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One of China’s Best State Enterprises Shows Need for Reform — Financial Times

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Financial Times article Peter Fuhrman

China’s ruling State Council last month released a much-anticipated plan meant to kick the country’s huge state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector into shape. No small amount of kicking is required. Not all but many of China’s 155,000 SOEs are inefficient and often loss-making. Where SOEs do make money, it’s usually because of markets and lending rules rigged by the government in their favor.

Finding a truly good SOE, one that can take on and outcompete private sector rivals in a fair fight is hard. Gong He Chun is one. Customers throng daily to buy its high-quality products, often forming long queues. The employees, unlike at so many SOEs in China, are helpful and enthusiastic and take evident pride in what they are doing. Though local private sector competitors number in their hundreds, Gong He Chun has them all beat.

Gong He Chun is a small restaurant chain, with just four shops in the ancient and Grand Canal city of Yangzhou, about 300km up the Yangtze river from Shanghai. It specializes in preparing and serving meticulously-prepared versions of dishes that have for over 1,000 years made Yangzhou synonymous with fine eating in China.

It’s a rather long and mouth-watering list, including crab and pork-stuffed xiaolongbao dumplings (below centre), potstickers (below right), steamed shrimp dumplings, shredded tofu and of course Yangzhou’s most famous culinary export, Yangzhou fried rice.

Gong Hechun

Gong He Chun was founded in 1933 as a private concern, but was then, like almost all other private businesses, expropriated in 1949. It’s been an SOE ever since, its shares owned by the Yangzhou government branch of SASAC, the government agency now responsible for holding shares and guiding the management of all SOEs. Gong He Chun somehow held on through the long dark years during Mao Zedong’s rule when most restaurants in China were shuttered, and investment in the SOE sector was directed toward Stalinist heavy industry – steel mills, coal mines, power plants, railroad rolling stock and the like.

Yangzhou, Yangzhou cuisine and places like Gong He Chun represented just about everything that Chairman Mao Zedong most detested. Since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the town has had a reputation for its mercantile traditions, beautiful women and traditional culture. To eradicate such bourgeois roots, Mao and his planners crammed the city in the 1950s and 1960s with ugly sooty chemical factories and smelters.

I remember first visiting Yangzhou in 1981 and being shocked by the sight of once-splendid Ming Dynasty temples and courtyard homes converted to makeshift factories and communal dwellings. In those days, finding anything to eat, even at the few hotels where foreigners were allowed to stay, was no simple matter. All food, including dumplings, was available only with ration coupons.

Things have improved over the last twenty-five years. One not-unimportant reason for this is that Jiang Zemin, who ran China from 1989-2002 is a native son of Yangzhou while his successor, Hu Jintao, was raised in the next door town of Taizhou. Jiang still visits Yangzhou at least once a year, usually during Qingming Festival when filial Chinese return to their home to sweep the graves of their ancestors. Yangzhou this year is celebrating with pomp the 2,500th anniversary of its founding.

Gong He Chun (see photo) still hews closely to the recipes and cooking methods perfected in the 1930s by the founder Wang Xuecheng. This means cutting thin soup noodles by hand, preparing the dumplin skins in such a way as to create tiny pores and air pockets that allow flavor to seep in.

Ever wonder exactly how a properly prepared potsticker should look?

At Gong He Chun, as all its many cooks are taught, they must fulfill Wang’s precise prescription: the overall outward appearance of a sparrow’s head, with its slender sides resembling a lotus leaf and its bottom fried to the color of a gold coin. If only the management and workers at China’s huge substandard SOE oil refineries took as much care, China’s polluted skies would surely improve.

While the quality of what comes out of the kitchen is world class, there are places where the dead hand of state ownership can be detected. The toilets are primitive, plastic plates and bowls are old and chipped, and the overall décor looks like a 1950s US high school lunchroom.

Though its brand-name and reputation are known nationally, Gong He Chun has no apparent intention to expand outside Yangzhou. The three-tiered system of SOE management in China, with ownership spread among national, provincial and local branches of SASAC, makes it both rare and difficult for any local SOE like Gong He Chun to expand outside its home base.

Meantime, a Taiwan company, Din Tai Fung, has taken Yangzhou cuisine, especially the crab xiaolongbao, and built a high-end chain of global renown, with Michelin-starred restaurants across East and Southeast Asia as well as the US, Australia and Dubai. Its China outlets sell dumplings at three times the price of Gong He Chun.

I’m lucky to know the China chairman of Din Tai Fung, and have spent time with him inside Din Tai Fung restaurants. Every detail is sweated over by the chairman, from the starched white tablecloths to the polish on the bamboo steamers to the precise number of times a xiaolongbao dumpling should be pinched closed. Gong He Chun’s state owners are utterly devoid of the drive, vision and hunger for profits and expansion that only a private proprietor can bring.

A newly-announced government policy on SOE restructuring has already come in for criticism in China. Xi Jinping and his State Council – once keen to expose SOEs to more market rigor and competition – have opted for a more “softly-softly” approach, with no specific targets for improving the woeful performance of many SOEs. One reason is that a fair chunk of China’s SOE system is in chaos, thanks to a more high-priority policy of the Xi government. Every week brings new reports about bosses and senior management at China’s largest SOEs being investigated or arrested for corruption.

