General Mills

Quietly But Successfully, US Companies Are Buying Chinese Businesses

--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.

3d

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.

illinois

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.

negative

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.

chart

Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

An insider’s view of Chinese M&A — Intralinks Deal Flow Predictor

intra

Intralinks Dealflow Predictor

 

Intralinks: The meltdown of China’s equity markets that began in the summer, despite measures by officials in Beijing aimed at calming investors’ nerves, has left many global investors jittery. Is this just a correction of an overheated market or the start of something more serious, and how would you describe the mood in China at the moment?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Never once have I heard of a stock market correction that was greeted with glee by the mass of investors, brokers, regulators or government officials. So too most recently in China. The dive in Chinese domestic share prices, while both overdue and in line with the sour fundamentals of most domestically quoted companies, has caused much unhappiness at home and anxiety abroad. The dour outlook persists, as more evidence surfaces that China’s real economy is indeed in some trouble. I first came to China 34 years ago, and have lived full-time here for the last six years. This is unquestionably the worst economic and financial environment I’ve encountered in China. Unlike in 2008, the Chinese government can’t and won’t light a fiscal bonfire to keep the economy percolating. The enormous state-owned sector is overall on life support, barely eking out enough cash flow to pay interest on its massive debts. Salvation this time around, if it’s to be found, will come from the country’s effervescent private sector. It’s already the source of most job creation and non-pump-primed growth in China. The energy, resourcefulness, pluck and risk-tolerance of China’s entrepreneurs knows no equal anywhere in the world. The private sector has been fully legal in China for less than two decades. It is only beginning to work its economic magic.

 

Intralinks: Much has been made of slowing economic growth in China. What are you seeing on the ground and how reliable do you view the Chinese official growth statistics?

 

Peter Fuhrman: If there’s a less productive pastime than quibbling with China’s official statistics, I don’t know of it. Look, it’s beyond peradventure, beyond guesstimation that China’s economic transformation is without parallel in human history. The transformation of this country over the 34 years since I first set foot here as a graduate student is so rapid, so total, so overwhelmingly positive that it defies numerical capture. That said, we’re at a unique juncture in China. There are more signs of economic worry down at the grassroots consumer level than I can recall ever seeing. China is in an unfamiliar state where nothing whatsoever is booming. Real estate prices? Flat or dropping. Manufacturing? Skidding. Exports? Crawling along. Stock market prices? Hammered down and staying down. The Renminbi? No longer a one-way bet.

 

Intralinks: What impact do you see a slowing Chinese economy having on other economies in the APAC region and elsewhere?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Of course there will be an impact, both regionally and globally. There’s only one certain cure for any country feeling ill effects from slowing exports to China: allow the Chinese to travel visa-free to your country. The one trade flow that is now robust and without doubt will become even more so is the Chinese flocking abroad to travel and spend. Only partly in jest do I suggest that the U.S. trade deficit with China, now running at a record high of about $1.5 billion a day, could be eliminated simply by letting the Chinese travel to the U.S. with the same ease as Taiwanese and Hong Kong residents. Manhattan store shelves would be swept clean.

 

Intralinks: With prolonged record low interest rates and low inflation in most of the advanced economies, many multinational companies have looked to China as a source of growth, including through M&A. Which sectors in China have tended to attract the majority of foreign interest? Do you see that continuing or will the focus and opportunities shift elsewhere? Is China a friendly environment for inbound M&A?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The challenges, risks and headaches remain, of course, but M&A fruit has never been riper in China. This is especially so for U.S. and European companies looking to seize a larger slice of China’s domestic consumer market. The M&A strategy that does work in China is to acquire a thriving Chinese private sector business with revenues in China of at least $25m a year, with its own-brand products, distribution, and a degree of market acceptance. The goal for a foreign acquirer is to use M&A to build out most efficiently a sales, brand and product strategy that is optimized for China, in both today’s market conditions, as well as those likely to pertain in the medium- to long-term.

The botched deals tend to get all the headlines, but almost surreptitiously, some larger Fortune 500 companies have made some stellar acquisitions in China. Among them are Nestle, General Mills, ITW, FedEx and Valspar. They bought solid, successful, entrepreneur-founded and run companies. Those acquired companies are now larger, often by orders of magnitude. The acquirer has also dramatically expanded sales of its own global products in China by utilizing the localized distribution channels it acquired. In Nestle’s case, China is now its second-largest market in revenue-terms after the U.S. Four years ago, it ranked number seven.

Chinese government policy towards M&A is broadly positive to neutral. More consequential but perhaps less well-understood are the negative IPO environment for domestic private sector companies, as well as the enormous overhang of un-exited PE invested deals in China. These have transferred pricing leverage from sellers to buyers in China. Increasingly, the most sought-after exit route for domestic Chinese entrepreneurs is through a trade sale to a large global corporation.

