(Reuters) – Ren Jianxin, the architect behind China National Chemical Corp’s $8 billion bid for Italian tiremaker Pirelli (PECI.MI), is rare among Chinese state company bosses: he gets the importance of markets and the limits of government assistance.
ChemChina’s 57-year-old chairman, who agreed last week to buy the world’s fifth-largest tiremaker, sees himself as an “industrialist” and not as a politician – a route taken by many senior state-enterprise officials.
Over three decades, Ren has led the restructuring of China’s chemicals industry, organizing more than 100 firms under the ChemChina banner into six main operating divisions, producing everything from basic chemicals to fertilizers and silicones. Along the way, he also founded the Malan Noodle Co, a popular restaurant chain.
His biggest gambit, though, has been to globalize ChemChina through acquisitions aimed at bringing international brands and professional management to China. Since 2006, he has spent about $4.4 billion on firms in Australia, France, Norway and Israel. In 2007, Ren also sold a 20 percent stake in Bluestar, his specialty chemicals arm, to private equity firm Blackstone (BX.N) for $600 million.
For Ren, the key is to make ChemChina more competitive.
Despite increasing revenue by nearly a quarter last year to around 300 billion yuan ($48.3 billion), earnings in the rubber and oil and gas businesses have been squeezed by oversupply and falling prices. Those same market factors in 2012 forced Oslo-based Elkem, a $2 billion acquisition, to halt solar grade silicon production for 16 months.
“For all these years ChemChina has been battling with market turmoil,” Ren told a small group of reporters on Sunday.
Ren predicts the Pirelli acquisition – which the companies first discussed three years ago when he visited the firm’s Milan headquarters – will have a “revolutionary” impact on ChemChina’s rubber and tire business.
“I was impressed by Pirelli’s excellent technology, management, well-known brand and competitive distribution,” Ren said.
A potential merger was scuttled after market rumors leaked to the media, but Ren saw the chance to rekindle discussions six months ago. “I believe both our strategies and visions hadn’t changed over the last three years,” he said. “We very quickly reached an agreement … with respect to strategies, corporate governance structure and shareholder structure.”
Ren expects a combined company to have its greatest impact in the industrial tire segment, making more tires for trucks and heavy machinery and reaching new consumers in Asia, where Pirelli’s current market share is small.
Ren had his eye fixed on building a state chemicals powerhouse since 1984, when the then-26-year-old chemicals plant mechanic in China’s landlocked northwest borrowed 10,000 yuan ($1,611 at today’s rates) from the government to start a factory making industrial solvents.
He built ChemChina, which was officially established in 2004, by absorbing mostly financially stressed chemical plants that had been under the Ministry of Chemical Industry, which was dissolved in 1998.
Ren employed strategic partners to consolidate the companies and hired professional managers to operate them, winning ChemChina a reputation in the global chemical industry and among investors as China’s most ‘internationalized’ and market-oriented state-owned enterprise.
ChemChina’s relatively small size – just one-tenth that of domestic peer Sinopec Corp (0386.HK) – and its acquisition targets, which are less sensitive politically than the energy and resources deals that have dominated China’s M&A footprint, have allowed the company to make sound purchases.
“We only target good companies,” Ren said. “And you need to be super patient for a good buy.”
Colleagues describe Ren as a workaholic, but say he displays a sincerity and charm, showing equal respect to senior foreign counterparts and canteen staff. He has initiated an annual summer camp, putting three dozen or so children of foreign employees through a 20-day program that includes a home-stay with local ChemChina staff.
Saying he has little appetite for a political career, Ren wants to remain a dedicated government-backed entrepreneur.
“It takes a lifetime to excel in one thing,” he said over a bowl of his favorite Lanzhou noodles.
($1 = 6.2075 Chinese yuan renminbi)
BY CHEN AIZHU AND MATTHEW MILLER (Additional reporting by Denny Thomas; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)