If there was ever an economic rationale for a small chain of traditional dumpling shops to be owned by the state, no one seems able to recall it. What profit Gong He Chun makes is not being reinvested in this rare SOE jewel, but is used instead to prop up SOE losers in Yangzhou. As China’s new SOE reform policy now begins its tentative roll-out, it looks certain Gong He Chun will for years to come remain a rare bright spot in a blighted SOE landscape.

Peter Fuhrman is Chairman & CEO China First Capital. He has no business relationship with Gong He Chun.

 

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China’s SOEs attract PE interest — Private Equity International Magazine

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China’s state-owned enterprise promise big returns for PE investors, as well as a big challenge.

By: Clare Burrows


In 2013, private equity investment in China dropped to just $4.5 billion – about 47 percent below the equivalent figure for 2012, according to data from Thomson Reuters. Since China’s dry powder level was estimated at $59 billion at the end of 2012, it’s clear that China’s GPs need to find new ways to deploy the vast amounts of capital raised during better times.

What seems to be catching the industry’s eye more than ever are the country’s state-owned enterprises:large, government-controlled organisations, many of which are in dire need of restructuring. While state-owned enterprises account directly or indirectly for 60 percent of China’s GDP, according to research by China First Capital, almost 100 percent of institutional capital, especially private equity, has
been invested into China’s privately-owned sector.

However, as the number of traditional opportunities falls, “this may leave investing in SOEs as the best, largest and most promising new area for private equity investment,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive at China First Capital suggests.

And, some industry sources ask: what better target for private equity than these bloated, inefficient giants, which the newly-appointed Chinese government is apparently so keen to reform? SOEs are highly compliant when it comes to tax and accounting laws (a rare phenomenon among China’s privately-owned companies). Better still, they’re a bargain – because China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) regulates their price based on net asset value.

“If you have a highly profitable SOE that has very low net assets, you can potentially buy it at incredibly low P/E multiples,” Fuhrman says. With one deal China First is advising on, 51 percent of the business is being offered at 2x EBITDA, he adds. China First is currently acting as an investment banker for five of China’s largest SOEs, including China Aerospace, China State Construction, China Huadian, Wuliangye Group and Shandong Energy.

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SOE Reform in China — Big Changes On the Way

Qianlong emperor calligraphy

China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are a lucky breed, or so conventional wisdom would have it. They have lower cost of capital and less competitive pressures of private sector competitors. China’s big banks (also state-owned) are always happy to lend, and if things do turn sour, China’s government will bail everyone out.

The reality, however, is substantially different and substantially more challenging. SOEs live in a different world than they did ten, or even three years ago. They are more and more often under intensifying pressure to achieve two incompatible goals: to continue to expand revenues by 15%-25% a year, but to do so without corresponding large increases in net bank borrowing. The result, over time, will be that SOEs will need to rely increasingly on private sector capital to finance their future growth.

This message came through especially loud and clear in the policy document published by the Chinese leadership after the recent Third Party Plenum in November.  SOEs are told they need to become more attuned to the market and less dependent on government favors and protection. This new policy pronouncement is reverberating like a cannon blast inside the state-owned economy, based on conversations lately with the top people at our large Chinese SOE clients.

No one at these SOEs is entirely sure how to fulfill the orders from above. But, they are all certain, from long years of experience, that the environment SOEs operate in is going to undergo some significant change, likely the most significant since the “Great Cull” of the mid-1990s when thousands of SOEs were pushed into bankruptcy.Too many of the surviving SOEs have done little more than survive over the last twenty years. They managed to stay in the black, sometimes by resorting to rather idiosyncratic accounting that ignored depreciation.

The Chinese leadership is embarking on a tricky, somewhat contradictory, mission:  to simultaneously shake up the SOE sector, make it more efficient and responsive to market forces,  while keeping SOEs embedded in the foundation of China’s economy.  Much has changed about the way Chinese leaders view and manage SOEs. But, a key principle remains intact. The architect of the policy, Deng Xiaoping, put it this way, ” As long as we keep ourselves sober-minded, there is nothing to be feared. We still hold superiority, because we have large and medium state-owned enterprises.

In other words, SOE privatization is not on the menu, at least not in any large-scale way. SOEs, particularly the 126 so-called “centrally-administered SOEs” (央企)  will remain majority-owned by the government. The government is suggesting, however, it wants these SOEs, as well as the other 100,000 or so smaller ones active in most parts of the Chinese economy, to be run better and more profitably. But how? That’s the a topic of discussions I’ve been having over the last month with the bosses at our SOE clients.

The rate of return (as measured by return on assets) at SOEs has, in almost all cases, drifted down over the last ten years, and is now probably under 3% a year.  If bank borrowing and depreciation were more properly amortized, the rate of return would likely turn negative at quite a lot of SOEs.

In some cases, this reflects the cruel reality that many SOEs operate in low-margin highly-commoditized industries. But, another key factor is that the government body that acts as the owner of most SOEs, SASAC (国资委), is not your typical profit-maximizing shareholder.

