Private Equity China

PE-backed firms in China make huge contribution to Chinese economy and development

Yellow snuff bottle from China First Capital blog post

Here’s an excellent article from AltAssets on the contributions of PE-backed companies in China. According to the study, Chinese firms receiving at least $20 million in private equity are leaders in contributing to job creation and economic growth in China.  


Chinese PE-backed companies have more positive social impact than listed firms 

The study compared 100 companies that received at least $20m US private equity investments between 2002 and 2006 with 2,424 publicly listed companies having major operations in China to determine their social impact.

The results of the study show that private equity firms support the development of inland provinces, contribute to foster domestic consumption, transfer management know-how to businesses in their portfolios and improve corporate governance. The study further shows that private equity-backed companies in China had a job creation rate 100 per cent higher and a profit growth rate 56 per cent higher than their publicly-listed peers during the study period of 2002 to 2008.

The survey, conducted by Bain & Company and the PE and Strategic Mergers & Acquisitions Working Group of the European Union Chamber of Commerce, also found that private equity-backed companies spent more than two-and-a-half times that of their publicly-listed counterparts on R&D.

Reflecting on their relatively stronger financial performance, private equity-backed companies yielded tax payments that grew at a 28 per cent rate compounded annually, ten percentage points higher than their benchmark peers in the study. 

Andre Loesekrug-Pietri, chairman of the European Chamber’s PE and Strategic M&A Working Group, said, “China has emerged as one of the leading destinations for private equity capital. This trend is continuing through the current turbulence.”

China is generating lots of interest in the private equity industry, with major firms setting up yuan-denominated funds in the country. Earlier this week Carlyle, the second biggest buy-out house, announced that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Beijing city authorities to establish a fund there, to be known as the Carlyle Asia Partners RMB Fund.

http://www.altassets.net/private-equity-news/article/nz17691.html

The New Equilibrium – It’s the Best Time Ever to be a Chinese Entrepreneur

China Private Equity blog post

As I wrote the last time out, the game is changed in PE investing in China. The firms most certain to prosper in the future are those with ability to raise and invest renminbi, and then guide their portfolio companies to an IPO in China. For many PE firms, we’re at a hinge moment: adapt or die. 

Luckily for me, I work on the other side of the investment ledger, advising private Chinese companies and assisting them with pre-IPO capital raising. So, while the changes now underway are a supreme challenge for PE firms, they are largely positive for the excellent SME businesses I work with.

They now have access to a greater pool of capital and the realistic prospect of a successful domestic IPO in the near future. Both factors will allow the best Chinese entrepreneurs to build their businesses larger and faster, and create significant wealth for themselves. 

As my colleagues and me are reminded every day, we are very fortunate. We have a particularly good vantage point to see what’s happening with China’s entrepreneurs all over the country. On any given week, our company will talk to the bosses of five and ten private Chinese SME. Few of these will become our clients, often because they are still a little small for us, or still focused more on exports than on China’s burgeoning domestic market. We generally look for companies with at least Rmb 25 million in annual profits, and a focus on China’s burgeoning domestic market. 

For the Chinese companies we talk to on a regular basis, the outlook is almost uniformly ideal. China’s economy is generating enormous, once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunities for good entrepreneurs.

Here’s the big change: for the first time ever, the flow of capital in China is beginning to more accurately mirror where these opportunities are. 

China’s state-owned banks have become more willing to lend to private companies, something they’ve done only reluctantly in the past. The bigger change is there is far more equity capital available. Every week brings word that new PE firms have been formed with hundreds of millions of renminbi to invest.

The capital market has also undergone its own evolutionary change. China’s new Growth Enterprise Market, known as Chinext, launched in October 2009. In two months, it has already raised over $1 billion in new capital for private Chinese companies. 

In short, the balance has shifted more in favor of the users rather than the deployers of capital. That because capital is no longer in such short supply. This is among the most significant financial changes taking place in China today: growth capital is no longer the scarcest resource. As recently as a year ago, PE firms were relatively few, and exit opportunities more limited. Within a year, my guess is the number of PE firms and the capital they have to invest in private Chinese companies will both double. 

Of course, raising equity capital remains a difficult exercise in China, just as it is in the US or Europe. Far fewer than 1% of private companies in China will attract outside investment from a PE or VC fund. But, when the business model and entrepreneur are both outstanding,  there is a far better chance now to succeed.

