IPO exit

Fresh Ideas For Making Money in China Private Equity and Venture Capital

money-tree2

2016 is looking like it may be another year to forget for PE and VC in China.  The problem, as always, is with exits. For years, IPOs in China for PE-backed deals have been too few and far between.  There was initially a lot of  hope for improvement this year. But, prospects unexpectedly turned bleak when the Chinese securities regulator, the CSRC, suddenly reversed course. Not only did they put on hold previously-announced plans to liberalize IPOs by opening a new “strategic board” in Shanghai and to shift to a registration-based IPO system, they also began clamping down hard on the two main exit alternatives, backdoor shell listings and trade sales to Chinese listed companies.

IPO multiples remain sky-high in China. The IPO queue sits at 830 companies, with at least another 700 now lined up to get provincial approval to join the main waiting list. The CSRC did finally announce one liberalization of the IPO regime in China, but it will likely be of little help to the hundreds of PE and VC firms with thousands of unexited deals. Companies based in China’s poorest, most backward areas, the CSRC announced earlier this month, will now get to jump to the head of the queue.

Not for the first time, it looks like PE and VC portfolios may be mismatched with IPO regulatory policy in China. PE and VC firms have of late invested overwhelmingly in two areas. First is healthcare. The industry in China is growing and reforming. But, entry valuations have been bid up to astronomical levels.

In terms of number of deals closed, Chinese tech startups are getting the lion’s share of the attention. China’s online and smartphone population as well as e-commerce industry, after all, are the world’s largest. What’s missing at most of the funded startups are profits or a high-probability path to making money one day soon. Many are using PE money as part of a “last man standing” strategy to win customers by subsidizing purchases. Loss-making companies are still barred from having an IPO in China.

The main building blocks of China’s corporate sector, manufacturing companies and bricks-and-mortar businesses, are both highly out of favor with PE firms.

Amid so much misfortune, where should the PE and VC industry look next to invest profitably in China? What seems most clear is that any strategy linked to short-term IPO exit-chasing, or seeking to intuit the next flux in CSRC policy, has proved fundamentally risky. Some fresh approaches may be in order.

One priority should be on backing companies that can deliver sustainably high margins and positive cash flow over time to support regular dividend payments. Invest more for yield and less for capital gains.

There are such investment opportunities in China. I want to share six here. There are certainly many others. Looking outside the current China PE investment mainstream has other pluses. A troubling term has entered the Chinese financial vocabulary in the last two years, called “2VC”. It means a Chinese company started and run primarily for the purpose of attracting PE and VC money and less about making money from customers. 2VC deserves a detailed analysis of its own, how much it may be warping the investment landscape in China.

GPs and LPs looking for durable margins, scaleability, and a dearth of competition in China could start their search here:

