ChemChina dealmaker Ren shakes up SOEs with Syngenta bid

The blue locomotive rolled out of Zhengzhou, pulling boxcars stacked with more than 10,000 Chinese-made tires. They were heading across two continents to Germany as part of a "new silk road" initiative to boost trade.

While Ren Jianxin spent his career in the Chinese Communist Party's firmament, he's become a different sort of SOE leader.
While Ren Jianxin spent his career in the Chinese Communist Party's firmament, he's become a different sort of SOE leader. Photo: Bloomberg

The world paid no attention in 2013 to that convoy, draped with a skinny, red banner reading: "Warm congratulations on the successful operations."

It should have - those were Ren Jianxin's tires, and he was signalling he wanted a bigger piece of the European market.

Ren doesn't have the name recognition of billionaires Wang Jianlin of Dalian Wanda Group Co, or Jack Ma of Alibaba Group Holding, yet the chairman of China National Chemical Corp may be the most important dealmaker you've never heard of.

After orchestrating more than 100 mergers and acquisitions, Ren on Wednesday offered more than $US43 billion to buy Syngenta, the Swiss pesticide and seeds maker. It would be the biggest-ever acquisition by a Chinese company.

"He thinks something needs to be changed in order for Chinese-style companies to be sustainable," said Pang Guanglian, deputy secretary general of the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation who's attended meetings with Ren. "That change comes from acquiring Western brands."

Two years after the train chugged toward Hamburg, Ren's state-owned enterprise, known as ChemChina, provided most of the funding for the approximate $US8 billion purchase of Pirelli & C - the Italian tire maker for Ferraris, Bentleys and Formula 1 racing cars.

While Ren's spent his career in the Chinese Communist Party's firmament, he's become a different sort of SOE leader: one who aggressively pursues overseas assets, glad-hands foreign executives and airs doubts about the efficiency of state companies.

On ChemChina's 10th anniversary in 2014, he wrote in a newsletter: "For an improved version of the Chinese economy, we need an improved version of the Chinese company."

China's SOEs often pay for their face-lifts with borrowed money. As of September 30, ChemChina carried total debt of 156.5 billion yuan ($US24 billion), or more than five times its cash and equivalents. The company had a negative return on assets and a net loss of 889.3 million yuan in the third quarter.

So how can ChemChina pull this off? In Wednesday's announcement, the companies said financing was lined up.

"The sector as a whole, it's highly leveraged," said Arthur Kroeber, managing director at Gavekal Dragonomics, a Hong Kong- based research firm. "That's bad news for the economy. But it's not really clear that the government is thinking that way. They're still thinking in terms of it's good for companies to gain access to these technologies and these distribution channels."

Food security

ChemChina's buying spree fits squarely with President Xi Jinping's push for SOEs to snap up companies and technology that will help China produce higher-value goods. That, the thinking goes, will build access to foreign markets as the domestic economy decelerates.

The blockbuster Syngenta acquisition could benefit China in two ways. The seed technology would give better food security to a nation where corn yields are about half those of the US and the amount of arable land is declining. ChemChina also would gain a worldwide presence in insecticides and crop development.

"Their acquisition strategy is not 'catching up' anymore," said Tyler Rooker, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK who's studied ChemChina deals. "They're acquiring assets that add to their competitiveness as global multinationals."

Moon flag

ChemChina bills itself as China's largest chemical company, with assets of 292.3 billion yuan as of September 30 and facilities in more than 140 countries. The conglomerate refines oil, makes pesticides and animal feed, and develops products such as the radiation-resistant Chinese flag carried by the Yutu moon rover.

Ren didn't show up for two scheduled interviews or respond to written questions.

"This transaction will be extremely important to China and farmers," Ren said during a Wednesday press conference. "I was sent out to work the land at only 15. I am very aware of what farmers need."

Even with the dealmaking, Ren's still a bit of a mystery at home. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the president of the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Jin Liqun, said he didn't know him. Xu Jinghong, chairman of Tsinghua Holdings Co, the investment platform of China's top university, said the same.

Some of those who've come across Ren consider it "odd" that he gets along so well with foreign executives, Pang said.

'Westernised' appearance

"This is quite unconventional for a head of a central SOE," he said before adding, "His appearance is also a bit Westernised."

In the world of state-run companies, where non-descript men wearing short-sleeved white shirts and baggy windbreakers are the norm, Ren is known to flash cuff links underneath a pinstriped sleeve.

"Most of our employees are Chinese, but you can also see over the years there has been a substantial influence from foreign management," said Michael Koenig, a German and former Bayer AG executive who became CEO of a key ChemChina subsidiary in January. "Compared to what I know from other Chinese SOEs, we are more open, more international."

The Syngenta deal would cap a spending binge by ChemChina that targeted domestic companies, French and Norwegian chemical makers and an Israeli agrochemicals company. ChemChina has announced more than $US15 billion of deals since 2005, excluding Syngenta, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Ren, a 58-year-old with rimless glasses, thick dark hair and a soft chin, began his ascent in an unlikely place: Gansu Province in the northwest, a poor mining region abutting the Gobi desert.

Communist Party

He graduated from the economics department of a local university - eventually earning a master's degree - and joined the state-run Chemical Machinery Research Institute, where he was the Communist Youth League Secretary. It was a recipe for a do-nothing bureaucrat's career in the countryside.

In 1984, Ren borrowed 10,000 yuan (about $US1500 at today's rate) from the institute to start the BlueStar Chemical Cleaning Group.

His first employees scrubbed tea kettles as Ren pursued the most reliable path to power in China - becoming BlueStar's Communist Party secretary, according to his biography. Speaking in a company video, Ren cited a woman named Gu Xiulian as a key ally. She would have been a formidable friend as head of the chemical industry ministry from 1989 to 1998 and a member of the Communist Party's powerful central committee for 20 years.

Gu cancelled an interview and declined to answer written questions.

Another offer

At a 2012 Lunar New Year's celebration at ChemChina's headquarters, a 75-year-old Gu had pride of place next to Ren. Before her was a large plate of oranges - the Chinese character for the fruit resembles that for "auspicious".

That seems emblematic of Ren. A ChemChina newsletter reviewed the Pirelli deal by saying, "Economists expect the merger to have a 25 per cent chance of success and a 75 per cent chance of failure." Not to worry, it continued, everything will work out.

Ren may be using the same playbook with Syngenta. His initial offer of 449 Swiss francs a share, valuing the company at about $US42 billion, was rejected, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

So he came back again Wednesday and offered the equivalent of 480 francs a share. The bid was endorsed by Syngenta's board, and the deal is expected to close by year end.

Bloomberg