investment banking

A Nominee For A PE Medal of Honor

medal

If they gave medals for valor and distinguished service to the PE industry, SAIFs Ben Ng surely earned one this past week. In a twelve hour stretch, he met with the laoban (Chinese for “boss”) of four different Chinese SME, at four different company headquarters, and probed each on the merits of their particular business.

The companies were at four different stages, from start-up to a 14-year-old company with a household name in much of southern China, and from four very different industries, from robotic manufacturing to a major fast-food chain, from agriculture to e-commerce.

Ben never wavered, never tired, never lost his genuine enthusiasm for hearing great entrepreneurs talk about what makes their businesses special, while explaining a little about his own company. As I found out later, Ben left a deep imprint with each entrepreneur, and in his understated way, showed each of them why SAIF is such an outstanding success in the PE industry in China, SAIF has backed more than 80 companies during its 10 year history, with $3.5 billion under management, and some of the more illustrious Limited Partners of any PE firm in the world.

By the end of the day, Ben was still full of life, mind sharp and mood upbeat. I, on the other hand, had a case of “PE battle fatigue”. I got home and almost immediately crawled into bed, trying to recall, without much success, which laoban had said what, and which business model belonged to whom. I’ve met a lot of company bosses in my 25-year career. But, I can’t recall ever having so many meetings at this high level in one day. Ben, on the other hand, mentioned he has days like this quite often, as he travels around China.

Ben is a partner at SAIF, with long experience in both high-technology and PE investing. He’s one of the professionals I most like and respect in the PE industry in China. I wanted these four laoban to meet him, and learn for themselves what top PE firms look for, how they evaluate companies, and how they work with entrepreneurs to accelerate the growth and improve the performance of their portfolio companies up to the time of an IPO, and often beyond.

Every great company needs a great investor. That about sums up the purpose and goal of my work in China.

I’d met these four laoban before and knew their businesses fairly well. In my view, each has a realistic chance to become the clear leader in their industry in China, and within a few years, assuming they get PE capital to expand, a publicly-traded company with market cap above $1 billion.  If so, they will earn the PE investor a very significant return – most likely, in excess of 500%. In other words, in my view,  a PE firm could be quite lucky to invest in these companies.

Will SAIF invest in any of the four? Hard to say. They look at hundreds of companies every year, and because of their track record, can choose from some of the very best SME in China. SAIF has as good a record as any of the top PE firms in China. According to one of Ben’s partners at SAIF, the firm has an 80% compounded annual rate of return.

That’s about as good as they get in the PE industry. SAIF’s investors might consider nominating the firm for a medal as well.

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How PE Firms Can Add – or Subtract – Value: the New CFC Research Report

China First Capital research report

CFC has just published its latest Chinese-language research report. The title is 《私募基金如何创造价值》, which I’d translate as “How PE Firms Add Value ”.

You can download a copy here:  How PE Firms Add Value — CFC Report

China is awash, as nowhere else in the world is,  in private equity capital. New funds are launched weekly, and older successful ones top up their bank balance. Just this week, CDH, generally considered the leading China-focused PE firm in the world, closed its fourth fund with $1.46 billion of new capital. Over $50 billion has been raised over the last four years for PE investment in China. 

In other words, money is not in short supply. Equity investment experience, know-how and savvy are. There’s a saying in the US venture capital industry, “all money spends the same”. The implication is that for a company, investment capital is of equal value regardless of the source. In the US, there may be some truth to this. In China, most definitely not. 

In Chinese business, there is no more perilous transition than the one from a fully-private, entrepreneur-founded and led company to one that can IPO successfully, either on China’s stock markets, or abroad. The reason: many private companies, especially the most successful ones, are growing explosively, often doubling in size every year.

They can barely catch their breath, let alone put in place the management and financial systems needed to manage a larger, more complex business. This is inevitable consequence of operating in a market growing as fast as China’s, and generating so many new opportunities for expansion. 

A basic management principle, also for many good private companies, is: “grab the money today, and worry about the consequences tomorrow”. This means that running a company in China often requires more improvising than long-term planning. I know this, personally, from running a small but fast-growing company. Improvisation can be great. It means a business can respond quickly to new opportunities, with a minimum of bureaucracy. 

But, as a business grows, and particularly once it brings in outside investors, the improvisation, and the success it creates, can cause problems. Is company cash being managed properly and most efficiently? Are customers receiving the same degree of attention and follow-up they did when the business was smaller? Does the production department know what the sales department is doing and promising customers? What steps are competitors taking to try to steal business away? 

