Chinese internet competitors see the benefits in consolidating

Chinese internet competitors see the benefits in consolidatingThis year is set to be a banner year for mergers in the country’s technology sector.

Two years ago, Neil Shen, head of Sequoia China, attempted to broker a marriage between two of the internet companies in which he was invested — and Dianping Holdings. His efforts came as both were burning through cash as they spent heavily to gain customers and market share in businesses which partially overlapped. At that time, Mr Shen did not succeed.

This month, however, the war between the two groups, which are both in the business of delivering food and offering discounts at restaurants among other things, was called off and Meituan and Dianping agreed to combine.

The deal, worth up to $20bn, was just the latest in a series of mergers between Chinese competitors who have decided — often with the forcible intervention of their investors — that they had more to gain by joining forces.

“In this case one plus one will equal three or four,” says Mr Shen.

“Consolidation is the best way to maximise returns,” adds Bao Fan, whose Beijing-based Chinese Renaissance advisory and banking boutique advised both companies. “Everything is a function of the supply of capital.”

This year is becoming the banner year for mergers in the sector. According to Mergermarket, there have been 267 Chinese technology mergers worth $32bn so far this year, compared with 338 deals worth $26bn for all of 2014.

As the flow of money into these companies slows, valuations have ceased their gravity-defying ascent and investors have begun to enforce greater discipline on their portfolio companies, despite objections from some of the founding entrepreneurs.

Investment firms such as Sequoia and Tiger Global have drastically reduced the money they are putting into the Chinese internet sector in recent months and have warned the companies in which they invest that if they are too greedy they will not be able to raise money at higher valuations in the future, people familiar with the matter say.

Both the trend toward consolidation and the resistance to it on the part of many entrepreneurs reflect an environment that bears little resemblance to that of the US, even as many Chinese internet companies now challenge their American counterparts in valuation and exceed them in scale.

In the US, start-ups “tend to begin life with original business models, the winners tend to emerge early”, says Mr Fan. In China, where most start-ups tend to be modelled on an overseas template, “there are many more players, and consolidation takes place over time,” he says. But that means egos are at stake and negotiations can become personal. At times the ill-feeling has become so pronounced that investors sometimes require their unruly entrepreneurs to sign non-disparagement agreements.

Ctrip and Qunar, the great rivals in the online travel business, finally agreed to merge earlier this week, in a $15bn tie-up.

But a slowing of outside funding may change things now. Analysts widely expect online travel companies and auto rental firms to either merge with each other or with companies in related spaces. Likely candidates include search engine companies such as Baidu or for the taxi booking firms such as Didi Kuaidi. The goal would be to preserve cash and migrate to different, more value-added business models.

In addition, business models in China tend to be fluid, which can make for shifting alliances. What could be seen as conflicts of interest elsewhere in the world occur with frequency in the mainland.

Internet group Alibaba is both the third-biggest investor in Meituan, which is primarily a group buying site, and one of its biggest rivals now. But the two were not in direct competition at the time the larger group made its investment. And there may be even more bitter rivalry to come. Meituan plans to go from selling movie tickets to the film distribution business. Such a step could lead to a face off against Alibaba’s Ali Pictures in the future.

Similarly, Mr Shen invested in VIP Shop when it didn’t compete with, another Sequoia investment. Today, however, the two are bitter rivals. “In China there are no borders,” Mr Shen says. “Everyone trespasses on everyone else.”

Source: Financial Times
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