deal-sourcing

M&A in China — New China First Capital Research Report, “A New Strategy for M&A, Buyouts & Corporate Acquisitions in China”

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M&A in China is entering a new, more promising phase. At no previous time was the environment as favorable to identify and close, at attractive valuations, the acquisition of a profitable, high growth, well-run, larger private business in China.

This is the conclusion of a recently completed research study by China First Capital, as part of our M&A advisory work. (An abridged copy of the report is available by clicking here.) The report is titled, “A New Strategy for M&A, Buyouts & Corporate Acquisitions in China: Sourcing and executing successful corporate acquisitions and buyouts from unexited PE deals in China“.

The industrial logic of doing acquisitions in China has never been in doubt. The scale, high annual growth rate and fragmented nature of China’s domestic economy all create a powerful attraction for control investors. The challenge has traditionally been a negative selection bias on the sell-side, that the Chinese companies available for purchase are often troubled,  state-owned, inefficient or poorly-managed. China’s best corporate assets, its larger private companies, were not previously available to control investors.

As a result, M&A in China, for all the predictions of an impending take-off, has never gotten into gear. The theory behind most deals, if there was one, was to tie two stones together and see if they float.

The reason for the positive change in the environment for control deals in China is the serious degradation in the environment for minority ones. Specifically, China’s private equity industry is in a state of deepening crisis. Having financed the growth of many of China’s best private companies, the PE firms are now finding it increasingly difficult to engineer a liquidity event before the expiry of their fixed fund life. They are emerging as distress sellers of desirable assets — in this case, strong PE-backed companies that are left without any other viable means for investors to exit.

As elaborated in earlier research reports from China First Capital, (read  here, here, here) there is a large overhang of over 7,500 unexited private equity deals in China. Most of these deals were done on the expectation of exiting through an IPO within a few years. That was always statistically improbable. In no year did more than 150 PE-backed Chinese private companies IPO.

An IPO has gone from statistically improbable to virtually unattainable. This is not only impacting the thinking of PE firms, but of the entrepreneurs they back as well. The exit math for private company bosses in China has changed dramatically over the last 12 months. M&A looks more and more like the only viable path to exit.

For business owners, the challenge to getting a deal done are both psychological and practical. First, owners must accept that valuations are way below where they hoped them to be, as well as well below the level two years ago, when they topped out at over 100 times last year’s net income. Second, the number of companies looking to sell will quickly begin to outnumber the qualified and capable acquirers. This will put further downward pressure on valuations.

In other words, for private company bosses looking for a liquidity event, the pressure to consider selling the business is mounting. For investors, owners and acquirers, the result is the beginnings of a genuine market for corporate control for private sector businesses in China.

The new China First Capital report is directed towards all three classes of potential acquirers — 1) global businesses seeking China market entry; 2) corporate acquirers seeking market or margin expansion in China through strategic or tuck-in acquisitions; 3) China domestic or global buyout firms seeking quality operating assets that can be built up and sold.  Their methods, timetable, metrics and deal targets will often differ. But, all three will find the current situation in China more suitable than at any previous time for executing M&A transactions of USD$100mn and above.

While the number of attractive targets is increasing, the complexities of doing M&A in China remain. The invested PE firms are almost always minority investors. A control transaction will need to be structured and staged to incentivize the owner to sell at least a portion of his holding alongside the PE firm, and then likely remain for at least several years at the helm.

The report offers some possible deal structures and timing mechanisms, included using “blended valuation” to determine price. It also charts the all-important  “when does cash enter my pocket” timing from the perspective of a selling majority owner.

PE investment in China, the report concludes,  has altered permanently the business landscape in China. It has also prepared the ground for a surge now in M&A activity.

Over $150 billion in PE capital was invested to propel the growth of over 10,000 private businesses. PE finance helped create a more dynamic and powerful private sector in China. In quite a number of cases, the PE-invested businesses have emerged as industry leaders in their sectors in China, highly profitable, innovative, fast-growing, with revenues of $100mn and above.

These companies have the scale and established market presence to permit a strategic acquirer to substantially increase its activity in China, extending product range, customer relationships, distribution channels. For buyout firms or corporate acquirers, taking over a PE-invested company should offer satisfactory financial returns. Buyout ROE can be significantly enhanced in certain cases by using leverage to finance the acquisition.

The supreme irony is that this moment of opportunity in domestic M&A comes at the same time quite a number of PE firms are pursuing highly questionable “take private” deals involving troubled Chinese companies listed on the US stock market. (See earlier blog posts here, here, here, here.) The risks, and prices paid, are far higher than doing well-targeted domestic M&A in China.

