China's Fosun sets sights as world leader but has plan to reduce debt - founder


Lisbon - (Reuters) - Fosun Group, China's largest private conglomerate, is aiming to become a world leader in insurance, tourism and healthcare but also has a "clear plan" to reduce its debts, chairman and co-founder Guo Guangchang said on Tuesday. In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Guo said his group - which up to now has largely targeted companies in developed markets - was also turning its focus to investment opportunities in emerging markets. A self-confessed student of U.S. investor Warren Buffet, Guo also said things were "back to normal" following an incident in December when he was briefly reported missing, with Fosun's president saying Guo was helping Chinese police with an investigation. Fosun has spent about $30 billion in the past two decades outside China, mainly acquiring insurance and real estate assets in Europe and the United States, as well as making investments in the likes of tourism group Club Med and Canada's Cirque du Soleil. Despite building up hefty debts in the process, Guo made clear his continuing interest in consumer-led sectors, saying they offered strong value.

"We see more and more opportunities globally so we are adapting our strategy," Guo, who has been ranked as China's 17th richest man, said during a visit to Portugal where Fosun bought market-leading insurer Fidelidade in 2014.

"Our target for the next five to 10 years is to become the world's leading service provider for individuals and families in terms of health, wealth and happiness," he said.

"In the sectors where we have invested we will become a very important international insurance group and a very important tourism group, and we will become a world-leading healthcare provider," he added.

Last month, Moody's credit rating agency restored its outlook on Hong Kong-listed Fosun International's Ba3 credit rating to stable from negative, reflecting its expectation that the group "will prudently manage its expansion and strengthen its financial discipline". Guo said the company was working hard to reduce debts and obtain an investment grade rating - three notches above Ba3 - "as soon as possible", adding: "We are working on that and have a very clear plan to do that." Moody's noted last month that Fosun had slowed its overseas acquisitions since the second half of 2015, lowering its cash needs, although the agency also said its rating could come under  pressure if it continued ambitious debt-funded growth. Fosun returned to its investment plans this week, making a non-binding bid to buy India's Gland Pharma, which is valued at up to $1.5 billion.
This appeared to tie in with a greater emphasis on emerging  markets, despite political or economic problems in countries such as Brazil, Russia and South Africa.

"We are looking globally, but we are paying more attention to Russia, India, Brazil and Africa," said Guo.

Such investments would focus on healthcare and tourism, but could also involve upstream commodities projects - an area  which includes mining plus oil and gas extraction.

Guo brushed aside concerns over his disappearance at the end of last year, when he helped Chinese authorities with an investigation which Fosun has said was mostly concerned with his personal affairs.

"Half a year has already passed, it has totally passed already," a relaxed-looking Guo said without providing any other details. "We are back to normal." At the time, Moody's changed its outlook on Fosun to negative as it feared the investigation would add uncertainty to the group's ability to refinance its debts. However, in returning the outlook to stable last month it said the group had been able to obtain bank credit and keep its access to domestic capital markets.


Despite looking at other emerging markets, Guo said: "China will remain the largest investment focus for Fosun." Guo remained interested in European and U.S. markets, saying valuations there "are still within a reasonable range". Fosun wanted to increase the role of foreign brands in its home market. "Price valuation is only one factor for Fosun," he said. "We always look at the angle where we can transfer the company, or the asset, to China." China's economy faces challenges, he acknowledged, especially in sectors such as construction where there is overcapacity. However, he was confident that annual growth will be around five to six percent in the next few years, with some sectors standing out.

"We do see rapid and quick growth in certain areas related to consumption, in healthcare, tourism, spas and entertainment," he said.

Fosun is awaiting approval for its purchase last year of German private bank Hauck & Aufhaeuser for 210 million euros  (165 million pounds), which watchdog Bafin is reviewing.

"It is progressing smoothly," Guo said, when asked about the regulatory process. "I think we will get approval soon."

In general, he was unworried by regulators in Europe, where he said "we don't feel we are treated unfairly". Last year Fosun made a bid for Portugal's Novo Banco, a  bank cleansed of toxic assets that emerged from the 2014 rescue of Banco Espirito Santo. However, it subsequently pulled out because of the price and Lisbon has relaunched the sale process this year. Guo said Portugal "is a priority destination for Fosun" and the company is looking at other opportunities in the country. He said Fosun was not now involved in the Novo Banco sale, adding that "anything is possible" when asked if it could return to look at the Portuguese bank. Guo also said he was not concerned about the possibility that Britain votes to leave the European Union in a referendum next month, as Fosun has few investments in the country. But he added: "Brexit brings with it uncertainty, not only for Fosun."

By Axel Bugge and Sergio Goncalves
(editing by David Stamp)