Great business models and great entrepreneurs are both increasingly prevalent in China. I’m literally awestruck by the talent of the Chinese entrepreneurs we meet and work with – and I’ve met quite a few good ones in my past life as a venture capital boss and technology CEO in California, and earlier as a business journalist for Forbes

So, while life is getting tougher for the partners of PE firms (especially those with only dollars to invest), it is a better time now than ever before in Chinese history to be a private entrepreneur. That is great news for China, and a big reason why I’m so thrilled to go to work each day.  


The End of the Line for Old-Style PE Investing in China

Ming Dynasty flask, from China Private Equity blog post

As 2010 dawns, private equity in China is undergoing epic changes. PE in China got its start ten years ago. The founding era is now drawing to a close.  The result will be a fundamental realignment in the way private equity operates in China. It’s a change few of the PE firms anticipated, or can cope with. 

What’s changed? These PE firms grew large and successful raising and investing US dollars,  and then taking Chinese companies public in Hong Kong or New York. This worked beautifully for a long time, in large part because China’s own capital markets were relatively underdeveloped. Now, the best profit opportunities are for PE investors using renminbi and exiting on China’s domestic stock markets. Many of the first generation PE firms are stuck holding an inferior currency, and an inferior path to IPO. 

The dominant PE firms of yesterday, those that led the industry during its first decade in China, are under pressure, and some will not survive. They once generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. Now, these same firms seem antiquated, their methods and approach ill-suited to conditions in China. 

In the end, success in PE investing comes down to one thing: maximizing the difference between your entry and exit price. This differential will often be twice as large for investors with renminbi as those with dollars. The basic reason is that stock market valuations in China, on a current p/e basis, are over twice as high as in Hong Kong and New York – or an average of about 30 times earnings in China, compared to fifteen times earnings in Hong Kong and US. 

The gap has remained large and persistent for years. My view is that it will continue to be wide for many years to come. That’s because profits in China (in step with GDP) are growing faster than anywhere else, and Chinese investors are more willing to bid up the price of those earnings. 

For PE firms, the stark reality is: if you can’t enter with renminbi and exit in China, you cut your profit potential in half. 

chart1









If given the freedom, of course, any PE investor would choose to exit in China. The problem is, they don’t have that freedom. Only fully-Chinese companies can IPO in China. It’s not possible for Chinese companies with what’s called an “offshore structure”, meaning the ultimate holding company is based in Hong Kong, BVI, the Caymans or elsewhere outside China. Offshore companies could take in dollar investment from PE firms, swap it into renminbi to build their business in China, then IPO outside China. The PE firms put dollars in and took dollars out. That’s the way it worked, for example, for the lucky PE firms that invested in successful Chinese companies like Baidu, Suntech, Alibaba, Belle – all of which have offshore structure. 

In September 2006, the game changed. New securities laws in China made it all but impossible for Chinese companies to establish holding companies outside China. Year by year, the number has dwindled of good private companies in China with offshore structure. First generation PE firms with only dollars to invest in China have fewer good deals to chase. At the same time, the appeal of a domestic Chinese IPO has become stronger and stronger. Not only are IPO prices higher, but the stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen have become larger, more liquid, less prone to the kind of wild price-swings that were once a defining trait of Chinese investing. 

Of course, it’s not all sweetness and light. A Chinese company seeking a domestic IPO cannot choose its own timing. That’s up to the securities regulators. To IPO in China, a company must first apply to China’s securities market regulator, the CSRC, and once approved, join a queue of uncertain length. At present, the process can take two years or more. Planning and executing an IPO in Hong Kong or the US is far quicker and the regulatory process far more transparent. 

In any IPO, timing is important, but price is more so. That’s why, on balance, a Chinese IPO is still going to be a much better choice for any company that can manage one. 

Some of the first generation PE firms have tried to get around the legal limitations. For example, there is a way for PE firms to invest dollars into a purely Chinese company, by establishing a new joint venture company with the target Chinese firm. However, that only solves the smaller part of the problem. It remains difficult, if not impossible, for these joint venture entities to go public in China. 

For PE investors in China, if you can’t go public in Shanghai or Shenzhen, you’ve cut your potential profits in half. That’s a bad way to run a business, and a bad way to please your Limited Partners, the cash-rich pension funds, insurance firms, family offices and endowments that provide the capital for PE firms to invest.   

The valuation differential has other knock-on effects. A PE firm can afford to pay a higher price when investing in a Chinese company if it knows it can exit domestically.  That leaves more margin for error, and also allows PE firms to compete for the best deals. The only PE firms, however, with this option are those already holding renminbi. This group includes some of the best first generation PE firms, including CDH, SZVC, Legend. But, most first generation firms only have dollars, and that means they can only invest in companies that will exit outside China. 

