China’s Richest Man Goes Shopping in Paris
The conglomerate run by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, is set to invest billions of dollars in a shopping development outside Paris, according to a Bloomberg report today.
The investment would cement Wang’s status as a global investor, following his Dalian Wanda Group’s purchase of a controlling stake in Hollywood’s Legendary Pictures earlier this year and the acquisition of AMC cinemas in the U.S. and a British yacht maker over the last few years.
Wang teased an audience at Oxford University this week, saying his company would announce a massive deal on Friday. It appears insiders have scooped Wanda on the news. Wang’s office didn’t respond to a Fortune request for comment on the investment.
Wanda’s strategy has shifted remarkably quickly for a company big enough to qualify soon for the Global Fortune 500 list. Wanda rose to prominence on the strength of its Wanda Plazas in China, glittering bunches of apartments, hotels, and department stores next to movie chains and Las Vegas-style restaurants. By the end of 2014, the Wanda Malls division posted profits of 25 billion yuan (around $4 billion) and counted 99 plazas. Wang set a target to open 17 more in 2015 and increase profits to 29 billion yuan ($4.75 billion). In 2007 Wang was China’s 147th richest man; in 2015 he moved to the top of the list.
It was during 2015 that Wanda abruptly switched course. It closed about 10 malls in the first half of the year. In July, Wang told state-run Xinhua News four new directions Wanda was heading in for the next decade. Wanda would change completely into a services company, support film, sport and tourism, open its own bank and insurance operations, as well as build an e-commerce operation.
There’s no comparable real estate developer in the U.S. that so quickly abandoned its core business. By the end of 2015, Wanda had closed 35 malls, a third of its lot, according to estimates by Insite Research. Wanda Group says overall sales rose 19% in 2015 to 290 billion yuan ($45 billion) and may decline by double-digits this year as its property business continues to falter.
Wang’s ties to the government have come into question before. Last year the New York Times published an investigation finding Wang’s company, then private, extending shares to relatives of China’s leaders, which was of particular interest because the land in China is government-owned, and companies like Wang’s must sign long-term leases. Wang’s response is that his strategy has been to “make friends with the governments, but stay away from politics.”
Those ties may recede to the background as Wanda keeps pumping billions into businesses and projects in the West. In France, the project is reportedly a massive theme park and shopping area known as Europa City, set to begin construction in three years, and a return to Wanda’s real estate core.