These are, of course, the best kind of problems any company can have. They are the problems caused by success, rather than impending bankruptcy.

These problems are a core aspect of the private equity process in China. It’s good companies that get PE finance, not failed ones. Once the PE capital enters a company, the PE firm is going to take steps to protect its investment. This inevitably means making sure systems are put in place that can improve the daily management and long-term planning at the company. 

It’s often a monumental adjustment for an entrepreneur-led company. Accountability supplants improvisation. Up to the moment PE finance arrives, the boss has never had to answer to anyone, or to justify and defend his decisions to any outsider. PE firms, at a minimum, will create a Board of Directors and insist, contractually, that the Board then meet at least four times a year to review quarterly financials, discuss strategy and approve any significant investments. 

Whether this change helps or hurts the company will depend, often, on the experience and knowledge of the PE firm involved.  The good PE firms will offer real help wherever the entrepreneur needs it – strengthening marketing, financial team, international expansion and strategic alliances. They are, in the jargon of our industry, “value-add investors”.

Lesser quality PE firms will transfer the money, attend a quarterly banquet and wait for word that the company is staging an IPO. This is dumb money that too often becomes lost money, as the entrepreneur loses discipline, focus and even an interest in his business once he has a big pile of someone else’s money in his bank account.   

Our new report focuses on this disparity, between good and bad PE investment, between value-add and valueless. Our intended audience is Chinese entrepreneurs. We hope, aptly enough, that they determine our report is value-add, not valueless. The key graphic in the report is this one, which illustrates the specific ways in which a PE firm can add value to a business.  In this case, the PE investment helps achieve a four-fold increase. That’s outstanding. But, we’ve seen examples in our work of even larger increases after a PE round.

chart1

The second part of the report takes on a related topic, with particular relevance for Chinese companies: the way PE firms can help navigate the minefield of getting approval for an IPO in China.  It’s an eleven-step process. Many companies try, but only a small percentage will succeed. The odds are improved exponentially when a company has a PE firm alongside, as both an investor and guide.

While taking PE investment is not technically a prerequisite, in practice, it operates like one. The most recent data I’ve seen show that 90% of companies going public on the new Chinext exchange have had pre-IPO PE investment. 

In part, this is because Chinese firms with PE investment tend to have better corporate governance and more reliable financial reporting. Both these factors are weighed by the CSRC in deciding which companies are allowed to IPO. 

At their best, PE firms can serve as indispensible partners for a great entrepreneur. At their worst, they do far more harm than good by lavishing money without lavishing attention. 

The report is illustrated with details from imperial blue-and-white porcelains from the time of the Xuande Emperor, in the Ming Dynasty.


 

TMK Power Industries – Anatomy of a Reverse Merger

lacquer box from China First Capital blog post

Two years back, I met the boss and toured the factory of a Shenzhen-based company called TMK Power Industries. They make rechargeable nickel-metal hydride, or Ni-MH,  batteries, the kind used in a lot of household appliances like electric toothbrushes and razors, portable “Dustbuster” vacuum cleaners, and portable entertainment devices like MP3 players. 

At the time, it seemed to me a good business, not great. Lithium rechargeable batteries are where most of the excitement and investment is these days. But, TMK had built up a nice little pocket of the market for the lower-priced and lower-powered NI-MH variety. 

I just read his company went public earlier this year in the US, through a reverse merger and OTCBB listing. I wish this boss lots of luck. He’ll probably need it.

Things may all work out for TMK. But, at first glance, it looks like the company has spent the last two years committing a form of slow-motion suicide. 

Back when I met the company, we had a quick discussion about how they could raise money to expand. I went through the benefits of raising private equity capital, but it mainly fell on deaf ears. The boss let me know soon after that he’d decided to list his company in the US.

He made it seem like a transaction was imminent, since I know he was in need of equity capital. Two years elapsed, but he eventually got his US listing, on the OTCBB, with a ticket symbol of DFEL. 

Here is a chart of share price performance from date of listing in February. It’s a steep fall, but not an unusual trajectory for Chinese companies listed on the OTCBB. 

 TMK share chart

From the beginning, I guessed his idea was to do some kind of reverse merger and OTCBB transaction. I knew he was working then with a financial advisor in China whose forte was arranging these OTCBB deals. I never met this advisor, but knew him by reputation. He had previously worked with a company that later became a client of mine. 