  1. Robotics gearbox. China’s robot industry is hot. By now, about everyone has read the stories suggesting China’s robotics market, already the largest in the world, will boom for decades to come. For now, the investment money in China has gone overwhelmingly into companies that are making simple robots, rather than the robot industry supply chain. This overlooks perhaps the best opportunity of all. Robots rely on sophisticated gearboxes to make parts move. Making and selling gearboxes, rather than the final robot, is where the big margins and demand are. The technology has been around for a while, but the industry is dominated by two big foreign manufacturers, ABB of Switzerland and Rexnord of the US. They make a ton doing it. A Chinese robotics gearbox maker, assuming they get the product right, could immediately roll up sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars, both to Chinese robot makers as well as US, European and Japanese ones. From conversations I’ve had with C Level execs at both ABB and Rexnord, this is the Chinese competition they fear most, but which to their surprise has yet to materialize.  —————————————————————————–
  2. Hospice and specialized late stage care. PE investment in healthcare, especially into biosimilar pharma companies, hospitals and clinics for plastic surgery and dental care has been abundant, averaging well over a billion dollars a year in China. Competition is rampant in all these areas. Late stage critical care, however, has largely gone unfunded. The unmet need in China is almost unfathomably large. There are basically no hospices in China, though some 10 million Chinese die every year, including a surging number from cancers and long-term chronic diseases. There are also 30 million Chinese with Alzheimers and virtually no places offering specialized care. The number of Alzheimers sufferers is rising fast as Chinese longevity surges. Make no mistake, it’s harder to provide this kind of medical care than to do Botox injections. But, anywhere money is easily made in China, it’s getting harder to make any money at all. The biggest provider of specialized high-end late stage care in China is the French company, Orpea. They are doing a great job. I’ve had a close look at their business in China. They too are awed by the scale of the untapped market in China. A big plus: pricing freedom. The business doesn’t rely, as most conventional hospitals and drug companies in China do, on state reimbursement. —————————————————————————————————————————
  3. Dog food and other pet items. When I first came to China in 1981, it was basically illegal to keep a dog or cat as a pet. There was barely enough food to feed the human population and food was rationed. To say the growth in pet ownership since then has been explosive would risk understating things. China is now the third largest dog-owning market globally, with 27.4 million dogs (behind the US with 55.3 million dogs and Brazil with 35.7 million), and the second largest cat-owning country with 58.1 million cats, behind only the US with 80.6 million. China’s pet market will soon blow past that of the US. Everywhere this is presenting great opportunities in pet care, pet food, pet hotels. The US pet food giant Mars has a large chunk of the dog food market here. But, there are still many opportunities to carve out a niche in pet food, both via sales at veterinary clinics and online. The other vast uncharted market: pet insurance.   ——————————————————————————————–
  4. Server storage. Chinese law mandates that the country now has and will continue to have the largest ongoing demand for high-end servers, as well as the software that powers them. The reason: all the major sources of online traffic — Alibaba, Tencent, JD.com, Baidu — must permanently store virtually everything that runs across their network. In the case of Tencent’s Wechat business, that means keeping billions of text, audio, video and photo messages generated every day by its 600 million users. Tencent’s ongoing investment in servers is almost certainly larger than any other company in the world, with the other big Chinese internet companies following closely behind. The growth rate is dizzying. This has created a wonderful profit-center for otherwise troubled chip giant Intel. Its Xeon chips power virtually all high-end servers. No single domestic company has yet emerged to build a sizeable business in storage software, maintenance and integration tailored to the regulatory needs in China. In parallel, there’s also a large market for similar made-at-home software solutions to sell to the Chinese government. They are the reason all this server storage demand exists.   ————————————————————————————————————————————————
  5. Mall-based attractions. Shopping malls in China are in a fight for survival. Clothing retailers, which just two to three years ago took at least half the floor space in Chinese malls, are disappearing. They can’t compete with online merchants offering the same products for one-third to one-half less. The going has proved especially hard for Chinese domestic retail brands, quite a few got PE money back when this sector was hot. Chinese malls need to change, and fast. Their main strategy so far is increasing the floor space allocated to restaurants and movie theaters. Another area with huge potential, but so far little concrete activity, is “edu-tainment” attractions. A prime example is a mall-based aquarium. I was recently shown around one-such mall aquarium in a major Chinese city by its owners, a large Chinese real estate developer. Though they initially knew nothing about aquariums, their design and selection of fish are mediocre, the owner is coining money with over 45% margins. Tickets sell days in advance, not just on weekends, for average of $15 for adults and less for kids. It’s been open and thriving for three years. Every mall they are building now will have a similar attraction. A better operator should be able to push margins higher and roll out nationwide. On average, 55 million Chinese go to the mall each week. —————————————————————————–
  6. Indoor LED vegetable growing.  China has a big appetite for vegetables, about 100 kilos per person per year, or seventy billion tons. Many Chinese, especially the 55% living in cities, have concerns about where and how the vegetables are grown and how they get to market. The worry rises in lock step with per capita income.  Catering to worried Chinese consumers could keep a company in profit for decades. One good idea that’s not yet in China but should be: growing vegetables indoors, using LED lights.The cost of LED lighting has fallen by over 90% since 2010 and will continue to decline, thanks in large part to over-investment in this sector in China. LED efficiency has also nearly doubled over that time. It now costs about the same to grow vegetables indoors with LEDs as it does in well-irrigated farmland. Supplying vegetables to urban China this way has a lot of other advantages, including the ability to provide a secure chain of custody, from the place where the food is picked all the way to the customer’s hands. Lots of models would work in China — large growing areas inside abandoned urban factories to supply better Chinese supermarket chains like Walmart, Carrefour and China Resources, or smaller-scale packages home-delivered or sold through vending machines placed inside high-end residential complexes in China. Organic or non-organic, catering to Chinese picky consumers could keep a company in profit for decades.

