cross border M&A

“The Tough Battle to Bring Western Brands to China” the Financial Times

When John Zhao sealed the £900m takeover of the UK’s PizzaExpress in 2014 he burnished his reputation as a pioneer in China’s private equity industry. Two years later Hony Capital, his buyout firm, ploughed money into WeWork as the New York shared-office provider set its sights on an aggressive expansion in China.


Both deals shared a simple premise: take well-known western brands to China and they will flourish. “We have capital; we have a huge market to give access to,” Mr Zhao said shortly after the capture of PizzaExpress, which set a record for a Chinese buyout deal in the UK.


The acquisition was one of a wave of Chinese private equity investments over the past decade but few firms were as ambitious as Hony in their targets. Spun out of state-backed Legend Holdings in 2003, Hony shot to prominence through a series of restructurings of other state-owned groups. As it grew, so did its appetite for higher-profile, cross-border investments.

However, almost two decades on, Hony’s breezy confidence that China’s increasingly wealthy middle class would be ready-made consumers of all western brands has proved misplaced.


PizzaExpress restaurant openings in China have lagged behind an ambitious goal while local, lowercost competitors have lured customers away. Confidence that middle class would eat up imported names such as PizzaExpress prove misplaced.

This lacklustre start in China, combined with rising costs and a slowing casual dining market in the UK, left PizzaExpress with a £1.1bn debt pile that has set the scene for a restructuring battle between Hony and other bondholders.

After a calamitous 2019 in which WeWork was rescued by Japan’s SoftBank, its biggest backer, the New York-based company has ditched its leasing model in many cities, laid off thousands of staff and struggled with a particularly poor performance in China.

“The ‘can’t-miss’ strategy continues to do just that,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive at Shenzhen-based investment bank China First Capital. “Chinese investors and corporates have mainly fizzled when buying and localising western consumer brands.”

Other Hony investments — including the Beijing-based bike-sharing business Ofo, which collapsed in late 2018 — have soured, causing competitors to rethink importing western brands to China.

Chinese business history is littered with cases of western multinationals making the opposite mistake. UK retailer Marks and Spencer closed its Shanghai stores in 2017 after its combination of clothing and imported food confused local shoppers. US electronics retailer Best Buy retreated from China in 2014 after struggling to compete with cheaper domestic competitors.

But Chinese private equity groups appeared undeterred. They raised $230bn of capital between 2009 and 2014, according to investment bank DC Advisory.

Nanjing-based Sanpower largely flopped with its buyout of high-end retailer House of Fraser in 2014 and its failed attempt to expand the UK retailer across China. Bright Food, the state-owned Chinese group that bought a 60 per cent stake in Weetabix in 2012, failed to make the UK breakfast dish popular in China and eventually had to sell the brand in 2017.

“Four years ago everyone thought [buying foreign brands and bringing them to China] was the best thesis — but a lot of people got burnt,” said Kiki Yang, the partner leading Bain & Co’s Greater China private equity practice. “It’s not easy to bring something with no brand awareness to China. In reality, the success rate is very low.”

People who know Mr Zhao have said he was one of the first serious Chinese investors to have a solid grounding in the way deals were done in the US while also enjoying deep ties to state-owned groups, putting him in an enviable position at the advent of the Chinese private equity industry.

In its early days, that helped Hony become a rare channel connecting investors such as Goldman Sachs and Singapore’s Temasek with lucrative state deals that were otherwise inaccessible to foreign capital.

The PizzaExpress deal was a turning point for Hony and
other investors in the sector.

By 2014, the group had completed several successful cross-border deals, including an investment in Italian concrete producer Cifa. But the takeover of a popular British restaurant chain won instant global attention for Hony and Mr Zhao, who had spent most of the 1990s working at Silicon Valley technology companies such as Vadem and Infolio.

Hony’s investment in PizzaExpress came just as the UK’s casual dining market began to suffer from oversupply. It was also beginning to face stronger competition from local restaurants in China, a sign the UK brand name meant little to many Chinese diners.

PizzaExpress originally intended to open 200 outlets over a five-year period. So far it has launched about a dozen restaurants in the mainland, giving it a total of about 38, according to its website. In its annual results in April, the chain admitted it had “experienced challenges in China as we face intensifying competition from local brands”.

Without the promised growth in China to cushion the decline in the UK market, PizzaExpress has been pushed towards a debt restructuring process, cementing the deal’s position as an emblem of troubled Chinese investments overseas.

