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Tencent on Monday punched through a stock market capitalisation of $500bn, becoming the first Chinese technology company to join an elite group dominated by US groups and putting it within spitting distance of Facebook’s $522bn.
The social media group is a fitting champion for 21st century China. Founded by a low-profile engineer and privately owned, the company’s services infiltrate every aspect of citizens’ lives: chatting, eating, paying, gaming and music. More than half of the 980m users of its WeChat platform spend over 90 minutes on the app every day.
Little known outside China, Tencent dominates its home turf thanks in part to Beijing’s block on Facebook. While its international forays have been lightweight — mainly aimed at Chinese tourists going to Las Vegas and other hotspots — it has bought stakes in big US tech names including Snap, owner of messaging company Snapchat, and electric carmaker Tesla.
It is one of the biggest investors at home, outpacing the likes of Sequoia, the venture capital firm. Tencent is estimated to have backed close to 500 companies in the past decade.
Shares in the company closed more than 4 per cent up on Monday, giving the company a market capitalisation of $511bn.
The consistent rise has enriched executives and investors alike. Pony Ma, founder and chief executive, is now worth $46.7bn, according to Forbes. And Naspers, the South African media group, now boasts a $119bn market cap largely due to its 33 per cent stake in the Chinese group — although that is less than its stake is worth.
Tencent’s shares have been spurred in recent weeks by two highly successful spin-offs, of its literature and search engine units, and strong third-quarter earnings. It trounced market expectations with a 57 per cent year-on-year jump in third-quarter operating profit to Rmb22.75bn ($3.43bn) earlier this month.
The company’s success is built on two key engines: gaming and WeChat. But the heart of the group’s strategy is to build an ecosystem of technology that buys an ever bigger slice of its users’ time and money. It adds functions regularly: a late entrant into mobile payments, it has quickly built a 37 per cent market share despite entering the arena a decade after Alibaba affiliate Alipay.
Tencent has added other financial services, including wealth management, insurance and loans to consumers and small- and medium-sized businesses, a slice of borrowers traditionally sidelined by the big state-owned banks.
Speaking at the company’s annual conference for app developers last month, Lin Songtao, vice-president, reeled off the company’s services to SMEs. “This is hard to imagine,” he said. “And this is how we are changing the world. We are changing the life cycle in every way.”
Based in Shenzhen, former and current staff talk about a determinedly competitive culture: rival teams are set the same projects in parallel, competing internally to produce the best solution.
While Tencent and its ilk have avoided the data concerns of their US peers — Chinese citizens are more familiar with, and less vexed by, privacy concerns — there have been regulatory clashes.
Earlier this year, Beijing took exception to Tencent’s wildly popular Honour of Kings battle fantasy game, calling it an addiction. The company responded by quickly introducing curbs on children’s time spent playing the game.