$1.4bn Big Street bailout as Chinese government backs Suning rescue fund

By Elles Houweling

A consortium led by the local government of Jiangsu province set aside a fund for Suning.com, one of China’s largest appliance retailers. The move marks the government’s latest effort to bail out the heavily indebted conglomerate.

The company said on Monday that Zhang Suning Group and Suning Appliance Group would sell 1.58 billion shares of the embattled retail firm, or 16.96% of the company, to fund at 5.59 yuan per share ($86 cents), according to company filings to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. This puts the total value of the deal at about $1.4bn.

Investors backing the deal include the Nanjing municipal government, ecommerce giant Alibaba, home appliance manufacturers Haier and Midea Group, electronics company TCL Technology and Chinese smartphone brand Xiaomi.

The founder of Suning Group, Zhang Jidong, is known to be an extravagant businessman. “Like so many successful Chinese entrepreneurs of the 1990s generation, he didn’t stick to his knitting and became over-geared to move beyond his core business and indulge in foreign adventurism in the process,” said Michael Orme, GlobalData analyst and China specialist.

Zhang moved into property development and finance and most famously into sports, buying football club Inter Milan. This had Suning’s cash squeezed, resulting in championship-winning Inter Milan plays being asked to take cuts in their wages.

Following the deal, the fund will have a 17% stake in Suning’s retail business and Zhang will lose his control of the company.

“The corporate participants in the fund are all top-notch operations to offer guidance to Suning,” said Orme. “For example, Haier and Midea are China’s biggest appliance companies, (and) no doubt Suning is set to gain from their participation.”

Another notable partner is Alibaba, to which this is its first business involvement following a months-long antitrust investigation that culminated in a record $2.8bn fine from China’s State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR).

The new deal adds to the nearly 20% stake in the retailer already held by Alibaba. In 2015, Alibaba and Suning.com – then known as Suning Commerce Group – signed a strategic partnership, acquiring stakes in each other. Alibaba paid 28.3bn yuan ($4.38bn) for a 19.9% stake in the retailer that, in turn, invested 14bn yuan ($2.17bn) to acquire 1.1% of the ecommerce giant.

Following the announcement, Suning’s share price went up 10% on Tuesday. “The retail business is very successful and now has the support of the biggest players shaping its business,” Orme explained.

Founded in 1990 in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu, Suning.com grew from a 200-square-metre store that sold air conditioners into one of the country’s largest high street retailers (‘big street’ retailer in Chinese) of home appliances and consumer electronics.

At the end of March, Suning.com, which also has franchised shops, had 2,611 self-operated stores across China, including 30 shops in Hong Kong.

The company has become the country’s third-largest online retailer and ranked first in the home appliances category, according to separate reports from market research firm Analysis and China Household Electric Appliance Research Institute.