China's Anbang Insurance Group has emerged from near obscurity 18 months ago to sign deals worth more than $30bn (€2.7bn), moving into the big league of global real estate and finance.
The Beijing-based firm has offered $12.8bn for US hotel operator Starwood and also agreed this month to pay Blackstone Group $6.5bn for Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc, whose 16 luxury properties include the Four Seasons Washington DC.
Established in 2004 as an automotive and property insurer by chairman Wu Xiaohui, a native of China's entrepreneurial coastal city Wenzhou, Anbang is looking to use its 1.65 trillion yuan ($253bn) in assets to transform into a worldwide investor.
"Anbang will have a global footprint. In 10 years, Anbang will have companies on all the world's continents," Wu, who is 49 and married to Deng Zhuorui, a granddaughter of Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping, told students at Harvard University last year.
Business associates describe Wu as passionate, impatient and very ambitious. He often travels by private jet accompanied by a retinue of assistants.
His acquisition strategy is underpinned by an aggressive pursuit of yield-producing companies, those business associates say, funded by cash from selling insurance products and other sources.
In October 2014, Anbang agreed to pay $1.95 billion for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, a move Wu said brought the insurer "extra brand recognition" and business opportunities.
Last year, Anbang agreed to buy US insurer Fidelity & Guaranty Life for $1.6bn, and paid around $1bn for South Korea's Tong Yang Life Insurance Co. It has also bought control of Fidea, a Belgium based insurer, and the Belgian banking operations of Dutch insurer Delta Lloyd. It is in talks to buy Allianz's South Korean operations.
Chinese insurers are rushing to acquire high-yielding assets as they struggle to keep up with the policy liabilities of the country's aging population. US assets are also seen as a good hedge against any future weakness in the yuan.
The head of China's insurance regulator, Xiang Junbo, wrote in January in a magazine published by the country's central bank that Chinese insurers should venture overseas for investments. These investments, however, are not without hurdles.At home, Anbang has a leading stake in China Minsheng Banking Corp Ltd, the country's biggest private lender, and is a significant shareholder in China Vanke Co, the largest residential property developer.
When he set up Anbang, Wu enlisted a small consortium of private and state investors led by Shanghai Automotive Industry Group Corp, the parent of a government-owned automaker that has ventures with General Motors and Volkswagen. State-owned China Petrochemical Corp later bought a stake.
Anbang's original board included Levin Zhu, former CEO of China International Capital Corp and son of former premier Zhu Rongji, and Long Yongtu, China's chief negotiator when it joined the World Trade Organization. Wu also turned to Chen Xiaolu, a son of Chinese Marshal Chen Yi, for support.
Anbang holds licenses for selling property, life and health insurance, and operates an annuity insurance business and asset management arm. It doesn't publish group finances, but says its assets have more than doubled since December 2014. (Reuters)