SASAC manages the portfolio of SOE assets like the most risk-averse executor. It demands three things above all from SOEs: don’t lose money;  don’t pilfer state assets and keep revenues growing.

When your owner sets the bar a few inches off the ground, you don’t try to break the Olympic high jump record. No SOE manager ever got a bonus, as far as I’ve heard, from doubling profits, or improving cash flow. Pay-for-performance is basically taboo at SOEs. The whole SOE system, as it’s now configured, is designed to produce middling giants with tapering profits.

Rather than shake-up SASAC, the country’s leaders have given SOEs a green light to seek capital from outside sources, including private equity and strategic investors. They should provide, for the first time, a voice in the SOE boardroom calling for higher profits, higher margins, bigger dividends.

It’s a wise move. SOEs need to carry more of the load for China’s future gdp growth. You can’t do that when you are achieving such low return on assets. Among the SOEs we work with, there’s a genuine excitement about bringing in outside investment, and operating under a new, more strenuous regime. Surprised? The SOEs I know are run by professional managers who’ve spent much of their careers building the business and take pride in its scale and professionalism. They, too, see room for improvement and see the downsides of SASAC’s approach.

Outside capital can help these SOEs finance their future expansion.  It could also open new doors, especially in international markets. The big question: can — will — private equity, buyout firms, global strategic investors seek out investments in Chinese SOEs? It’s unfamiliar terrain.

Earlier this year, I arranged a series of meetings for twelve of the world’s-largest PE firms and institutional investors to meet a large SOE client of ours. These firms collectively have over $700 billion in capital, and each one has at least ten years’ experience in China. They are all keen on this particular deal. Yet, none of these firms have invested in any SOE deals over the last five years. For many of the visiting PEs, it was their first time ever meeting with the boss of a profitable and successful SOE to discuss investing.

In this case, it looks like a deal will get done, and so provide a blueprint for future PE investing in Chinese SOE.  The Chinese leadership ordered a shakeup to the state owned sector. It’s getting one.

 

Private Sector Capital for China’s SOEs — China First Capital Press Release

China First Capital press release

Hong Kong, Shenzhen, China:  China First Capital, an international investment bank and advisory firm focused on China, today announces it has received a pioneering mandate from a large Chinese State-Owned Enterprise (“SOE”) holding company to manage a process to revitalize and privatize part of the group by bringing in private capital.

“The investment environment for SOE deals in China is undergoing a significant and exciting change,” commented China First Capital chairman and founder Peter Fuhrman. “We are proud to play a role as investment bankers and advisors in this change, by working with some of China’s SOEs to complete restructuring of unquoted subsidiaries and then raise private sector capital to finance their future expansion. We see these SOE investment deals as the next significant opportunity for institutional investors eager to allocate more capital to China.”

By some estimates, China’s SOEs account for over 60% of total Chinese GDP. Yet, up to now, they have only rarely done private placements or spinoffs to access institutional investment, including from private equity firms. But, according to China First Capital’s internal research, an increasing number of China’s SOEs will face a funding gap in coming years. SOEs, in most cases, have ambitious expansion plans fully supported by the Chinese government. Yet, the SOEs are restricted in their ability to raise large amounts of new bank loans. They are under pressure from Chinese government to maintain or lower their debt-to-equity ratios.

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Neue Zurcher Zeitung Interview

 

China SOE Accounting — BAAP Not GAAP Applies

China SOE accounting

If the last two years of crisis in investing in Chinese companies proves anything, it’s that any Chinese company that pays more tax than it should, documents every transaction and practices the most forensic accounting methods is the one with the calmest, happiest investors. Such companies are very rare among the thousands invested in by private equity, and not very common among publicly-traded ones,  if professional short-sellers like Muddy Waters, as well as securities regulators in the US and Hong Kong are to be believed.

Chinese companies, especially private ones,  live under a cloud of suspicion their books are cooked, while their auditors turn a complicit blind eye. While that cloud hovers, it will remain impossible for Chinese private companies in large numbers to successfully sell their shares to the public through an IPO. Chinese companies already listed are not much better off. For many, their share prices remain seriously depressed because of investor doubts about the accuracy of the financial accounts.

For PE firms, it represents a very painful dilemma. To have any chance to IPO, their portfolio companies will often need to pay more tax. But, doing so makes the companies less profitable and so much less attractive to the capital markets. Pay first and pray for an IPO later is pretty much the current PE exit strategy in China.

What a refreshing change, therefore, it is to encounter the financial accounts of a Chinese state-owned enterprise (“SOE”). By Chinese standards, their accounts are often clean enough to eat off. SOEs often seem to take pride in paying as much tax as possible. Rather than hiding income, they seem to want to exaggerate it.

Why do SOEs operate this way? It could be argued that tax-paying is their form of national service. Most SOEs pay no dividends to the state, even though the state is the majority, indeed often the 100% owner. Or perhaps SOEs are trying to set a righteous, though generally ignored, example of dutiful tax compliance?

