GPS

China PE value-added: Empty promises? AVCJ

Fin

Author: Tim Burroughs

Asian Venture Capital Journal | 22 May 2013 | 15:47 secure

Tags: Gps | China | Operating partners | Buyout | Growth capital |Lunar capital management | Cdh investments management | Citic capital partners | Kohlberg kravis roberts & co. (kkr) | Jiuding Capital | Hony capital

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       China value-add: Empty promises?

Pulled by a desire to buy and build or pushed by a need to address restricted exit options, PE firms in China are placing greater emphasis on operational value-add. LPs must decide who’s all talk and who is action

By the time Harvard Business School published its case study of Kunwu Jiuding Capital in December 2011, the investment model being celebrated was already fading.

Within four years of its launch, the private equity firm had amassed $1 billion in funds and 260 employees, having turned itself into a PE factory “where investment activities were carried out in a way similar to large-scale industrial production.” Jiuding’s approach focused on getting a company to IPO quickly and leveraging exit multiples available on domestic bourses; and then repeating the process several dozen times over. With IRRs running to 500% or more, an army of copycats emerged as renminbi fundraising jumped 60% year-on-year to $30.1 billion in 2012.

But the average price-to-earnings ratio for ChiNext-listed companies had slipped below 40 by the end of 2011, compared to 129 two years earlier; SME board ratios were also sliding. Already denied the multiples to which they were accustomed, nearly a year later these pre-IPO investors were denied any listings at all as China’s securities regulator froze approvals.

The Harvard Business School case study noted that concerns had been raised about the sustainability of the quick-fire approach, given that some of these GPs appeared to lack the skills and experience to operate in normalized conditions. “The short-term mentality creates volatility,” Vincent Huang, a partner at Pantheon, told AVCJ in October 2011. “A lot of these GPs don’t have real value to add and so they won’t be in the market for the long run.”

Subsequent events have elevated the debate into one of existential proportions for pre-IPO growth capital firms. Listings will return but it is unclear whether they will reach their previous heights: the markets may be more selective and the valuations more muted.

There is also a sense that GPs have been found out lacking a Plan B; renminbi fundraising dropped to $5.1 billion in the second half of 2012. The trend is reflected on the US dollar side as the slowdown in Hong Kong listings over the course of the year left funds with ever decreasing certainty over portfolio exits. If GPs – big or small – face holding a company for longer than expected, what are they going to do with it?

“We value control and we can take advantage of the M&A markets if we have it. We also like the IPO markets here but any investment where we aren’t a controlling shareholder, we can’t set down the timetable for exit,” says H. Chin Chou, CEO of Morgan Stanley Private Equity Asia. “We ask ourselves, ‘Do we like holding this investment for five years because there is no IPO? At some point the IPO market will come back but until then you have to be very comfortable holding it.”

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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.