The advisor had arranged an OTCBB deal for this client whose main features were to first raise $8 million from a US OTCBB stock broker as “expansion capital” for the client. The advisor made sure there wouldn’t be much expanding, except of his own bank account and that of the stock broker that planned to put up the $8mn. 

Here’s how the deal was meant to work: the advisor would keep 17% of the capital raised as his fee, or $1.35mn.  The plan was for the broker to then rush this company through an expensive “Form 10” OTCBB listing where at least another $1.5 mn of the original $8mn money would go to pay fees to advisors, the broker,  lawyers and others. The IPO would raise no money for the company, but instead all proceeds from share sale would go to the advisor and broker. The final piece was a huge grant of warrants to this advisor and the stock broker that would leave them in control of at least 15% of the post-IPO equity. 

If the plan had gone down, it’s possible that the advisor and broker would have made 2-3 times the money they put up, in about six months. The Chinese company, meanwhile, would be left to twist in the wind after the IPO. 

Fortunately for the company, this IPO deal never took place. Instead, I helped the company raise $10mn in private equity from a first class PE firm. The company used the money to build a new factory. It has gone from strength to strength. Its profits this year will likely hit $20mn, four times the level of three years ago when I first met them. They are looking at an IPO next year at an expected market cap of over $500mn, more than 10 times higher than when I raised them PE finance in 2008. 

TMK was not quite so lucky. I’m not sure if this advisor stayed around long enough to work on the IPO. His name is not mentioned in the prospectus. It does look like his kind of deal, though. 

TMK should be ruing the day they agreed to this IPO. The shares briefly hit a high of $2.75, then fell off a cliff. They are now down below $1.50. It’s hard to say the exact price, because the shares barely trade. There is no liquidity.

As the phrase goes, the shares “trade by appointment”. This is a common feature of OTCBB listed companies. Also typical for OTCBB companies, the bid-ask spread is also very wide: $1.10 bid, and $1.30 asked. 

Looking at the company’s underlying performance, however, there is some good news. Revenues have about doubled in last two years to around $50mn. In most recent quarter, revenues rose 50% over the previous quarter. That kind of growth should be a boost to the share price. Instead, it’s been one long slide. One obvious reason: while revenues have been booming, profits have collapsed. Net margin shrunk from 13% in final quarter of 2009 to 0.2% in first quarter of 2010. 

How could this happen? The main culprit seems to be the fact that General and Administrative costs rose six-fold in the quarter from $269,000 to over $1.8mn. There’s no mention of the company hiring Jack Welch as its new CEO, at a salary of $6mn a year. So, it’s hard to fathom why G&A costs hit such a high level. I certainly wouldn’t be very pleased if I were a shareholder. 

TMK filed its first 10Q quarterly report late. That’s not just a bad signal. It’s also yet another unneeded expense. The company likely had to pay a lawyer to file the NT-10Q to the SEC to report it would not file on time. When the 10Q did finally appear, it also sucked money out of the company for lawyers and accountants. 

TMK did not have an IPO, as such. Instead, there was a private placement to raise $6.9mn, and in parallel a sale of over 6 million of the company’s shares by a variety of existing shareholders. The broker who raised the money is called Hudson Securities, an outfit I’ve never heard of. TMK paid Hudson $545,000 in fees for the private placement, and also issued to Hudson for free a packet of shares, and a large chunk of warrants.

Hudson was among the shareholders looking to sell, according to the registration statement filed when the company completed its reverse merger in February. It’s hard to know precisely, but it seems a fair guess that TMK paid out to Hudson in cash and kind over $1mn on this deal. 

The reverse merger itself, not including cost of acquiring the shell, cost another $112,000 in fees. At the end of its most recent quarter, the company had all of $289,000 in the bank. 

These reverse merger and OTCBB deals involving Chinese companies happen all the time. Over the last four years, there’s been an average of about six such deals a month.

This is the first time – and with luck it will be the only time – I actually met a company before they went through the process. Most of these reverse merger deals leave the companies worse off. Not so brokers and advisors. 

Given the dismal record of these deals, the phrase 美国反向收购 or “US reverse merger” , should be the most feared in the Chinese financial lexicon. Sadly, that’s not the case.


 

Investment Banking in China — New Report Published by China First Capital

China First Capital Report on Investment Banking

My CFC colleagues just completed our latest research report, on investment banking. It’s titled “投资银行的重要性”. A copy can be downloaded here: 

Download China First Capital Report on Investment Banking

The report examines the history, structure and central role of investment banks in raising capital for companies. Like other CFC reports, this one was meant to add meaningfully to the quality of information available in Chinese on financial topics relevant to SME owners and other private sector entrepreneurs. It’s a part of our work that I take special pleasure in. It can widen the circumference of our impact and contribution, beyond the relatively small group of CFC clients and the PE firms that finance them. 

