BEIJING (Reuters) - China National Chemical Corp (ChemChina) boss Ren Jianxin, the man behind China’s largest overseas bid, is in many ways a traditional industrial boss: a government background, Communist Party colors and a degree in chemical plant mechanics.
But Ren, 57, is also a different breed; a dapper executive in an open shirt, aggressively pursuing some of the world’s biggest names as he builds up a company he started in 1984 as an industrial cleaning venture with a 10,000 yuan ($1,520 at today’s rates) government loan.
On Wednesday, state-owned ChemChina made a $43 billion bid for Swiss seeds and pesticides group Syngenta, with funding from mainly Chinese lenders as well as HSBC to pursue the boldest move yet in China’s effort to buy technology and build global corporate champions.
If successful, the bid gives Ren - and China - a world-class portfolio of patented crop chemicals and a pipeline of innovative seed products.
“China wants to own the world’s top technology, including agricultural technology,” said James McGregor, Greater China chairman for APCO Worldwide. “The government now has the political muscle and money to accomplish this.”
For most outside China, Ren is the biggest dealmaker they may never have heard of. Now he is sealing ever larger deals in the pursuit of his vision, and China’s.
Only a year ago, Ren-led ChemChina spent $8 billion for Italian tiremaker Pirelli. Last month, ChemChina led a consortium that agreed to pay about $1 billion for German industrial equipment maker KraussMaffei.
“At ChemChina, we have seen a management team capable of doing deals. Ren and his team seem to have built a lot of political confidence in their ability to execute deals,” said Keith Pogson, Asia Pacific Financial Services Partner at consultants Ernst & Young.
Ren had his eye fixed on building a state chemicals powerhouse since the mid-1980s when, aged 26, he took a government loan to start a factory making industrial solvents.
From there, a start-up that was technically state owned, he built up his company by absorbing financially stressed chemical plants that had been under the Ministry of Chemical Industry, which was dissolved in 1998. ChemChina was officially established in 2004.
It has kept that entrepreneurial trait. Ren has hired professional managers to operate his companies, winning ChemChina a reputation as China’s most international and market oriented state-owned enterprise.
Management has been kept in place at Elkem in Oslo, at Adama in Tel Aviv, and at Pirelli in Milan. Syngenta also said its existing management will continue to run the company.
In large part, ChemChina’s relatively small size - just a tenth of that of domestic peer Sinopec Corp - and its less sensitive acquisition targets have allowed it to be selective, strategic and almost independent.
ChemChina said in 2014 - ahead of the Pirelli deal - that its annual revenue was around 300 billion yuan ($45.6 billion), with nearly half of that coming from its oil division after it won for the first time the right to import crude oil.
Some of its diversified chemicals business, however, is under pressure from industry over-capacity, industry executives say, and it holds heavy debts after Pirelli. ChemChina does not disclose details on its finances or profits.
“We only target good companies,” Ren told journalists last year, following the Pirelli takeover, which took three years to negotiate.
Do the big deals mean he could follow others on a familiar path into a career in Chinese politics? No, he says: “It takes a lifetime to excel in one thing.”
Reporting by Matthew Miller and Chen Aizhu, with additional reporting by Dominique Patton and Lisa Jucca; Editing by Clara Ferreira-Marques and Ian Geoghegan
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