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, many of the other first generation PE firms are now scrambling to raise renminbi funds. A few have already succeeded, including Prax and SAIF. But, raising an renminbi fund is difficult. Few will succeed. Those that do will usually only be able to raise a fraction of the amount they can raise is dollars. 

Add it up and it spells trouble – deep trouble – for many of the first generation PE firms in China. They made great money over the last ten years for themselves and their Limited Partners. But, the game is changed. And, as always in today’s China, change is swift and irreversible. The successful PE firms of the future will be those that can enter and exit in renminbi, not dollars.


Private Equity in China: Blackstone & Others May Grab the Money But Miss the Best Opportunities

China First Capital blog post -- Song Jun vase

Blackstone, the giant American PE firm, is now trying to raise its first renminbi fund. Its stated goal is to provide growth capital for China’s fast-growing companies. Blackstone isn’t the only international private equity firm seeking to raise renminbi to invest in China.  In fact, many of the world’s largest private equity firms, including those already investing in China using dollars, are looking to tap domestic Chinese sources for investment capital.

Dollar-based investors are increasingly at a serious disadvantage in China’s private equity industry: investing is more difficult, often impossible, and deals take longer to close than competing investors with access to renminbi.

Blackstone enjoys a big leg up in China over other international private equity firms looking to raise renminbi. Its largest institutional shareholder is China’s sovereign wealth fund, CIC. Knowing how to get Chinese investors to open their wallets is a skill both highly rare and highly advantageous in today’s global private equity industry.  

There are two reasons for this stampede to raise renminbi. First, more and more of the best investment opportunities in China are SME with purely domestic structure – meaning they cannot easily raise equity in any other currency except renminbi. The second reason is the most basic of all in the financial industry: if you want money, you go where there’s the most to spare. Right now, that means looking in China.   

In theory, the big international private equity companies have a lot to offer Chinese investors – principally, very long track records of successful deal-making that richly rewarded their earlier investors.

The international PE firms have more experience picking companies and exiting from them with fat gains. They also do a good job, in general, of keeping their investors informed about what they’re doing, and acting as prudent fiduciaries. 

So far so good. But, there’s one enormous problem here, one that Blackstone and others presumably don’t like talking about to prospective Chinese investors. Their main way of making money in the past is now both broken, and wholly unsuited to China. They’re trying to sell a beautiful left-hand drive Rolls-Royce to people who drive on the right. 

Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Cerberus and most of the other largest global private equity companies grew large, rich and powerful by buying controlling stakes in companies, using mainly money borrowed from banks. They then would improve the operating performance over several years, and make their real money by either selling the company in an M&A deal or listing it on the stock market.

The leverage (in the form of the bank borrowing) was key to their financial success. Like buying a house, the trick was to put a little money down, borrow the rest, and then pocket most of any increase in the value of the asset. 

It can be a great way to make money, as long as banks are happy to lend. They no longer are. As a result, these kinds of private equity deals – which really ought to be called by their original name of “leveraged buyouts”, have all but vanished from the financial landscape.  It was always a rickety structure, reliant as much on access to cheap bank debt as on a talent for spotting great, undervalued businesses. If proof were needed, just look at Cerberus’s disastrous takeover of Chrysler last year, which will result in likely losses for Cerberus of over $5 billion. 

In his annual letter to shareholders this year, Warren Buffett highlighted the inherent weaknesses in this form of private equity: “A purchase of a business by these [private equity] firms almost invariably results in dramatic reductions in the equity portion of the acquiree’s capital structure compared to that previously existing. A number of these acquirees, purchased only two to three years ago, are now in mortal danger because of the debt piled on them by their private-equity buyers. The private equity firms, it should be noted, are not rushing in to inject the equity their wards now desperately need. Instead, they’re keeping their remaining funds very private.” 

On their backs at home, it’s no wonder Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR are looking to expand in China, All have a presence in China, having invested in some larger deals involving mainly State-Owned Enterprises. But, to really flourish in China, these PE firms will need to hone a different set of skills: choosing solid companies, investing their own capital for a minority position, and then waiting patiently for an exit. 

There’s no legal way to use the formula that worked so well for so long in the US. In China, highly-leveraged transactions are prohibited. PE firms also, in most cases, can’t buy a controlling stake in a business. That runs afoul of strict takeover rules in China. 

I have little doubt Blackstone, KKR, Carlyle can all succeed doing these smaller, unleveraged deals in China. After all, they employ some of the smartest people on the planet. But, these firms all still have a serious preference for doing larger deals, investing at least $50mn. This is also true in China.