We want the reports to be read widely, and to have some staying power. In choosing topics for these reports, we’re guided most strongly by our daily interactions with Chinese entrepreneurs, by the questions they raise, and problems they confront. So it is with the latest report. 

Investment banking isn’t well-understood in China, for the most part. There’s a lot of pigeonholing. Investment banks are primarily known for their IPO work, and not much else. The core function of investment banking – raising capital for companies —  is often missed.

This lapse speaks volumes about a larger, endemic problem in Chinese business: a shortage of growth capital among private businesses,  and an accompanying lack of knowledge how to raise it. 

Equity capital is used far less in China than the US to finance corporate activity. Bank loans could potentially fill the void somewhat, but they are very difficult for private Chinese companies to obtain from the country’s state-owned banks. The result: private companies under-invest and so grow far more slowly than market opportunities warrant. 

Of course, our new Chinese-language report on investment banking isn’t going to untangle this mess. Its aim is far more modest: to provide research and a rationale for investment banks’ central role in the capital-raising process.

 

Voices From the Abyss: the Crooked Dealmakers Write Back, Offering to Work Together — and Why I’ll Always Say No

One of the earliest bonds issued in China     One of first bonds issued in China

 

My last two posts have elicited an unusual amount of feedback. The posts deal with the underhandedness, deceit, negligence and shameless greed of so many of the advisors, lawyers and investment bankers doing IPOs of Chinese companies outside China. 

It’s always nice to get mail. Well, mostly. A lot of the comments and emails were complimentary. But, probably half of the email traffic came from various ethically-challenged financial advisors, brokers, lawyers and fixers asking to work with me on their different China IPO schemes. All of them were, from what I could tell, the sort of transactions I railed against in my recent posts – particularly OTCBB listings, reverse mergers. In other words, the same people I would like to see neutered wrote to see if I wanted to go whoring around with them. 

I even got invited to a reverse merger conference in Las Vegas — hard to decide which part I’d least prefer, the conference or the setting.

In one sense, this is more than a little depressing. Either these guys hadn’t understood what I wrote, or figured I would be a useful shill for them somehow: “Look, we even convinced that guy Fuhrman who criticized OTCBB listings to get in on the game.” If so, they seriously miscalculated. 

There is another, more hopeful explanation for these wildly off-target emails. I know that times have gotten very tough for this whole crowd who made all the money wrecking what were often quite promising Chinese SME companies by convincing them to do bad IPO deals. The stock market, of course, is still limping, and most IPO activity (both the good and the debased) has all but dried up. 

Perhaps, then,  these emails to me are a last dying gasp, a tangible sign that the low practices that flourished over the last ten years are doomed. That would be great news, that bad advisors are contacting me as a last resort, because they’ve tried everything else and failed to revive a once-lucrative franchise fleecing good Chinese companies. 

You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true… We’ll see. 

For the record, as well as for those who may harbor any lingering hope I might be able to revive their business doing OTCBB listings or reverse mergers, I wanted to set out, clearly, what it is we do:

  • We only work with some of China’s best, fully-private SME
  • We only work with them on the basis of a long-term partnership, and we will only succeed financially, as a firm, if our SME clients do so. To assure this is the case, we take a significant part of our fees in shares that are likely to be illiquid for 3-5 years
  • We focus on raising our SME clients pre-IPO capital from any of the 50 or so Top Tier Private Equity firms active in China, and providing other financial advisory services over the longer-term, including subsequent capital-raisings, M&A work
  • In most cases, our clients will remain private for at least 2-3 years from the time we begin working with them
  • We are never involved in any kind of “rush to market” IPO, or any deal involving an OTCBB listing, reverse merger, SPAC, PIPEs

Now, I can imagine what a few of my recent email correspondents must be thinking, “What a dope. Why would anyone bother with this ‘high integrity’ stuff when you can make a fortune pushing Chinese companies through the IPO meat grinder?” 

That sort of approach, of grabbing fees while mutilating your client,  is so far removed from what I built China First Capital to do that it’s like asking a ballerina to enter a demolition derby. I’m lucky (or crazy, take your pick), but I didn’t start CFC with the primary motive of making money. I started it for three reasons:

(1) to have a chance, after achieving some career success elsewhere, to give something back to China, a country that’s been the deep and abiding love of mine since I was a little boy;  (2) to work alongside world-class founder/entrepreneurs, and help them get the financing they need to go farther and faster, and so become industry leaders in China over the next 10-20 years; and (3) to provide Chinese SMEs with at least one alternative to the sort of noxious advisory firms that have preyed on them for over 10 years. 