In fact, the heavy and perhaps over-scrupulous tax-paying can also be seen as the result of a system of diligent, almost fanatical record-keeping practiced inside SOEs. Everything bought or sold, every Renminbi moving inside or outside,  is tabulated by the SOEs large team of in-house bookkeepers. Note, I say bookkeepers, not accountants. An SOE has many of the former and few, if any, of the latter.

That’s because SOEs also operate by their own set of accounting standards. I call it “Chinese BAAP“, or “bureaucratically accepted accounting principles“. This is, needless to say, as different from GAAP as any two financial tracking systems could possibly be.

Under Chinese BAAP, the purpose of the annual financial statement is to produce a record that bureaucratic layers above can use. This means especially the administrators at SASAC, the government agency that owns and manages most SOEs. SASAC’s job is to make sure that SOEs are (a) increasing output while operating profitably; and (b) not engaged in any kind of corrupt hanky-panky.

Of the two, SASAC is probably more concerned that government property is not being pilfered, misappropriated, wasted or diverted to pay for senior management’s weekend gambling junket to Macao. This isn’t to say that such things can’t occur. But, the accounting system used by an SOE is designed to be so meticulous, so focused on counting and double-counting, that bad acts are harder to do and harder to hide.

If I could bill out all the time I’ve personally spent during 2013 studying and complying with SOE payment procedures, I’d probably have at least 100 billable hours by now. I should bill the SOE for all this time, but figuring out how to do so would probably take me another 60 hours.

The main purpose of all the rules seems to be to keep a very solid tamper-proof paper trail of money leaving the SOE. This is a far cry, of course, from accounting, at least as its understood outside China. The way assets are valued, and depreciated, follows a logic all its own. One example: an SOE client of ours bought and owns a quite large plot of suburban real estate outside Chengdu. Its main factory buildings are set on top of it. The land is booked at its purchase price as an intangible asset on the company balance sheet. Under Chinese BAAP, this is apparently allowed.

To meet SASAC-imposed growth targets, SOEs are known to boost revenues through a kind of wash-trading. Profit isn’t impacted. Only top-line. BAAP turns a blind eye.

Every SOE is audited once-a-year. Few private companies are. The main purpose of the audit is not only, as under GAAP, to determine accurately a company’s expenses and revenues. It’s also to make sure all of last year’s assets, plus any new ones bought during the current audit year,  can be located and their value tabulated.

From the standpoint of a potential investor, while the logic of Chinese BAAP may take some getting used to,  an SOEs books can be understood and, for the most part, trusted. There should be little worry, as in private sector companies, that there are three sets of books, that sales are being made without receipts to escape tax, and that company cash flows through an ever-changing variety of personal bank accounts. SOE management, in my view, wouldn’t know how to perpetrate accounting fraud if they were being paid to do so. They’ve grown up in a system where everything is counted, entered into the ledger, and outputted in the annual SASAC audit.

An investor who takes majority control of an SOE, as in the two deals we are now working on,  would want to transition the company to using more standard accounting rules. It would also want the company to avail itself, as few seem now to do, on all legal methods to defer or lower taxes. In short, there is good money to be made in China going from BAAP to GAAP.

 

China SOE Buyouts — Case Study Part 2

Jin finial

When you can find them, State-Owned Enterprise (“SEO”)  buyouts are among the better investments in China. The reasons: the companies are cheap, professionally-managed and free of accounting fraud. The not-trivial challenge: finding good SOEs that can be bought.

For such an important part of the world’s second-largest economy, Chinese SOEs are widely misunderstood. They account for at least 20% of China’s GPD. Some estimates put SOEs’ contribution to GPD at 60% or higher. But, SOEs are often characterized, to quote from a World Bank analysis, as “dying dinosaurs that continuously absorb resources from the economy but produce little economic value.”

To be sure, there are many SOEs that fit this description. But, equally, there are plenty of good businesses among China’s more than 150,000 SOEs. The good ones, quite often, can be made substantially better by bringing in outside capital and chopping away at the heavy bureaucratic crust.

Buyouts make money when a new owner buys an business for less than it’s worth, then reinvigorates it. Generally that’s done by buying lazily-run subsidiaries inside larger conglomerates.

No conglomerate anywhere, at any time,  has been more laid-back about managing its assets than SASAC, the huge government organization that is the legal owner of most Chinese SOEs.

SOEs operate in, but are not entirely of, the market economy. They benefit from cheap and plentiful capital via loans from state-owned banks. But, SASAC is generally far more concerned with increasing revenues and investment than profits. SASAC generally doesn’t demand SOEs pay it dividends. Instead, it asks for an audit every year that shows an SOE’s revenues and assets are growing, and no money is actually being lost or assets pilfered. SASAC doesn’t act like an owner so much as a custodian.

SASAC’s casual attitude to profit-making filters down to all levels within an SOE.  Given the choice to maximize or minimize profits, most SOEs will choose the latter.  The goal is to make a little more than last year, but not so much that SASAC, or more senior levels in government, begin to ask questions. With few exceptions (mainly larger centrally-administered SOEs quoted in the US like China Mobile and PetroChina) the corporate equivalent of a “gentleman’s C“, a net margin of around 2.5%, is considered satisfactory.