There are few good deals on this scale around. Very few private companies have the level of annual profits (at least $15mn) to absorb that amount of capital for a minority stake. Private companies that large have likely already had an IPO or are well along in the planning process. As for large SOEs, the good ones are mostly already public, and those that remain are often sick beyond the point of cure. In these cases, private equity investors find it tough to push through an effective restructuring plan because they don’t control a majority on the board seats. 

Result: some of the companies best-positioned to raise renminbi funds, including Blackstone, have an investment model that seems ill-suited to Chinese conditions. They may well succeed in raising money, but then what? They’ll either need to learn to do smaller deals (of $10mn-$20mn) or bear the heavy risk of making investments in the few larger deals around in China.  

Any prospective Chinese LP should be asking Blackstone and the other large global private equity firms some very searching questions about their investment models for China. True, these firms all have excellent track records, by and large. But, that past performance, based on the leveraged buyouts that went well, is of scant consequence in today’s China. What matters most is an eye for spotting great entrepreneurs, in fast-growing industries, and then offering them both capital and the knowledge that comes from building value as investors in earlier deals. 

Prediction: raising huge wads of cash in China will turn out to be easier for Blackstone and other large global PE firms than putting it to work where it will do the most good and earn the highest returns.

Foshan Saturday’s Textbook Case of How to Grow, Prosper and Stage a Successful IPO in China

Painting detail from China First Capital Blog Post

Though not in a ringside seat, I nonetheless had a privileged, up-close view of last week’s IPO for Foshan Saturday Shoes. That’s thanks to my friendship with Cao Yuhui, a partner at King & Wood law firm, and Foshan Saturday’s main corporate lawyer for the last several years.  It was a successful IPO by a very successful, well-run company. Foshan Saturday, a maker of high-end women’s shoes, raised over Rmb900mn in the IPO, selling about 20% of its equity. The share price closed up almost 20% on the first day of trading. The market cap is now closing in on Rmb5 billion. 

For Yuhui, it’s a great personal success. He first started advising the company when they were well along in their planning for what would have been a very ill-advised IPO in Singapore in 2006. Instead, Yuhui worked with the company to close a round of PE finance in 2007. Legend Capital, the venture capital arm of China’s largest computer manufacturer, invested Rmb 40 million in 2007. Over the following two years, sales and profits at Foshan Saturday more than doubled. It’s now the fourth-largest women’s shoe company in China, with a widely-known brand, and sales this year of over Rmb 1 billion. 

Legend is expected to liquidate its ownership in Foshan Saturday, and should earn a return of five times on its original investment – which is another way of saying that Foshan Saturday’s enterprise value increased five-fold during the time Legend was involved. So, while the VC firm did well, Foshan Saturday’s owner did even better. He is now sitting on a personal stake in the company worth over $350 million. He started the company just seven years ago. 

Foshan is a relatively small city by Chinese standards, with a population of about 5.5 million. It’s about two hours drive up the Guangdong coast from Shenzhen. It’s residents are known both for business acumen and personal modesty. 

Foshan Saturday is a textbook case of everything going right for a Chinese SME. The company was among the first to see the great potential for developing native Chinese fashion brands. They never bothered with OEM export manufacturing, but focused from the start on building a brand for young, Chinese urban females.

Even more crucial to its success, the company backed away from plans for that early IPO in 2006. The company then was a third of its current size. Many Chinese companies who chose to list in Singapore have since lived to regret it. The market has had few stellar performers among the Chinese SME listed there. Most have stumbled along with low earnings multiples, and as a result, quite a few have tried to delist in Singapore and try to float their shares on China’s domestic market. 

Foshan Saturday took the far better course of raising pre-IPO capital, from one of the better firms active in China. They raised only Rmb 40 million, but put it to use efficiently enough to accelerate growth by over 200%. In other words, as in all good investment opportunities among China’s SME, there was a very good place to put a reasonably small amount of capital to work, and earn significant returns. 

A lot of that growth came from an efficient strategy of opening retail counters inside shopping malls, where in lieu of rent, Foshan Saturday pays a share of revenue to the landlord. This limits the amount of capital needed to open new outlets. Foshan Saturday now has 1,200. About half the money raised in the IPO will go to opening still more retail outlets. 

A recent blog post by the Forbes bureau chief in China took a little swipe at me, saying Fuhrman “claims it is not too hard to pick winners that will quadruple your money in just a few years.” The Forbes writer (who I’ve never met) seems to think I’m daft. Yet, as the example of Foshan Saturday shows, it’s not all that hard to that well, or better.

From what I could gather, Legend Capital didn’t play a highly active role in the company. They knew a solid strategy when they saw one. So, they let the Foshan Saturday team execute, and then sat back and let the money start to roll in.  Result: profit to the VC firm of about $30 million on an investment of under $6 million. 

