Anyone who’s dipped into this blog will know that I rarely, if ever, discuss directly what me and my company China First Capital do, our client work. Partly it’s because the work is usually by necessity confidential (clients, investors, deal terms) and partly because I don’t blog as a marketing tool.
But, I plan over coming months to share significant details about a “live deal” we are now working on, a buyout transaction involving a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE). The reasons: its size and structure make it an unusual transaction in China, and one that might also bust some myths about the way business in China, especially involving SOEs, actually works.
While I can’t reveal the name of the company, I can disclose why I think it’s such a compelling deal. Our client is one of China’s largest, most well-known and most successful SOEs. The group’s overall annual profit of over Rmb12 bn (about USD$2bn) also make it one of the richest. Unlike a lot of SOEs, this one operates in highly-competitive markets, and has nothing like a monopoly in China.
The deal we’re working on is to restructure then “privatize” two profitable subsidiary companies of this SOE. Both of these subsidiaries are the largest businesses in China in their industry. Their combined revenues are about $220mn.
Privatization has two slightly different meanings in Chinese finance. First, is the type of deal, very common a decade ago, where big SOEs like China Mobile, Sinopec, PetroChina, ICBC, Air China, are converted into joint stock companies and then a minority share is listed through an IPO on stock markets in China, US or Hong Kong. The companies’ majority owner remains the Chinese state, with the shares usually held and managed by a powerful arm of the government known in Chinese as 国资委, in English known as the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, or more commonly SASAC. In theory, SASAC probably holds the world’s largest and most valuable share portfolio, far bigger than Fidelity, Vanguard, or the world’s sovereign wealth funds.
The other, rarer, type of privatization is where a company’s majority ownership changes hands, from state to private ownership. This is the type of control deal we are working on. The plan is to spin out the two subsidiaries by selling a majority stake to either a strategic or financial acquirer. In all likelihood, each company will one day go public either in China or Hong Kong, at which time, I’d expect their market caps to each be well over US$1bn.
In essence, the deals are structured as a recapitalization, where a new private-sector majority owner will contribute capital in excess of the company’s current assessed value. That valuation is determined by an independent accounting firm, based on current asset value.
The privatization process is heavily regulated and tightly controlled by SASAC. It involves multiple levels of review, outside valuation, and then an open-market auction process. The system has changed out of all recognition from the first generation of government asset sales done in the 1990s. These deals involved little to no public disclosure or transparency and generated quite a lot of criticism and resentment that Chinese state assets were being sold to insiders, or the well-connected, for a fraction of their true value.
For an investment bank, working with an SOE, especially a large and famous one, has a process, logic and rhythm all its own. There are many more layers of management than at a typical Chinese private company, and many more voices involved in decision-making. In this case, we’re rather fortunate that the chairman of the holding company is also the founder of the two subsidiaries we’re now seeking to spin out. He started the companies from zero less than ten years ago, and has built them into proud, successful, fast-growing businesses.
This chairman has far more sway over the strategy and direction of the SOE than is usual in China. I first met him over a year ago. I was called to visit the company to explain the process through which an SOE like his could raise outside capital. Though curious, the chairman said at the time it seemed like more trouble than it would be worth. He had a comfortable life, and was nearing mandatory retirement age.
In fact, as I now understand, that first meeting was really just a way to kickstart a long, complicated and confidential discussion process involving the chairman, his senior management team, as well as even more senior officials at the SOE. Over the course of a year, the chairman was able to persuade himself, as well as the many others with a potential veto, that a spin-out of the two companies was worth considering in greater detail.
The privatization offers the promise of long-term access to capital and also, most likely, a greater degree of management autonomy. Though the two subsidiaries do not sell to, rely on or otherwise have related party transactions with the parent, they are ultimately subject to some rather heavy and often-stifling bureaucratic controls. Contrary to the reputation of many Chinese SOE, the two companies sell high-end products to large fastidious global customers. They operate in highly kinetic markets but with a corporate structure above them that is as slow, ponderous and impenetrable as a five-hour Peking Opera performance.
The chairman invited me to return for another visit in June. What followed was a rather intensive process of me and my team submitting several different financing plans and options, including the privatization of either the whole holding company or various subsidiaries, either as standalones, or grouped into mini-conglomerates. These different plans got discussed very actively inside the SOE. In under a month, the company had decided how it wanted to proceed: that its two strongest and most successful subsidiaries should be separately spun off and majority control in each offered to a new investor.
It may not sound like it, but one month is a remarkably fast time for an SOE to consider, decide and then get necessary approvals to do just about anything. We also work with another even larger Beijing-headquartered SOE and it took them almost four months to get the eleven different people needed to approve, and apply the chop to, our template Non-Disclosure Agreement.
I was summoned with one day’s advance notice to return to the company in late July to sign a cooperation agreement to advise them on the proposed privatization/recapitalization of the two subsidiaries. Again, that’s rather typical of SOEs: meetings are called suddenly, and one needs to drop whatever one’s doing and attend. For me, that meant a hastily-booked two hour flight, then a three-and-a-half hour drive to the company’s headquarters. A photo from the signing ceremony is at the top of this page. (I have to cover over the name of the company.)
The contract signing was followed by another in a series of very elaborate and extremely tasty meals. The chairman has converted a 13-acre plot of the company’s land into an organic farm, where he grows fruits and vegetables and raises free-range pigs, ducks, chickens. Everything I’ve eaten while visiting the company has come from this farm. Everything is remarkably good. And, yes, along with the food, a rather large amount of Chinese alcohol is poured.
In future posts, I’ll talk about different aspects of the transaction, including how to parse the balance sheet and P&L of an SOE, as well as the industrial and investment logic of doing a takeover of an SOE. In the current market environment in China, where so many PE minority investments are stranded with no means to exit, there has probably never been a better time to do buyout transactions, particularly of mature and successful industrial companies with scale, good profit margins and clean accounting. Good businesses like this are few. We are now working for two of them.