You don’t need to be a Buffett, Bonderman, Kravis, or Rubenstein to make money buying the right Chinese SOE. You generally don’t need to get your hands too dirty, launch a hostile takeover, borrow a ton of money, or make yourself unpopular by firing surplus workers. It’s going to be enough in most cases just to retain and incentivize current managers, and inform them that their goal now is to deliver net margins as good as, if not better, than private sector competitors.

Not in all cases but many, the current management of an SOE is quite good, professional, dedicated. The managers operate within a system that downplays the importance of maximizing profit. So, they behave correspondingly. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to do so, especially when they have their salary or share options tied to profitability.

In a previous post I mentioned our two new SOE clients. We are working now to privatize them by selling majority ownership to a private sector investor. Both are 100%-owned by one state-owned holding company which, in turn, is fully-owned by another, even larger SOE holding group. Above them, is the local SASAC in the city where the holding companies are both headquartered. No sooner did we start asking the managers how to improve profits, then they began to share information on how much additional profit was being left unclaimed — unnecessary commission payments, tax rebates not filed for, revenues booked through unrelated group companies.

In the case of these two companies, the current CEOs have been running the businesses since they were started more than five years ago. They are about as far from a stereotyped paper-pushing “SOE Manager” as one could imagine. They are in their mid-40s, and take evident pride in running their businesses as efficiently as any Western manager would. The difference is, a lot of the profit they earn is siphoned off through lots of internal layers within the holding group. At the moment, that’s of little concern to them. They are ordinary salaried workers giving SASAC precisely what it wants. Giving more would do nothing to advance their careers, or fatten their pay packets.

These two CEOs are excited and ambitious to run independent private sector companies that will be free to make and keep as much money as the market and tax laws allow. I have confidence that in both cases, net income would more than double within two years, and triple within five.

What’s needed isn’t restructuring. It’s gardening. You weed out all the unnecessary fees, commissions and chop back the overheads. This reveals the companies’ genuine – and impressive – bottom line.

We are still doing our internal work with the companies, but will soon start the search for new majority owners for each company. All the layers above, up to and including the local SASAC, seem to support these transactions. Why? The holding company already has one very successful publicly-traded company. Once spun off, these two subsidiaries should follow a similar path and one day go public. That is the surest way to assure the companies have sufficient access to low-cost capital and so finance continued growth. Both companies, with revenues of over $100mn, are growing quickly.

Everyone is currently in agreement that the best way for these two subsidiaries to become not just the largest but the most profitable companies in their industry in China is by bringing in majority private shareholders, both to invest in the business and provide more focused, profit-oriented ownership. They sought our investment banking and advisory help to do so.

This isn’t to say these deals, or any SOE takeover, is as effortless as body-surfing. The privatization process in China is still evolving. Any transaction like this will likely generate some opposition. From whom? And from what level? Both are impossible to say.

A separate concern of mine: there are far too few capable and experience takeover firms active in China. Among those that are around, the level of experience and comfort with buying control of an SOE is not uniformly high. Done right, the new owners would be able to profit from a large gap between the current asset value as calculated using SASAC rules and each company’s level of underlying and future profitability. In other words, you buy using NAV but sell later on a p/e multiple.

Making money on that swap, from NAV-to-p/e, is the simple idea at the heart of many of the world’s most successful takeovers. Opportunities to do this are now quite rare in the US and Europe, which is one reason the returns for big buyout firms like KKR, Blackstone and Carlyle has generally been trending down over the last 25 years, and why it’s harder for Warren Buffett to find the kind of underpriced gems he treasures most.

The best days of takeovers have passed, right? Or should Buffett, Rubenstein, Bonderman and Kravis be booking flights to China?

 

 

China’s Soda Wars

(New Jia Duo Bao can on left, with the new SOE-owned Wang Lao Ji can on right)

Imagine this scenario. Coca-Cola is sued for bribery and trademark infringement. It loses in arbitration and beginning the next day it is banned from selling soda under its iconic brand across the US. It immediately switches to a new name, keeping the original packaging design and colors. Meantime, the victor in the lawsuit starts selling a soda under the name Coca-Cola using the same script lettering, same can design as the original, and tasting pretty much exactly like Coke.

Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? But, this is precisely what’s going on now in China.  After a arbitration hearing filled with lurid tales of bribery and corruption, the country’s most popular and most famous soft drink changed hands overnight. The brand is called Wang Lao Ji, (王老吉). Everyone in China is familiar with it. It’s a soft drink made from Chinese medical herbs. It outsells Coke by a significant margin in China. Like Coca-Cola, Wang Lao Ji’s recipe was first dreamed up by a pharmacist during the 19th century, and the exact formula remains a secret. In 1949, the Chinese government nationalized the private pharmacy that owned the Wang Lao Ji recipe.

Twelve years ago, a Hong Kong company called Hong Dao Group licensed the Wang Lao Ji brand name from a state-owned medical products company based in Guangzhou. Hong Dao is owned by the descendants of Wang Zebang, the original inventor of Wang Lao Ji back in 1828.  Hong Dao invested heavily to create China’s first home-grown soft drink megabrand, borrowing many of the same techniques that Coca-Cola pioneered, including saturation advertising and efficient nationwide distribution.

