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Wall Street Journal: China Becomes a Force in Overseas Deals

Jan 08,2014

Chinese entrepreneurs have just started to do overseas deals, but they are already acting like major private-equity firms, and sometimes besting them at their own games.

In China, overseas investments have long been the province of state-owned companies, seeking out natural resources to feed the country's growing demand. The new wave of entrepreneurs are starkly different from the bureaucrats managing those behemoths. They have succeeded in China's hypercompetitive business world, and their focus is mainly financial returns.

Take Wang Jianlin, the founder and chairman of Dalian Wanda Group.

The value of Wanda Group's equity investment in U.S. movie-theater chain AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. has more than doubled in just a year, swelling to about $2 billion—on paper, a $1.3 billion gain—after a successful 2013 listing in New York. By comparison, AMC's previous owners, a private-equity who's who that included Bain Capital LLC and Carlyle Group, had tried unsuccessfully to list it several times since buying it in 2004.

Good timing helps. The U.S. stock market rallied in 2013, and proceeds from initial public offerings jumped by 29% to $55 billion. Still, AMC needed to show solid growth to excite investors. And that is where Mr. Wang showed that Chinese entrepreneurs could become a force in global deal making.

AMC's revenue for the first nine months was up 10% from a year earlier, though total U.S. box-office proceeds were flat in 2013, according to Box Office Mojo. AMC managed to squeeze more out of its customers by adding recliner seats, in-theater dining and high-technology movie formats such as IMAX and 3-D.

Instead of sending Chinese managers abroad, Wanda retained most of the existing management team and offered generous cash bonuses tied to company performance. For each $1 million of additional net income, AMC said in its prospectus, bonuses would rise by 5%—up to 200% of the target payout of $543,000 for the chief executive.

China still calls itself a socialist country, but its companies are very capitalistic. They pay based on performance rather than seniority and offer big cash bonuses rather than stock options. These measures can be very effective in driving short-term results.

Mr. Wang quickly learned capital-markets tricks. Three months after Wanda bought AMC, It sold several theaters in Canada, pocketing almost $1.5 million in proceeds during the transitional nine months ended Dec. 31, 2012. More important, carving out these money-losing theaters spruced up results. During the first nine months of 2013, earnings from continuing operations increased by almost 48%.

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