Since PE first took off in China in 2005,  China’s economy has grown by almost four-fold. Few GPs in China have done as well in DPI terms. It’s likely not going to get any easier to make or raise money, nor to rack up IPO exits. More than ever, PE firms need to back or incubate ideas to catch and hold some of the new wealth that’s getting created every day in China.

As published by SuperReturn

Private Equity in China 2014: A Dialogue

pendant

PE in China is changing. But, from what and into what?

Over the last week, I had an email discussion with a managing director in China of one of the world’s five largest private equity firms. He wrote to tell me about the fund’s recent change in China strategy, which then triggered an email dialogue on the specific challenges his firm is trying to overcome, and the larger tides that are shaping the private equity industry in China.

I’ll share an edited version here. I’ve taken out the firm’s name and any references that might make it identifiable.

Think it’s easy to be a private equity boss in China, to keep your job and keep your LPs happy? It’s anything but.

PE Firm Managing Director: Peter, I want to share some change in our fund strategy with you and get your opinion on it.

We have optimized our investment strategy for our US$ fund. We will focus more on late-stage companies that can achieve an IPO within 1-2 years and exit/partial exit perhaps 3-4 years or less. Total investment amount is still $30-80M but we prefer larger deal sizes within the range. Since these are high quality companies, we have lowered our criteria and is willing to be more competitive and pay higher valuation and take less % ownership (minimum 4-5% is still OK). We can also buy more old shares and participate in small club deals as long as the minimum investment size is met.

We are also willing to work with high quality listed companies in terms of PIPE/CB. In sum, our strategy should be more flexible and competitive versus before.

Me: Thanks for sending me the summary on the new investment strategy. You could guess I wouldn’t just reply, “sounds fine to me”.

Here’s my view of it, after a day’s thought. If I didn’t know it was from [your firm], or didn’t focus on the larger check size, I’d say the strategy was identical to every RMB PE firm active in China, starting with Jiuding and then moving downward. That by itself is a problem since in my mind, [your firm] operates in a different universe from those guys — you are thoroughly professional, experienced, global, proper fiduciaries. Maybe that’s your opportunity, to be the ” thoroughly professional, experienced, global, proper fiduciary” version of an RMB fund?

Other problem is, unless your firm is even smarter and more well-connected in Zhongnanhai than I think, no one can have any real idea at this point which Chinese companies, other than Alibaba Group,  can gain an IPO in next two years. The English idiom here is “making yourself a hostage to fortune”. In other words, the only way a PE could consistently achieve the goal of “IPO exits within 24 months” is based more on luck than planning and deal execution.

If you asked me, I’d think the way to frame it is you will opportunistically seek early exits, but will focus always on companies where you have confidence EV will increase by +30% YOY over short- and medium-term, in part due to the money and know-how you provide. It’s kind of a hedge, rather than just hoping IPO exits will come roaring back after almost two years with basically zero Chinese IPOs.

The good news for you and for me is that China has so many great companies, great entrepreneurs that all of us can “free ride”, to some extent, on their genius and ability to generate growth and wealth.

PE MD: Thanks for the detailed message and for thinking so hard to help us.