Last year, Hong Dao sold about three billion (yes, billion) cans of its Wang Lao Ji. The price, at around Rmb 4 (US 75 cents) per can,  is higher by about 40% than the price Coke charges in China. At that price, gross margins must be about the highest of any legal product sold in China, probably +80%.

Since May, when it lost the arbitration case, Hong Dao has been forbidden to sell Wang Lao Ji in China under that name. So, overnight, the company switched to a new name, Jia Duo Bao (加多宝)but kept the original colors and packaging intact. Just as quickly, the Guangzhou SOE, called Guangzhou Wanglaoji Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. (广州王老吉药业有限公司), a subsidiary of the state-owned Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings Limited (广州医药集团有限公司), began selling its own version of Wang Lao Ji in a can almost identical to the one used up to then by Hong Dao.

So now there are two drinks, with two different brand names, owned by two different companies, with similar if not identical taste, being sold in almost identical cans. The famed Coke-Pepsi rivalry in the US seems like a quaint antique by comparison.

Who benefits most? At the moment, it’s the ad agencies and television stations. Both companies are now pouring in tens of millions of dollars into tv advertising to influence Chinese customers. The ads ran during almost every prime-time commercial break during coverage of the Olympics. The ads are hard to tell apart, with lots of smiling and zesty young people partying and toasting one another with red cans. Hong Dao’s ads hint that the new drink is same as its old Wang Lao Ji, but without actually mentioning that name.

During the arbitration, detailed were revealed about the way Hong Dao originally secured the license in 2000 to the Wang Lao Ji name. It turns out a manager at Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings agreed to take a bribe of about $500,000 in return for giving Hong Dao a sweetheart deal. Hong Dao paid less than $1 million a year for the rights to use the Wang Lao Ji brand name in China, even as annual sales of Hong Dao’s product reached Rmb 16 billion, ($2.5 billion.)

The manager who took the bribes was given a long prison term for misappropriating state property.Perhaps anticipating it might lose the arbitration case, Hong Dao began last year putting the name Jia Duo Bao, in small letters, on its Wang Lao Ji cans.  When the arbitration decision was announced, both companies reacted with breathtaking speed and efficiency. Hong Dao pulled all its Wang Lao Ji cans and almost immediately had its new Jia Duo Bao aluminum cans in stores. The SOE too clearly had everything geared up, awaiting the court decision. Its version of Wang Lao Ji was quickly on shelves across China. The SOE says the red can’s sales in July grew ten-fold compared to the previous month.

At this point, neither company is competing on price. Nor is there any sign that the overall market for this drink is growing much. So, the likely effect will be to split the 2011 Rmb16 billion of annual sales revenues by around 50-50. Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings’ stock price has shot up, anticipating a flood of profits from selling its Wang Lao Ji in the familiar red cans.  Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings surrendered the tiny annual licensing fee from Hong Dao, and now own outright what is arguably among China’s ten most famous brands.

Watching from the sidelines, I remain somewhat amazed that the two companies did not reach some kind of settlement rather than going through the arbitration process. I find Chinese generally to be very practical in business, and loathe to settle disputes in court. Given Hong Dao’s revenues and likely profits from selling Wang Lao Ji, it seems it could have put much more money on the table and persuaded Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings to continue to license the brand. Switching to Jia Duo Bao has imposed heavy marketing and re-branding costs at a time when its previous monopoly market share is under serious attack.

Not that long ago, of course, China was mainly a market for all kinds of knockoff products — or to use the Chinese phrase, “shanzhai” 山寨. There was little interest in or defense of trademarks and copyright. Go back 30 years to when I first came to China, and there were few, if any, brands at all. That has all changed very markedly, particularly within the last two years.

China’s consumer market, within a decade, will likely overtake the US to become the world’s largest. With consumers shifting en masse to buying brand-name products, all brands active in China, both domestic and global, across just about every product category, are scrambling for every nano-unit of market share.

In the case of Wang Lao Ji and Jia Duo Bao, never in such a short time has such a large consumer market, the one for Chinese soft drinks, been so completely ruptured and so completely remade.

 

 

SOEs That Are SOL – China’s Forgotten and Unprivileged State-Owned Enterprises

Perhaps the most commonly-heard criticism these days of the Chinese government’s economic policy is that secret policies favoring State-Owned Enterprises (so-called “SOEs”) are becoming more numerous, heavy-handed and harmful to the prospects of private business in China. This criticism, like others of China,  gains strength and credence because it is basically unfalsifiable. Since the policies are secret and the impact hidden from direct view, the only evidence offered is the continued growth and profits of SOE giants like China Mobile, ICBC, Sinopec and others.

While it’s undeniable that SOEs do enjoy a lot of advantages private companies can only dream of, often including easier access to bank loans and markets rigged to prevent free competition, I’m dubious that a real shift really is taking place, and that the Chinese government is wholesale turning its back on private business in order to make life easier for SOEs.

