoo, then it’s hard to see how Alibaba, its customers and the hundreds of millions of Taobao-addicted Chinese consumers will benefit from the IPO.” US web-portal company Yahoo is a 24-percent Alibaba shareholder, while Japan’s Softbank has a 37-percent stake.

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2014-05/07/content_17490099.htm