It’s demanding work. We refuse to cut corners, or get involved with a deal because there’s easy money to be made. We view our clients as our partners, not as a meal ticket.  In all these ways, I know I come from a different planet than the guys who arrange OTCBB deals, reverse mergers, or other quickie IPOs.

There’s another difference: I feel profoundly lucky every day to do what I get to do. I doubt they do. 

 

 

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Ethics and Investment Banking – how disreputable advisors, bankers and lawyers damaged Chinese SMEs through OTCBB listings, reverse mergers

 

Qing Dynasty bowl from article by China First Capital

 

Back again in Shenzhen, with plenty of food for thought, as well as food for the belly. I go through the same “immersion program” whenever I arrive back here: it involves stopping for a plate of dumplings or bowl of noodles once every 30 paces. Or anyway, it certainly seems that way. 

The food for thought, as always, centers on ways to deliver enhanced value and service to clients and business partners. We have a set of core principles, that we build our business on, and that collectively represent our main differentiators. They are disarmingly simple – to work with integrity and honesty,  and always put the success of our clients’ first. We know that if we do this, our own success will follow. 

Simple, but not nearly as universal as they should be in our business. A lot of investment banking, IPO and advisory work in China has bordered on the criminal. Hundreds of SME companies were damaged, if not destroyed, by advisors, lawyers and others who neglected entirely to put their clients’ interests first. Instead, they pushed for companies to take various fast routes to IPO in the US, typically reverse mergers, OTCBB Listings, Form 10, SPAC deals. The reason: the advisors, lawyers, bankers all made a pile of money, quickly, through these kinds of deals. When things turned sour, as they often did, the advisers, bankers and lawyers were generally nowhere to be found, and the Chinese companies were left in dire straits.

Obviously, the bosses of the Chinese companies were complicit, since they agreed to these kinds of schemes to achieve a fast IPO. But, in my experience, the bosses main sin was that of ignorance. They simply didn’t understand all the workings of these kinds of deals, or even the fee-structure that would disproportionately reward the advisers, lawyers and bankers. In other words, the Chinese bosses didn’t do their DD, didn’t check the dismal track record of the many Chinese companies that already opted for OTCBB listings or reverse mergers.

I sometimes think the Chinese term for IPO, “上市” ( “shang shi”) has magical, intoxicating effect on some Chinese bosses. They hear it and suspend all their normal caution and suspicion. Soon, they end up agreeing to what are often truly disastrous transactions that don’t even deserve the name IPO.

There are, by some estimates, several hundred Chinese companies now listed on the OTCBB that are somewhere between “on life support” and “clinically dead”. Their share prices fell steeply immediately after listing (by which time the advisers, bankers and lawyers all pocketed their fees and lined up their next victims) and are below $1. There is little to no liquidity. They often trade at PE multiples of 1-2x. The costs of retaining the OTCBB listing are bleeding the companies of badly-needed money. They have no chance to raise additional capital, nor to do much of anything (except waste money on Investor Relations firms) to lift their share price.

I get angry just thinking about this. I’m offended that people in my field of work would be involved in such self-serving, greed-ridden transactions. Secondly, it’s also brought a lot of harm, and sometimes complete failure, to what were very good Chinese SME companies that once had bright futures, until they had the misfortune of putting their financial futures in the hands of these advisors.

Of course, the guiding principle behind all investment decisions must be “caveat emptor”. Chinese bosses clearly didn’t “caveat” enough. That’s regrettable. But, the gains made by the advisors, lawyers and bankers were so enormous, and so ill-gotten. That’s the heart of the matter: Chinese companies were ruined so that a bunch of ethically-challenged finance people could get rich.  For me, this is contemptible.  How these people sleep at night I don’t know.

I do know this: we try to do everything we can to make it less likely that a good Chinese SME goes the same route, and ends up in the same sad condition. One way is through information. We’re producing Chinese-language materials meant to explain the hazards of transactions like OTCBB listings and reverse mergers. Our plan is to distribute the materials as widely as possible, both online and off. It may not put the bad guys out of business, but at least it will make it easier for Chinese SME bosses to know which questions to ask, what kind of track record to look for or, more often,  run away from.

I’ll be sharing soon on this blog  the English version of some of this information.

 

 

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