First let me explain why the changes were made. Through extensive recent discussion with limited partners, it appears that a hybrid fund with small early stage, mid-sized growth stage and larger sized late stage or PIPE is not what LPs want as they are in the business of allocating funds to a variety of focused managers rather than just put the money to a single fund doing it all. For example, it could allocate a small portion of its capital to Sequoia or Qiming for early stage and pray they can get a huge return back in five years. For other (major) part of their allocation, they desire some fund which can focus more on IRR increase of Multiple of Capital.

I think this is where we are attempting to position our latest fund. Even though our returns are decent, our previous funds took too long to return distributions and result in lower IRRs.

As you know, my firm has [over $100 billion] AUM. Although the company including the Founder is extremely supportive of our fund, we have to do more to make our fund relevant to the firm financially. Therefore, we need to focus on bigger/latter stage project which can allow us to deploy/harvest capital more quickly than before (3-4 years versus 5-7 years) and building up more AUM per investment professional to reach at least the average for the firm.

Doing many small projects ($10-20 million) has also put a very high administrative burden/cost on our back-office. While the strategy means that we will go in a little bit later stage, taking a smaller-stake sometimes and perhaps pay a higher valuation (since the companies are more expensive as risks are lower closer to liquidity), it doesn’t change our commitment to each investment. In fact, due to the reduced number of investment, we can focus our value creation efforts on each one more. This is very different than the shoot and forget method of Jiuding.

It is true having a smaller stake will reduce our influence and perhaps reduce our ability to persuade the founder to sell in case an IPO is impossible. However, a smaller stake means it is more liquid after IPO and we can be more flexible in selling the stake pre-IPO to another PE. Of course we are not explicitly targeting IPO in 24 month but we are trying to be as late stage as possible while meeting our IRR stand. We do have some idea of what kind of company can IPO sooner based on years of experience. If the markets or regulatory agencies don’t cooperate on the IPO schedule, then we just have to make sure our investments can keep growing without an IPO.

Me: As a strategy, it can’t be faulted. In a nutshell, it’s “Get in, get out, get carry and get new capital allocations from one’s LPs.”

My doubts are down on the practical level. Are there really deals like this in the market? If so, I certainly don’t see them. I’m just one guy feeling the elephant’s tail, and so have nothing like the people, sources that your firm has in China. Maybe there are lots of these kinds of opportunities, well-run Chinese companies with pre-money valuations of +USD$200mn (implying net income of +USD$20mn), and so probably large enough to IPO now, but still looking, somewhat illogically,  to raise outside PE money from a dollar fund at a discount to public markets.  Maybe too there are enough to go around to fill the strategic needs of not just your firm but about every other one active here, including not only the RMB crowd, but all the other big global guys, who also say they want to find ways to write big dollar checks in China and exit these deals within 2-3 years. (This is, after all, the genesis of the craze to throw money into PtP deals in the US, none of which have made anyone any money up to this point.)

Is China deal flow a match for this China strategy? That’s the part I’ll be watching most closely.

My empirical view is that the gap may be growing dangerously ever wider between what China PEs are seeking and what the China market has to offer. This is a country where the best growth capital deals and best risk-adjusted investments are concentrated among entrepreneurial private sector businesses with (sane) valuations below $100mn. In other markets, scale is inversely correlated with risk. In China, it is probably the opposite. Bigger deals here usually have more hair on them than an alpaca.

From our discussions over the years, I know you’re someone who looks at deals through a special, somewhat contrarian prism. Your firm’s new strategy pulls in one direction, while your own inclinations, judgment and experience may perhaps pull you in another.

We’re finishing up now a “What’s ahead in 2014″ Chinese-language report that we’ll distribute to the +6,500 Chinese company bosses, senior management and Chinese government officials in our database.  I’ll send a copy when it’s done. You’ll see we’re basically forecasting 2014 will be a better year to operate and finance a business in China than the last two years. Our view is good Chinese companies should seize the moment, and try to outrun and outgun their competitors.  Your role: supply the fuel, supply the ammo.