When junk is priced like jewels — and vice versa — is there any doubt where the smart money should go?

 

 

 

Song Dynasty Deal-Sourcing

I get asked occasionally by private equity firm guys how CFC gets such stellar clients. At least in one case, the answer is carved fish, or more accurately my ability quickly to identify the two murky objects (similar to the ones above) carved into the bottom of a ceramic dish. It also helped that I could identify where the dish was made and when.

From that flowed a contract to represent as exclusive investment bankers China’s largest and most valuable private GPS equipment company in a USD$30mn fund-raising. It’s in every sense a dream client. They are the most technologically adept in the domestic industry, with a deep strategic partnership with Microsoft, along with highly-efficient and high-quality manufacturing base in South China, high growth and very strong prospects as GPS sales begin to boom in China.

Since we started our work about two months ago, several big-time PE firms have practically fallen over themselves to invest in the company. It looks likely to be one of the fastest, smoothest and most enjoyable deals I’ve worked on.

No fish, no deal. I’m convinced of this. If I hadn’t correctly identified the carved fish, as well as the fact the dish was made in a kiln in the town of Longquan in Zhejiang Province during the Song Dynasty, this company would not have become our client. The first time I met the company’s founder and owner, he got up in the middle of our meeting, left the room and came back a few minutes later with a fine looking pale wooden box. He untied the cord, opened the cover and allowed me to lift out the dish.

I’d never seen it before, but still it was about as familiar as the face of an old teacher. Double fish carved into a blue-tinted celadon dish. The dish’s heavy coated clear glaze reflected the office lights back into my eyes. The fish are as sketchily carved as the pair in the picture here (from a similar dish sold at Sothebys in New York earlier this year), more an expressionist rendering than a precisely incised sculpture.

It’s something of a wonder the fish can be discerned at all. The potter needed to carve fast, in wet slippery clay that was far from an ideal medium to sink a knife into. Next came all that transparent glaze and then the dish had to get quickly into a kiln rich in carbon gas. The amount of carbon, the thickness and composition of the glaze, the minerals dissolved in the clay – all or any of these could have contributed to the slightly blue-ish tint, a slight chromatic shift from the more familiar green celadons of the Song Dynasty.

All that I knew and shared with the company’s boss, along with remarking the dish was “真了不起”, or truly exceptional. It’s the finest celadon piece I’ve seen in China. Few remain. The best surviving examples of Song celadon are in museums and private collection outside China. I’m not lucky enough to own any. But, I’ve handled dozens of Song celadons over the years, at auction previews of Chinese ceramic sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York. The GPS company boss had bought this one from an esteemed collector and dealer in Japan.

The boss and I are kindred spirits.  He and I both adore and collect Chinese antiques. His collection is of a quality and breadth that I never imagined existed still in China. Most antiques of any quality or value in China sadly were destroyed or lost during the turbulent 20th century, particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

The GPS company boss began doing business in Japan ten years ago, and built his collection slowly by buying beautiful objects there, and bringing them home to China. Of course, the reason Chinese antiques ended up in Japan is also often sad to consider. They were often part of the plunder taken by Japanese soldiers during the fourteen brutal years from 1931 to 1945 when they invaded, occupied and ravaged parts of China.

Along with the celadon dish, the GPS boss has beautiful Liao, Song, Ming and Qing Dynasty porcelains, wood and stone carvings and a set of Song Dynasty paintings of Buddhist Luohan. In the last few months, I’ve spent about 20 hours at the GPS company’s headquarters. At least three-quarters of that time, including a visit this past week, was spent with the boss, in his private office, handling and admiring his antiques, and drinking fine green tea grown on a small personal plantation he owns on Huangshan.

I’ve barely talked business with him. When I tried this past week to discuss which PE firms have offered him money, he showed scant interest. If I have questions about the company, I talk to the CFO. Early on, the boss gifted me a pretty Chinese calligraphy scroll. I reciprocated with an old piece of British Wedgwood, decorated in an ersatz Chinese style.

Deal-sourcing is both the most crucial, as well as the most haphazard aspect of investment banking work. Each of CFC’s clients has come via a different route, a different process – some are introduced, others we go out and find or come to us by word-of-mouth.  Unlike other investment banking guys, I don’t play golf. I don’t belong to any clubs. I don’t advertise.

Chinese antiques, particularly Song ceramics,  are among the few strong interests I have outside of my work.  The same goes for the GPS company boss. His 800-year old dish and my appreciation of it forged a common language and purpose between us, pairing us like the two carved fish. The likely result: his high-tech manufacturing company will now get the capital to double in size and likely IPO within four years, while my company will earn a fee and build its expertise in China’s fast-growing automobile industry.