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Back when the Chinese government was encouraging state-owned enterprises and private sector companies to “go out” of the country, few responded as energetically as ChemChina and Ren Jianxin, its entrepreneurial chairman.
In March 2015, the Beijing SOE paid €7.3bn for Pirelli, the Italian tyre company. Less than a year later it agreed to purchase Syngenta, the Swiss agribusiness group, for $44bn. So far, so standard. At a time of relative euro weakness, ChemChina took advantage of the renminbi’s purchasing power to acquire overseas companies with better technology and brand recognition.
It is what often happens after ChemChina buys a foreign target that differentiates its overseas investment strategy from so many of its Chinese peers. In what might be termed a kind of Trojan horse strategy, ChemChina then uses its foreign acquisitions — and foreign managers — to win market share back at home.
The Pirelli deal is an example. A year after the acquisition, ChemChina’s Aeolus Tyre unit sold most of its car tyre business to Pirelli. Headquartered in Milan and boasting a long association with the Formula 1 motorsport championship, Pirelli has a much more attractive brand than Aeolus, a relatively anonymous company from an even more anonymous city — Jiaozuo, in Henan province.
An earlier but much lower profile ChemChina deal provides an even better illustration of this strategy at work. In 2011, ChemChina acquired 60 per cent of Adama Agricultural Solutions, an Israeli agrochemical company that competes against global heavyweights such as Bayer, DuPont and Monsanto. Back in China, Mr Ren’s group had four domestic agrochemical companies, the most substantial of which was Shenzhen-listed Sanonda. According to Chen Lichtenstein, a former Israeli paratrooper who now runs Adama, Mr Ren had a vision of uniting its disparate China agrochemical units under the Israeli company.
“ChemChina said well, we actually have some agrochemical businesses in China,” Mr Lichtenstein recalls. “The notion was that ChemChina would let [Adama] management study its businesses in the area of agrochemistry and determine which ones were suitable to be integrated into a combined company.”
The result, it was envisioned, would be the world’s “first integrated global China” agrochemical group. Like so many other industries, the global agrochemical sector and that of China resemble two parallel but separate universes. Just as multinational companies often struggle to get a foothold in China’s intensely competitive domestic market, Chinese companies often make little progress internationally.
In 2015 China’s crop protection market was the world’s third-largest, valued at $5.4bn, but it was also incredibly fragmented. No one player had more than a 10 per cent market share, and foreign entrants had a total share of less than 25 per cent. A combined Adama-Sanonda entity, Mr Ren reckoned, would have a solid foothold on both sides of the divide.
So ChemChina boosted its interest in Adama to 100 per cent last year and injected it into Sanonda. The merged entity, which in October reported a 5.4 per cent increase in third-quarter sales to $844m, will retain the Adama brand, not Sanonda’s.
It is also headed by Mr Lichtenstein, highlighting another unusual aspect of Mr Ren’s strategy. While many Chinese SOE bosses retain existing managers to run overseas acquisitions, Mr Ren has appointed foreign nationals to senior positions within ChemChina itself. Before the Adama-Sanonda merger, Mr Ren asked Mr Lichtenstein to head the ChemChina division that oversaw both units. In February 2016 he hired Michael Koenig, a German national and former Bayer executive, to run China National Bluestar, another ChemChina division.
Many observers attribute Mr Ren’s willingness to do things differently to his experiences in building ChemChina from a small state-owned industrial cleaning company into one of China’s largest industrial groups. ChemChina has always had to compete to survive. As Mr Lichtenstein says, “they are always coming from behind with this notion, OK, let’s be a bit more clever”. At a time when SOE reform in China largely consists of using mergers to create ever larger domestic monopolies, ChemChina’s strategy of “going out” to improve its domestic competitiveness shows another way.