NEWSMAKER-Soldier-scriptwriter steers final leg of AgBank IPO

Thu Jul 15, 2010 5:36am EDT

Related Topics

* Fought, wounded in 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war

* Wrote award-winning screenplay about corruption

* Offloaded $120 bln of bad loans to govt-backed agency (Refiles to correct spelling of soldier in first paragraph)

By Michael Wei and Benjamin Kang Lim

BEIJING, July 15 (Reuters) - Soldier, scriptwriter and now chairman of a bank with assets worth more than India's annual economy, Xiang Junbo is guiding Agricultural Bank of China's (601288.SS) record-breaking IPO to a close. [ID:nTOE66D07M]

Xiang took over the reins of the country's third-largest lender by assets three years ago, when it was considered to be almost insolvent.

Building on his experience as No.2 at both the central bank and National Audit Office, Xiang turned the bank around by offloading 810 billion yuan ($120 billion) in bad loans to a government-backed asset management company.

The Beijing-based bank, founded in 1951 by Mao Zedong as the rural unit of the central bank, is now in much better shape but is still viewed as the weakest among China's big lenders.

It lists in Hong Kong on Friday, where a successful debut would see underwriters offer additional shares to boost the total size from $19.3 billion to a world record $22.1 billion.

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For TAKE A LOOK on AgBank [ID:nSGE65307X]

StarMine comparative data r.reuters.com/jan46m

FACTBOX on China's AgBank [ID:nTOE65308J]

Graphic comparing China banks:

link.reuters.com/vah95m

Graphic on top China bank IPOs: r.reuters.com/byp67m

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BATTLE HARDENED

Xiang faces a battle to guide the bank through the final stages of its public offer and set it on a course for sustained profitability. He has overcome bigger hurdles.

Born in 1957 in Chongqing, China's wartime capital, Xiang became a farmer in his teens, having taken up Chairman Mao's call for young people to go to the countryside during the tumultuous days of the Cultural Revolution.

He joined the army at age 22 and fought in the brief but bloody Sino-Vietnamese border war in 1979. He was wounded in the leg and won a Second-Class Merit for his bravery, according to the China Youth Daily.

After his discharge, Xiang heeded his university professor father and became a finance major at prestigious Renmin University in 1981, despite his love for literature and the arts.

In the two decades that followed, Xiang's specialism in business stood him in good stead as China shifted its focus to economic development from political campaigns.

With more than 20 years of auditing experience, Xiang, who holds a law doctorate from the elite Peking University, is well known for his by-the-book approach, which played a critical role in AgBank's risk control and anti-corruption drive.

Xiang has also married that approach to his interests in the arts, and written movie scripts on graft and auditing including the award-winning anti-corruption movie "The Crack".

RIVALS, MARKETS

Xiang might have trouble finding the time for writing these days.

AgBank now boasts nearly 24,000 branches and employs more than 441,000 people, eclipsing Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (1398.HK) and China Construction Bank (0939.HK), the world's two biggest banks by market value.

As the bank closest to the masses, AgBank has 350 million customers, more than the population of the United States.

Heavy dependence on China's vast yet poor rural areas, however, led to AgBank's non-performing loan ratio reaching 27 percent at the end of 2007.

Xiang helped slash that ratio to just 3.66 percent at the end of 2009 and was instrumental in turning AgBank into a joint stock company the same year. The bank now has assets of almost $1.4 trillion, more than India's gross domestic product.

But an industry-wide lending binge means Chinese banks need to replenish their capital. Rivals including Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) 0349.HK(601398.SS) and Bank of China (3988.HK)(601988.SS) are also returning to capital markets to raise tens of billions of dollars, weighing on Shanghai stocks .SSEC.

They too will be hoping Xiang can script a fitting climax with a successful AgBank IPO. ($1=6.771 Yuan) (Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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