My friend Yuhui threw a big party at one of Shenzhen’s swankiest nightclubs to celebrate the IPO’s success. I wasn’t able to go, since I was traveling in Zhejiang. He told me later that there were about 60 guests, mainly mid and senior management from Foshan Saturday. They ran up a bar tab of around $1,500. 

I’m not big on drinking, but would have been happy to celebrate with them. Not just Foshan Saturday and Cao Yuhui did well from the IPO. It’s going to make it easier for other strong Chinese SME to achieve a similar success in years to come.

The roadmap is clear. It’s a three-step path to success for a successful IPO by a Chinese SME : (1) resist the lure of an early IPO; (2) bring in a good PE or VC investor to put more capital to work in ways that will earn a high return; and (3) stage an IPO several years later when the business has at least doubled its size. 


A Gathering of Friends: Celebrating a Friendship Forged by a Successful PE Deal

Imperial portrait from China First Capital blog post

Of all the rewards of completing a successful financing, the most overrated are the pecuniary ones, and most underappreciated are the deep and lasting friendships that can result. I was reminded of this, vividly, on Friday. I shared a few very happy hours with the three other principals in the $10 million private equity financing we completed last November: Zheng Shulin, the owner and founder of Kehui InternationalElliott Chen, Kehui’s lawyer, and Ada Yu, a Vice President at the PE firm CRCI

We got together in Shenzhen to participate in a seminar at the Nanshan Venture Capital Club. The purpose was to give other entrepreneurs in Shenzhen a better understanding of the mechanics, timing and financial fundamental of pre-IPO PE investment in China. It was a very happy reunion. We hadn’t met as a group since last November. In the intervening months, Ada went on maternity leave and gave birth to twin daughters, while Mr. Zheng has been busy completing construction on the new factory in Jiangxi the PE investment enabled. The new factory will allow Kehui to more than double its output and become a dominant supplier of copper and aluminum-coated wires for use in electronics industry. 

There’s a nice symmetry here, of course: Ada’s twins and Mr. Zheng’s new factory got their starts at just about the same time last summer. That’s as far as I’ll go with the metaphor, since I’m sure Mr. Zheng will concede, despite his evident pride in his new factory, that Ada’s twins are the far more momentous creation. 

I was so happy and so moved by the whole experience on Friday, of being back together with Mr. Zheng, Elliott and Ada, and having a chance to “re-live” some of the experience in front of a crowd of about 70 at the seminar. Mr. Zheng shared one of the nicest stories from the closing: we were stuck at the final hurdle for over a month, waiting for government financial regulators in Jiangxi. They’d never before been asked to approve a foreign investment of this scale in their province, and so didn’t really know the rules or how to apply them. It looked like Jiangxi’s approval process could take months, and so cost Mr. Zheng the chance to get the new factory underway and meet surging orders. 

Mr. Zheng camped out in Nanchang, Jiangxi’s capital, to try to persuade the government officials.  I decided to visit CRCI’s office in Hong Kong to work out an agreement to advance the money ahead of the government’s final approval. CRCI’s partner agreed to do so, even though it could increase their risk in the deal. At the same moment I was dialing Mr. Zheng to give him the good news, he phoned me from Nanchang, Jiangxi’s capital, to say he’d just been given the final okay.  I returned to CRCI’s office a short time after, with Mr. Zheng, to sign the closing documents. The money arrived two weeks later.   

A big part of the credit belongs to Elliott Chen, since he both wrote the legal briefs, and spent the long hours explaining to Jiangxi officials how to apply the relevant national laws on foreign exchange transactions. A lesson here: in China, the national government in Beijing crafts very clear and often forward-thinking financial laws, but their implementation can be very hit-or-miss. Without Elliott’s work, we might still be waiting for Jiangxi Province to say Yes. 

Mr. Zheng, Elliott, Ada and I had some time to chat privately among ourselves. But, not nearly enough. Ada had to rush back to Hong Kong to take care of her twins, and the rest of us had business meetings to attend. For me, though, what most stands out is the deep feeling of friendship, forged by a common purpose to get an exceptionally talented entrepreneur the money he needed to take his business to the next level. 

While the ultimate success at Kehui will rightly belong to Mr. Zheng, all of us benefitted from our work on the financing. Elliott is now recognized as one of the best PE lawyers around. Ada is ready to resume her career at CRCI next week, knowing the Kehui investment is on track for a success as large as she could hope for. And, CFC is also on track to achieving the goal I set for it, of becoming the investment bank most proficient at capital-raising China’s best SME.


 

.