 

Intralinks: After years of being seen mainly as “an interested party”, rather than an actual dealmaker, Chinese players are increasingly frequently the successful bidder in international M&A transactions. What has changed in their approach to dealmaking to ensure such success?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, Chinese buyers are increasingly more willing and able to close international M&A deals. But, the commonly-heard refrain that Chinese buyers will devour everything laid in front of them stands miles apart from reality. It seems like every asset for sale in every locale is seeking a Chinese buyer. The limiting factor isn’t money. Chinese acquirers’ cost of capital is lower than anywhere else, often fractionally above zero. The issue instead is too few Chinese companies have the managerial depth and experience to close global M&A deals. There are some world-class exceptions and world-class Chinese buyers. In the last year, for example, a Chinese PE fund called Hua Capital has led two milestone transactions, the proposed acquisition for a total consideration north of $2.5bn, of two U.S.-quoted semiconductor companies, Omnivision and ISSI. Hua Capital has powerful backers in China’s government, as well as outstanding senior executives. These guys are the real deal.

 

Intralinks: When it comes to doing deals, what are the differences between private/public companies and SOEs?

 

Peter Fuhrman: With rare exceptions, the SOE sector is now paralyzed. No M&A deals can be closed. Every week brings new reports of the arrest of senior SOE management for corruption. In some cases, the charges relate directly to M&A malfeasance, bribes, kickbacks and the like. SOE M&A teams will still go on international tire-kicking junkets, but getting any kind of transaction approved by the higher tiers within the SOE itself and by the government control apparatus is all but impossible for now. That leaves China’s private sector companies, especially quoted ones, as the most likely club of buyers. We work with the chairmen of quite a few of these private companies. The appetite is there, the dexterity often less so.

 

Intralinks: China has long been a fertile dealmaking environment for PE funds – both home-grown and international. In what ways does the Chinese PE model differ from what we see in other markets?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Perhaps too fertile. For all the thousands of deals done, Chinese PE’s great Achilles heel is an anemic rate of return to their limited partner investors, especially when measured by actual cash distributions. Over the last three, five, seven years, Chinese PE as a whole has underperformed U.S. PE by a gaping margin. It’s a fundamental truth too often overlooked. High GDP growth rates do not correlate, and never have, with high investment returns, especially from alternative investment classes like PE. If there is one striking disparity between PE as practiced in China as compared to the U.S. and Europe, it’s the fact that that Chinese general partners, whether they’re from the world’s largest global PE firms or pan-Asian or China-focused funds, too often think and act more like asset managers than investors. The 2 takes precedence over the 20.

Intralinks: What opportunities and challenges are private equity investors facing?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The levels of PE and venture capital (VC) investing activity in China have dropped sharply. What money is being invested is mainly chasing after a bunch of loss-making online shopping and mobile services apps. The hope here is one will emerge as China’s next Alibaba or Tencent, the two giants astride China’s private sector. PE investment in China’s “real economy,” that is manufacturing businesses that create most of the jobs and wealth in China, has all but dried up. Though out of favor, this is where the best deals are likely to be found now. Contrarianism is an investing worldview not often encountered at China-focused PE and VC firms.

 

Intralinks: As in many other markets, PE investors are having to deal with a backlog of portfolio companies ready to be exited. Do you feel that PE’s focus on minority investments in China could prove a challenge when it comes to exiting those investments? What do you see as the primary exit route?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Exits remain both few in number and overwhelmingly concentrated on a single pathway, that of IPO. M&A exits, the main source of profit for U.S. and European PE firms, remain exceedingly rare in China. In part, it’s because PE firms usually hold a minority stake in their Chinese investments. In part, though, the desire for an IPO exit is baked into the PE investment process in China. Price/Earnings (P/E) multiple arbitrage, trying to capture alpha through the observed delta in valuation multiples between private and public markets, remains a much-beloved tactic.

 

Intralinks: Finally, what is your overall outlook on China and advice for foreign companies and investors seeking opportunities to engage in M&A or invest there?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, China’s economy is slowing. But the salient discussion point within boardrooms should be that even at 5% growth, China’s economy this year is getting richer faster in dollar terms than it did in 2007 when GDP growth was 14%. That’s because the economy is now so much larger. This added increment of wealth and purchasing power in China in 2015 is larger than the entire economies of Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Much of the annual gain in China, likely to remain impressively large for many long years to come, filters down into increased middle class spending power. This is why China must matter to global businesses with a product or service to sell. M&A in China has a cadence and quirks all its own. But, the business case can often be compelling. The terrain can be mastered.

 

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

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

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“.