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World Grouse Mountain acquisition just the start for Chinese investment firm, banker says

China Minsheng Investment Group is seeking other Canadian ‘jewels’ beyond Grouse Mountain Resort, China watchers say.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Chinese investment firm planning to buy Grouse Mountain Resorts has spent more than a year searching Canada for other assets, and wants to buy banks and landmark hotels.

China Minsheng Investment Group (CMIG), which calls itself the largest privately owned investment manager in the country, is nearing completion on a deal to buy Grouse for about $200-million, sources have told The Globe and Mail.

But the company is on the hunt for more "jewels" in Canada, according to a banker who has met frequently with the firm, which conducts its overseas investments from an office in Shanghai.

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"They are just starting," said the banker, who asked not to be named because of the commercial sensitivities of discussing a potential client.

"Anything that is famous or outstanding from Canada, they will look into."

That could include marquee hotels, financial institutions, health-care firms and aviation companies.

The interest in Canada is driven by Canadian connections among some of CMIG's shareholders, as well as a hunt for deals.

"They have looked into a lot of the U.S. opportunities, but it's just quite aggressive, quite competitive" south of the border, the banker said. "So they think some of the Canadian assets might be unexplored, valuations might not be that high."

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Founded in 2014, CMIG is part of a new generation of Chinese companies that have emerged with breathtaking speed, rising from nothing into a global giant almost overnight.

It says it is backed by a roster of 59 private companies, which initially invested $9-billion. By last fall, its valuation had surpassed $37-billion, and it intends to swell to $188-billion by 2019, its president, Li Huaizhen, said late last year.

Run by multilingual staff chosen for their experience at multinational companies, CMIG has already built up an aviation business with a fleet of 300 planes, advanced plans to build a new financial city in Shanghai, poured money into southeast Asian industrial parks, bought a Caribbean insurer and created corporate arms to invest in energy, health care, leasing and asset management.

The company has positioned itself as a privately run counterpart to some of China's state-run financial heavyweights and, in meetings, acts like a private company keenly interested in potential acquisitions, said another banker who has experience with the company.

It boasts a long list of foreign advisers, including former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin and Roland Berger, founder of the eponymous international consultancy.

But the company also boasts strong ties to the Chinese government, saying its creation was the brainchild of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and its founding was carried out under the leadership of the country's State Council and All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce. The latter is a group led by the Communist Party and its United Front Department, a powerful organization used to extend Chinese influence abroad.

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CMIG has been an enthusiastic booster, too, of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, a cornerstone project for President Xi Jinping that promises to export China's development model across southeast and central Asia.

"They tell you that they're not state-owned," said the second banker. "But do you do anything in China without really having strong ties to the party?"

A spokesperson for CMIG declined a Globe interview request.

The company has deep connections to Minsheng Bank, whose largest shareholder is Anbang Insurance, another Chinese company that has experienced meteoric growth, but whose opaque ownership has raised questions about its real backers, who are believed to include people with ties to China's elite leadership. Anbang has also made a series of acquisitions in Canada, including Vancouver-based Retirement Concepts, one of British Columbia's largest retirement-home chains.

In June, Chinese authorities confirmed that Anbang's chairman had been detained amid a crackdown on high-flying financial companies labelled "industry thieves" by a top Chinese regulator.

The chairman of CMIG, Dong Wenbiao, is the former chairman of Minsheng Bank; a handful of other top CMIG executives also previously worked at Minsheng Bank. It has a reputation as "kind of a spinoff from Minsheng Bank," said Andy Xie, an independent economist formerly with Morgan Stanley.

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CMIG has denied any relationship with Minsheng Bank, but Mr. Dong has issued unclear statements about whether Minsheng holds any financial interest in CMIG.

Both CMIG and Minsheng have "blurred the lines in China … between what's a private-sector company and what's a [state-owned enterprise]," said a third banker.

"They claim to be private, but the reality is more complex."

Corporate filings reviewed by The Globe show that CMIG's 59 backers include other investment companies, real estate developers and major fashion, trade and industrial conglomerates.

Some are connected to the highest levels of Chinese politics.

Zhongtai Trust, for example, has links to Guo Wengui, the Chinese tycoon who has enraged Chinese leadership in recent months with a series of damaging corruption allegations on social media against the family of one of President Xi's most trusted allies. China has in turn accused him of massive graft, and called him a fugitive.

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Zhongtai helped to repay a bank loan made to Mr. Guo, according to former employees who testified in a Chinese court in June.

CMIG, however, has described itself as a trustworthy investment partner with "long-term committed capital," Laurence Liao told Reuters in 2015. Mr. Liao is chief executive of CM International Holding, the overseas arm that is behind the Grouse purchase.

"While usually other private-equity funds have seven or 12 years or similar time horizons, for us, it's a different story," he said. "It's a very long, long-term capital, more like a pension fund."

For a firm like CMIG, buying assets like Grouse makes sense, Mr. Xie said.

"A lot of people have been doing something like that, buying entertainment or tourism assets," he said, "because they believe Chinese people will go there."

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