Young, privately owned and ambitious, Anbang Insurance Group stands out in China’s staid, state-dominated insurance industry.
Founded just 12 years ago, Anbang made a splash in the United States in 2014 with its $2 billion purchase of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Since then, it has plowed more billions into acquiring insurers in Belgium, the Netherlands, Iowa and South Korea. Last week, it agreed to pay $6.5 billion for Strategic Hotels & Resorts, an American hotel chain.
On Monday, it went after even bigger game, launching a surprise $14 billion bid with partners for the Starwood hotel chain.
Anbang makes no secret of its global ambitions. It aims to become one of the “top 10 comprehensive financial groups in the world,” its website says.
That is a break with a Chinese industry in which bigger, older companies have stuck to their home market. But it reflects the growing space for innovation as regulators loosen controls in hopes of making Chinese financial industries more competitive and productive.
The driving force credited with propelling Anbang’s rise is chairman Wu Xiaohui, who news reports say got his start in the rental car business before founding Anbang in 2004. He rarely talks to reporters or appears in public.
Anbang started with a single outlet in Beijing. Its biggest shareholder, at 20 percent, was state-owned car maker Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp. The following year, a state-owned oil company, Sinopec, bought a 20 percent share.
Since then, the company says it has expanded to more than 3,000 branches with 30,000 employees worldwide serving 35 million clients. It has diversified into life insurance, banking, asset management, leasing and brokerage services.
Its global expansion coincides with encouragement from the ruling Communist Party for Chinese companies to “go abroad” to diversify away from dependence on a slowing domestic economy.
The Chinese business press has compared Wu to Warren Buffett for following the legendary American investor’s approach of using the cash flow from insurance operations to buy other businesses. But rumors also have swirled about whether Wu’s success is built at least partly on family ties or help from influential figures on Anbang’s board.
According to the Chinese press, Wu is married to Zhuo Ran, a granddaughter of former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, though the business magazine Caixin reported last year the couple had separated.
Board members have included Zhu Yunlai, the son of former Premier Zhu Rongji and a successful banker in his own right, and Yong Longtu, China’s chief negotiator in talks that led to its World Trade Organization membership, according to news reports.
Last year, the newspaper Southern Weekend reported Anbang’s real owner was Chen Xiaolu, the son of late Chen Yi, a member of the ruling inner circle that founded the communist government in 1949.
Chen, 68, told Caixin in a separate report he had no ownership stake in Anbang but served as a consultant. He said he had been Wu’s business partner for 15 years but did not intervene in company operations.
Chen told Caixin he recommended Wu buy U.S. assets because China’s economy was slowing but America’s was recovering.
Anbang’s rapid growth in a heavily regulated economy is built partly on Wu’s skill at cultivating ties with regulators, Chinese media say.
To pay for its buying spree, Anbang raised 50 billion yuan ($8 billion) from investors in 2014, taking on dozens of new shareholders.
That reduced founding investor SAIC’s stake to less than 1 percent. It also increased its registered capital fivefold to 62 billion yuan ($9.5 billion), the biggest among Chinese insurers, even though the company doesn’t rank among the top 10 property insurers or in the top 30 in life insurance.
That, combined with buying the Waldorf and other assets outside its core insurance business, has prompted suggestions in the Chinese press the company acts more like an investment fund for which insurance is a sideline.
The lightning pace of acquisitions also has prompted Chinese financial analysts to question whether it is sound or sustainable.
In a rare public appearance in December, Wu stressed his responsibility to ordinary policyholders.
“Insurance money is ordinary people’s pensions and life insurance. It must be invested in the best companies,” Wu told a business conference, the newspaper China Business Journal reported on its website. He said insurers must “protect small investors.”
Anbang’s global expansion has not all been smooth sailing.
Last year, Anbang paid a symbolic 1 euro for Vivat, a Dutch insurer that was part of a financial company that had been nationalized, and agreed to pump in 1.35 billion euros. Vivat’s Dutch CEO left, reportedly after disputes with Anbang about his role in the company.
Last year, Anbang’s offer to buy South Korea’s Woori Bank in a sale analysts had valued at $2.7 billion fell through after the government failed to attract the legally required minimum of two bidders.
Also last year, Anbang withdrew from an attempt to buy Portugal’s Novo Banco SA. The Chinese suitor and the Portuguese government, which created Novo Banco out of another defunct bank, gave no reason, but the complex acquisition bore a 5 billion euro ($5.5 billion) price tag and the cancellation followed turmoil in Chinese financial markets.
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