Not all SOEs are living a life of wine and roses. For them, government support is limited, haphazard, often counterproductive. There are hundreds of such SOEs in China. They aren’t the giant companies many foreigners have heard of. These SOEs are surviving, but not really prospering, with clapped-out equipment, low profits, bloated workforces and balance sheets larded with debt. It’s by no means clear that having a government owner is more of a benefit than a liability.

These SOEs have no real pressure to optimize profits and increase efficiency.  Their government owners, to the extent they even notice these smaller industrial SOEs,  are mainly concerned that they should continue to provide jobs, hand over a bit of money each year in taxes and dividends, and continue to increase output. In many ways, for all the epochal changes over the last 30 years in China, many SOEs are still run much as they were during the days of complete central planning:  growing bigger is still more important than growing more profitable, innovative, dynamic.

Thirty years ago, all of Chinese industry was state-owned and most urban Chinese were employed by the state. Then came the private sector reforms and liberalization under Deng Xiaoping, the rise of private business (which officially now contribute more than 70% of China’s gdp) and the bankruptcy of thousands of large SOEs, when many of the largest loss-making SOEs were forced to close. This process of culling the loss-making SOEs is often called “淘汰” (“taotai”) in Chinese, a term I quite like. It literally means to “wash clean” or “wipe out”.

But, many thousands of smaller, barely-profitable SOEs survived “taotai”. They are the ones now often living in a state more akin to Dickensian squalor than the plush recipients of government favor. Visit, as I did recently,  one of the “un-taotai’ed”  SOEs, and you will soon be disabused of the idea that all SOEs are prospering and that the Chinese government is running an economy to benefit SOEs at the expense of private business.

The SOE I visited is in Shaanxi province, about an hour’s drive from the capital, Xi’an. The factory was established in 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, by a team of thousands of workers forcibly relocated from Tianjin. It manufactures certain special types of fiberglass, including some used by China’s military and space program. The SOE still produces many of the same products, on 45 year-old equipment, in a sprawling and broken-down facility the likes of which I’d never seen before in China. Most of the buildings are dilapidated, the roads inside potholed. Polluted waste water belches from pipes into overflowing holding pens.

This company, in one sense, is lucky. It has no competitors inside China, and only two elsewhere, Soviet-era factories in Byelorussia and Latvia. Saddled with unnecesarily large payroll and other ancillary costs not related to producing fiberglass, profit margins are low. But, the company earns money most years, including about $1 million in profits in 2011.

The problem, though, is that the company can’t get the capital to modernize, expand or rationalize its workforce of almost 2,500. It’s still responsible for the running costs of a local hospital, school and kindergarten. When the company’s boss goes to the government for help, he’s mainly told to fend for himself. The company is too small to get any attention from its government owners. So, it floats along in a kind of sad limbo.

With money and profit-seeking owners, the company could probably grow into a quite successful industrial business. The market for its products is actually growing. If they could let go excess payroll and obligations, margins would likely rise above 15%, generating sufficient surplus to finance the large expansion plans and upgrade the company’s boss has been trying, unsuccessfully, to implement for six years. The government says it has no cash to inject. State-owned banks, for all their supposed leniency towards SOEs, won’t increase lending. Instead, the government is urging the factory boss to find a private investor, to put together some kind of privatization plan.

But, in this case and many like it, whenever the Chinese government won’t invest, few if any sane private investors will. Any new investor would have to fund the cost of layoffs of up to 1,800 people. Most are entitled to one month severance for every month of employment.  Average salary is around $500 a month.

The new investor would also, according to Chinese law, probably need to buy its shares from the provincial arm of SASAC at a price tied to the company’s net assets, not its rather dismal operating performance. The entire business may be worth only $10 million. But, using the net asset formula, which includes a big chunk of valuable land, the price almost triples. After all this money goes out the door, the new investor would need to pump another $12mn-$15 mn into the company to finance improvements and expansion.

For any investor seeking to buy control of the company, the likely rate of return after all these outlays, even under the most optimistic scenarios, would be under 10% a year.  That’s a deal that few investors would consider. Along with the need to shell out all the money, a new owner would also acquire lots of contingent liabilities of unpredictable size and severity, including the cost of an environmental clean-up, repairs to company-owned housing where most of the current 2,300 workers, as well as retirees, live.

After spending the day with him, I sympathize with the company boss’s plight. He wants to run an efficient operation, turn it into a leading producer of certain high-technology fiberglass materials, and maybe earn his way into owning a small piece of the company. But, the current mix of policies in China will make that hard, if not impossible, to achieve.

While big SOEs do enjoy a lot of political clout, with sparkling new headquarters, and a low cost of capital that other companies envy, these smaller SOEs inhabit an altogether different and inhospitable world. Government ownership is far more of a hindrance than a help. And yet, they have no real way to free themselves.  These SOEs are, as Americans would say, SOL.

 

Teaching the Elephant to Dance – China’s SOEs Transform

Over the last thirty years, China has gone from a country where just about all companies were state-owned enterprises (so-called “SOEs”) to one where now fewer than 30% are. Much of the dynamism in China’s domestic economy comes from these newer private companies. There are some very strong SOEs dominating key sectors of China’s economy, including China Mobile, Sinopec, ICBC and other large banks, as well as airlines and utilities. These companies have also been partially privatized by selling minority stakes on global stock markets. This has provided huge amounts of new capital and brought with it improved performance and corporate governance at these top SOEs.

