Fosun's success tied to diversified growth

Updated: 2013-11-13 06:28


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Even before it pulled off the blockbuster real estate deal this fall that had the Big Apple talking, Fosun Group was steaming along to build itself into a premier global investment company.

In recent years, the Shanghai-based company – China's biggest privately held conglomerate – had poured money into financial services, tourism and luxury businesses focused on Chinese consumers. It developed a broadly diverse portfolio of core holdings in real estate, steel, pharmaceuticals and mining. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, two years ago it opened its New York office at 888 Seventh Avenue – "8" being considered a lucky number by the Chinese.

Then, in October, Fosun's parent, the Hong Kong-listed Fosun International, announced it would pay $725 million for One Chase Manhattan Plaza, the former world headquarters of Chase Manhattan Bank and a banking landmark in New York's financial district.

It was the latest high-profile US real-estate deal by a Chinese business, coming just four months after a group led by Beijing real-estate tycoon Zhang Xin acquired a 40 percent stake in the most expensive US building – the General Motors office tower in midtown Manhattan – for a reported $1.4 billion. "Most of the world's best businesses have come to China, and we are on a global stage," Fosun's billionaire co-founder Guo Guangchang was quoted in Chinese media. "We face global competition, and that's why we need to develop global competitiveness."

In an interview with China Daily during a China business conference in New York, Harvey Fine, Fosun's managing director of global investments and strategies, said he couldn't discuss the pending Chase Manhattan transaction. But he illuminated what Chinese investors typically mean when they describe deals like it – namely, US transactions in mature markets – as "value investments".

"When we look at value, we look at value relative to a price paid relative to the asset that we seek," Fine said. "For somebody else, they may feel were overpaying. We see the higher growth potential and they don't. We see value because China is untapped, and we know what our capabilities are in China. So for us, it is an undervalued asset."

Fine said the economic slowdown in China isn't hampering the company's plan to do three to five major investments a year.

"On the negative side, financing remains cheap, which means valuations for businesses remain pretty high, even in markets like the US and the Europe which have slowing economies," Fine said.

"On the flip side, the slowing economy does provide opportunities for us because we can invest in more attractive situations. And partners are willing to accept more reasonable valuations because they need to go to emerging markets – and China is one of the principal markets for anything along the consumer-value chain."

Fine said Fosun, which had 2012 revenue of 51.76 billion yuan or $8.28 billion, offers potential partners a unique combination of a well-known local entity in China that is sufficiently international to have "Western-standard corporate governance".

That said, Fosun goes against type as a big company, the executive said. "A lot of people think we're a typical Western conglomerate – a hodgepodge of different companies in different industries," Fine said. "If you looked at Fosun in a static sense, it might look that way. But there was a pretty deliberate path that Fosun took."

The company started investing in the pharmaceutical and real estate sectors. "From there we invested in the early stages of whatever sectors we thought had high growth in China. That's how we entered steel and mining. Later on we invested in retail and brands and financial services, Internet and media," Fine said. The targets were high-growth industries and resources that could add value to businesses and accelerate their growth in the Chinese marketplace, he said.

Driven by an aspiration to "be more like Berkshire Hathaway" – the Omaha-based insurance, financial and holding company controlled by billionaire investor Warren Buffett – Fosun recently started putting money into insurance assets, including a 50-50 joint venture with New Jersey-based Prudential Financial Inc.

"These are long term builds that will allow us to start in insurance flow," Fine said. "In the past, we were an industrial company investing in our own balance sheet. We continue to do that, Long-term, it's investing in the insurance flow."

Fine said Fosun's connections with myriad experts who are "really in the know – not just your run-of-the-mill consultants" – provide it with a pool of expertise that is invaluable in choosing investments – and in helping the company to adjust to market conditions as its pursue its global growth goals.

"We had to transform ourselves continually as we grew," Fine said. "The founders built this business initially as a consulting firm, then eventually into an industrial holding company, then into an investment conglomerate. Along the way, we transformed our business model to take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace – initially in China, and now globally. We're leveraging our strengths where the opportunities are.