 “Every time you say ‘China cross-border’, people think of PizzaExpress,” said one senior Chinese private equity executive. “It’s become a laughing stock — and bad for the reputation of China PE.”

PizzaExpress, Mr Zhao and Hony declined to comment.

As it seeks to resolve PizzaExpress’s problems, WeWork’s near collapse has inflicted further damage on Hony’s reputation. Hony and Legend Holdings led a $430m investment round in WeWork in 2016, and Mr Zhao became a member of WeWork’s board and later a consultant to its China business. SoftBank and Hony led a $500m investment round a year later.

With Mr Zhao acting as a consultant, WeWork expanded aggressively across the country, buying Chinese rival Naked Hub for $480m in cash and stock in 2018. Yet demand for office space fell in 2019, leaving some of its new areas of business virtually empty.

For example, in the western Chinese city of Xi’an, nearly 80 per cent of its desks were vacant, the FT reported in October. In the bustling start-up hub of Shenzhen in southern China, 65 per cent of its 8,000 desks were vacant.

WeWork declined to comment.

The poor performance of the business in China has left investors questioning how one of China’s private equity superstars could lead the group so far off course, according to people familiar with the matter.

“My impression is that Hony is not doing well these days,” said Liu Jing, a professor of accounting and finance at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing. “The economy has shifted to technology and they have lost their edge.”

https://www.ft.com/content/f735c956-15b6-11ea-9ee4-11f260415385


M&A Policy & Policy-making in China — A Visit to China’s Ministry of Commerce

(Me in borrowed suit* alongside Deputy Director General of the Policy Research Department, China Ministry of Commerce)

China’s Ministry of Commerce invited me last week to give a private talk at their Beijing headquarters. The subject was the changing landscape for M&A in China. It was a great honor to be asked, and a thoroughly enjoyable experience to share my views with a team from the Policy Research Department at the Ministry.

For those whose Chinese is up to it, you can have a look at the PPT by clicking here The title translates as “China’s M&A Market: A New Strategy Targeting Unexited PE Deals”.

My China First Capital colleague, and our company’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang offered our firm’s view that the current crisis of unexited private equity deals is creating an important opportunity for M&A in China to help strengthen, consolidate and restructure the private sector. Buyout firms and strategic acquirers, both China domestic and offshore, will all likely step up their acquisition activity in coming years, targeting China’s stronger private sector companies.

Potentially, this represents a highly significant shift for M&A in China, and so a shift in the workload and travel schedule of the Ministry of Commerce officials. M&A within China, measured both in number and size of deals,  has historically been a fraction of cross-border transactions like the acquisition of Volvo or Nexen

The Ministry of Commerce occupies the most prominent location of any government department in China, with the exception of the Public Security Ministry. Both are on Chang’an Avenue (aka “Eternal Peace Street” on 长安街)a short distance from Tiananmen Square

The Ministry of Commerce plays an active and central role in economic policy-making. Many of the key reforms and policy changes that have guided China’s remarkable economic progress over the last thirty years got their start there. The Ministry of Commerce is also the primary regulator for most M&A deals in China, both domestic and cross-border.

The key sources of growth for China’s economy have shifted from SOEs to private sector companies, from exports to satisfying the demands of China’s huge and fast-growing domestic market. In the future, M&A in China will follow a similar path. That was the main theme of our talk. More M&A deals will involve Chinese private sector companies combining either with each other, or being acquired by larger international companies eager to expand in China.

Ministry officials were quick to grasp the importance of this shift. They asked if policy changes were required or new administrative practices. We shared some ideas. China’s FDI has slowed recently. That is an issue of substantial concern to the Ministry of Commerce. M&A targeting China’s private sector companies represents a potentially useful new channel for productive foreign capital to enter China.

M&A, as the Ministry officials quickly understood, also can help ease some of the pain caused to private companies by the block in IPOs and steep decline in new private equity funding. In particular, they focused their questions on the impact on Chinese larger-scale private sector manufacturing industries.

I found the officials and staff I met with to be practical, knowledgeable and inquisitive. Market forces, and the exit crisis in China’s private equity industry, are driving this change in the direction of M&A in China. But, policies and regulatory guidance issued from the Ministry of Commerce headquarters can – and I believe will — also play a constructive role.

* Three days before my visit,  the Ministry of Commerce suggested I should probably wear a suit, as senior officials there do.  By that time, I’d already arrived in Beijing, so needed to borrow one from a friend. The suit was tailored for someone 40 pounds heavier. As a result, as the above photo displays, I managed to be overdressed and poorly-dressed at the same time.