But, many SOEs have failed, while others languish with inefficient production, overstaffing and outmoded products. For many of these, the prognosis is not good. But, at the same time, there is a entrepreneurial transformation getting underway at some of these SOEs. Managers are beginning to act more like owners and less like civil servants. We are seeing this now in our work. Some of the most interesting companies we’re talking to are SOEs eager to bring in outside capital as a first step towards privatization, and subsidiaries of larger SOEs looking for ways to split themselves off from their parent and go public independently.

I expect to see more and more private capital, particularly from private equity firms, going into SOEs. In some cases, the investors will find ways to take majority control. In others, they will link their minority investment to a corporate restructuring that gives the SOEs management equity, warrants, or other incentives to improve performance and profitability.

The likely result: some of China’s more tired SOEs are going to get a big dose of free market adrenalin. At the moment, there are lots of legal hurdles for private capital to enter into an SOE. The process is opaque. We’re spending a fair bit of time on behalf of several SOEs trying to figure out workable legal mechanisms. To succeed, any deal will take time and need champions in higher levels of government. But, practical economic policies tend to triumph in China. Private capital is, without question, the best option to improve the profitability and future prospects of many SOEs. This is good for employment, good for economic growth, good for worker incomes, good for accelerating development in inland China. These are all core policy goals in China.

I’m not able to discuss details or provide company names, but I can give an outline of several of the most interesting SOE transactions we are now working on. This should give a sense of the kind of changes that may be on the way for SOEs.

In one case, a subsidiary of one of China’s largest publicly-traded SOE construction holding companies is looking for ways, with the parent company’s encouragement, to spin itself off, raise private equity capital, and then try for an IPO. Though it contributes only about 5% of the parent company’s total revenues and operates in different markets than the parent, this subsidiary is one of the largest, most successful companies in its industry in China. Its profits this year should exceed Rmb 650mn (USD$100mn).

Because the parent company is already public, this subsidiary needs to fight for capital with other larger sister companies inside the conglomerate. It usually comes up short. With access to new capital, the subsidiary’s current managers are confident they could double the size of the business (both profits and revenues) within two to three years.  Outside of China, spinning off a subsidiary or selling a minority stake in an IPO is a fairly straight-forward process. Not so in China.

Under current rules, the CSRC, China’s stock market regulator, will not allow the parent simply to spin off the subsidiary through an IPO. There are related party transactions and deconsolidation issues.  So, we are looking at ways for a large strategic investor to buy a controlling stake in the subsidiary, then pour in as much as $250mn in new capital. The subsidiary will then build up its business to where it could either qualify for an IPO three to five years later, or the PE firm would exit by selling its stake back to the parent.

The management of this subsidiary are quite keen to put in their own money and become shareholders if their business can be separated and put on a path to IPO. They have done a very solid job building the business to its current scale, and would likely do markedly better if they had a real stake in the performance of the company.

In another deal we are working on, a chemical company now majority owned by Sinopec is bringing in new capital to buy the Sinopec shares and recapitalize the business. The company was started seven years ago by a private entrepreneur, who raised the original capital from Sinopec. The entrepreneur now controls about 40% of the company’s equity. Through the deal we’re working on, he will become the majority owner and the private equity investor will own the rest.

We’re also in discussions with the international division of one of China’s giant SOE electricity companies. This group already has sizable projects and revenues in Southeast Asia and Russia, where it built and operates large hydro and gas-fueled power plants. The international division, however, is being held back by high debt levels at the SOE parent. This means the international division has trouble borrowing enough to finance its continued growth. Since the international division is already structured legally as a Hong Kong company, it should be possible for it to raise private equity then IPO in Hong Kong. We think this division can raise as much as USD$500mn in the next three years, both in private equity and IPO.

These three (the construction subsidiary, the chemical company and international power plant business) are all very solid businesses that outside investors will likely flock to. We’re also trying to find a way to help a more troubled smaller SOE based in central China. They make certain types of special fiberglass. The core business is fundamentally sound, but is stuck also doing some other things that lose money.  It is too small now to qualify for an IPO, and is having a hard time in the current environment increasing its bank borrowing. The existing managers are eager to have an outside private equity investor come in and not only provide the capital, but also help improve manufacturing efficiency and marketing, and chop away the loss-making parts. They think an investment of Rmb 50mn could increase profits by a similar amount within two years.

As anyone with experience will tell you, working with SOEs can be a complicated and time-consuming process, particularly compared to dealing with a company founded and run by a private entrepreneur. While we’re fortunate to have strong entrepreneur-led companies as clients, I also quite enjoy working on these SOE transactions. It affords an up-close view of the way SOEs operate and problem-solve. I’m also getting to participate, in a small way, in perhaps the most significant transformation now taking place in China’s economy. With new capital and perhaps new ownership structures, SOEs are going to thrive as never before. Their greater efficiency and greater profits will be a challenge for the private sector, but overall will be a plus for China.