Chinese firm Anbang Insurance Group has already secured a series of high-profile U.S. hotel acquisitions, but the once obscure company is currently facing off with Marriott in a battle for what would be its biggest prize yet: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. And, yet, Anbang is still somewhat of an unknown, even as it attempts to pull off the largest-ever Chinese acquisition in the U.S.
In 2014, the Chinese insurer emerged from relative obscurity to announce its nearly $2 billion acquisition of an iconic Manhattan hotel, the Waldorf Astoria New York. Fortune noted at the time that, while Anbang trails some of its larger rivals in China’s domestic insurance market, the company had 30,000 employees and more than $114 billion in assets. According to Anbang’s website, it now claims assets north of $290 billion. The firm serves more than 35 million clients, offering a variety of insurance and financial services to China’s rapidly expanding middle class.
Since the Waldorf Astoria deal closed last year, Anbang has stayed active on the acquisitions front. The firm paid $1.57 billion to buy U.S. insurer Fidelity & Guaranty Life last fall, and earlier this month Anbang made another splash in the hotel industry by agreeing to buy Strategic Hotels & Resorts from the private equity giant Blackstone Group for roughly $6.5 billion.
Now, the Chinese insurer appears to be the primary obstacle in Marriott’s (MAR) path as the American hotel operator also bids for Starwood (HOT) in an attempt to become the world’s largest lodging company. On Monday, Anbang upped the ante in that standoff by making a roughly $14 billion cash offer for the Stamford, Conn.-based Starwood, which operates more than 1,300 properties and employs 188,000 people worldwide.
Anbang’s latest offer for Starwood bests its own previous offer by more than $1 billion and, more importantly, it tops a $13.6 billion cash-and-stock offer from Marriott. On Tuesday morning, Fortune editor Alan Murray questioned why a foreign insurer like Anbang would value Starwood so highly—roughly 13 times the U.S. company’s earnings, which is higher than similar hotel operators are valued—particularly when the Chinese company’s primary business has little to do with operating hotels.
The exact source of Anbang’s interest in Starwood is not entirely known, aside from the obvious fact that the insurer is steadily building a major portfolio of U.S. hotel and real estate assets. Anbang isn’t alone in that pursuit, as data from the Rhodium Group shows Chinese investors pumped more than $5 billion into U.S. real estate and hotels last year, which was up more than 65% from 2014. Of course, generally speaking, Chinese companies have been actively investing in the U.S. in recent years, including 2013’s $7.1 billion sale of Smithfield Foods to Shuanghui International—currently the largest-ever Chinese acquisition in the U.S.
Meanwhile, there are concerns that Anbang’s bid for Starwood could eventually hit any number of snags, including the possibility that Anbang is overextending itself, with too many long-term investments straining finances, or that Chinese regulators could simply balk at the deal.
This week, the Wall Street Journal also highlighted the mystery surrounding Anbang’s leaders as a concern, calling the company’s ownership “a mash of corporate shareholders, with multiple layers of holding companies registered all around the country.” While confusion over ownership has reportedly prevented various U.S. financial institutions from working with Anbang, the company told the Journal it is owned by more than 30 corporate investors who are not involved in its daily operations. The newspaper placed calls to some of the car dealerships and related companies that comprise Anbang’s wide-ranging list of investors, but hit multiple dead ends, with one company even hanging up the phone at the mention of Anbang.