 

 

A Practical Guide for M&A deals for Chinese Bosses

Illustration from 中国企业跨境并购交易要点和流程浅析  or

 “What you need to know and do to complete an M&A deal”

 

Like the smart tv or a cheap fuel-efficient automobile, China M&A is the good business idea whose time never seems to arrive. There’s basically no one in the Chinese business community, or inside Wall Street investment banks, who doesn’t agree that China’s future must include a lot more M&A deals, both cross-border and domestic. Domestic industries are highly fragmented and in need of consolidation. Chinese manufacturers need to acquire brands and technology from abroad to keep growing at home and offshore.

Think of the China M&A market as a huge pile of dry sticks soaked in gasoline. You throw a lighted match on it, expecting it to explode into a spectacular bonfire. And then… nothing. M&A activity in China remains so subdued, particularly for an economy China’s size, it is almost an irrelevancy. Can this, will this, change? I’m certainly among those who think it must, and not because it promises to someday bring in fat fees for investment bankers. M&A needs to develop as a routine means to let some entrepreneurs (and the PE investors who backed them) exit, and allow others to accelerate growth and grab market share. Both should end up benefiting China’s economy.

So, where exactly are the stumbling blocks on the path to an efficient and dynamic market for corporate control in China? There are more than just a handful, and include psychological and national factors, as well as more typical business reasons. But, one of the key problems is actually a very practical, and very solvable, one — the fact most Chinese companies don’t often have a clear understanding of how to select and assess an acquisition target, and then how, if the will is there to do something,  to actually take control of another company.

Our most recent Chinese-language research paper offers some guidance here. For those with the requisite Chinese skills, you can download a copy by clicking here or visiting the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website. The research paper is titled ” 中国企业跨境并购交易要点和流程浅析“, which I’d loosely translate as  “What you need to know and do to complete an Offshore M&A deal” .

The main readership is the +4,000 Chinese company bosses and senior management of both private sector and SOE companies we have in our database. We’re also sharing it with those whose work sometimes involves facilitating or regulating M&A deals — partners at law firms, accounting companies, PE firms, brokerage houses and government officials. This adds about another 2,000 to the list of people we sent it to.

We have a reasonable amount of experience in  — and we hope knowledge of  — M&A involving Chinese companies, representing both sellers and buyers, cross-border and pure-play Chinese domestic transactions. In other words, all four quadrants on the M&A map in China.

The contents grew directly out of our client work. It’s light on theory. We’re not trying to compete with McKinsey or business school professors. Instead, we emphasize practical steps and offer a rather stripped-down timetable of how an M&A deal might go from concept to close. Investment banks, for reasons of self-interest as well as business efficiency,  are always telling companies why and how they should do M&A. You’ll need to believe me that this wasn’t our motive. I’ve been on both sides of M&A deals as a CEO and board member in the US, both as seller and buyer of companies. Now, I sit in the middle, as a banker in China. I wanted to provide a short operational guide to Chinese CEOs on when and why M&A might make sense.

A common thread among Chinese companies looking to buy is to use M&A as a way to beef up their company’s in-house technology. One example: a client of ours  is already China’s leader in the auto electronics industry but is well behind European, American, Japanese and Korean companies in developing systems to make using a mobile phone in your car both safe and efficient. That’s a very big market opportunity in China, which is now the world’s largest auto and mobile phone market by rather large margins. This client wants to buy, rather than build, to save time, and also make sure any product they eventually try to sell to their Chinese customers works smoothly, from the beginning.

This client found a good target in Europe but then got bogged down in technology DD — how to evaluate not just the obvious stuff like patents, but the trickier domain of “company know how”.  What can be learned, what can be transferred, what can walk out the door and into the arms of a competitor? So, another area our research paper tries to both explain and systematize is the process of technology due diligence. I doubt our simplification would satisfy the partners at McKinsey or the Big Four accounting firms who often get called into do this work, and make huge sums along the way. Our operative principle here is “better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. Again, we wanted to keep it practical, for busy folks mainly engaged in running companies. With few exceptions, I’ve yet to meet a Chinese company with a specialist in-house team to do M&A.

The Chinese word for M&A is 并购 , which joins together the characters for “to combine” and “to purchase”. Theoretically, it’s an appropriate choice of words. At this point, however, with M&A still very much in its infancy in China, the main requirements are “to understand” and “to execute confidently”.  I hope this research paper goes some way towards making both more common, more certain.