Wang Jianlin is quite a showman. When he announcedhis US$2.6 billion acquisition of one of America’s largest and most famous cinema chains AMC Entertainment in May, he made a good stab at turning Beijing into Tinsel Town: striding onto the stage, flanked by starlets dressed as Oscar statuettes, to the fanfare of the theme from the filmSuperman.
A little hammy, perhaps. But Wang can be forgiven for putting on the glitz: this is a landmark deal by any standard. By combining AMC’s large portfolio with its own 86 sites in China, his company, Dalian Wanda, has emerged as the world’s largest operator of cinemas, with 5,750 screens globally.
Some also see the takeover – the largest yet of an American company by a Chinese business – as symbolic. It certainly sent shockwaves through Hollywood, highlighting how Chinese financial firepower is changing the landscape in even traditionally non-specialist industries like entertainment. As a bold new player in global M&A, Wanda has been flagged up as a ‘pathfinder’ for hundreds of other Chinese companies eyeing opportunities in western countries. The name of the company seems propitious enough: it means ‘a thousand roads lead here’.
These days it is hard to imagine the dapper, pin-striped Wang (he wears Lanvin for preference) as a teenage soldier who had to devise strategies to stave off hunger. But the experience shaped him. “In the early days, we really had to scramble to eat…that experience taught me never to give up and never bow your head in hardship.”
Indeed, Wang’s story closely tracks that of China’s own economic development. Born to middle-ranking party officials in Sichuan in 1954, he joined the army straight after school and, after several years on the Mongolian border, was posted to Dalian in north-east China. That marked a turning point: Wang joined the gold rush of Dalian’s development as a major economic zone. Quitting the army in 1986, he founded Wanda two years later, taking charge of a shanty-town redevelopment that no-one else would touch.
That willingness to get stuck in has seen Wanda mushroom into a conglomerate spanning five-star hotels, tourist resorts, shopping chains, and cinemas. His stroke of genius, says Rupert Hoogewerf of the Hurun China Rich List, was “to lay down a stake across the country as a brand well before anyone else had a vision”. Today he can afford to pick and choose which projects he wants: every city in China is clamouring for a Wanda Plaza development.
Although he clearly relishes the occasional tycoon’s trophy (he has a 33-metre Sunseeker yacht docked in Hong Kong and was one of the first to buy a private jet), China’s sixth richest man remains a man of simple tastes, declaring: “I am not a person who pursues luxury.” Indeed, China’s ‘relatively big’ wealth gap concerns him. There’s a danger, he says, of the businessbuilding zeal that characterised his own rise becoming diluted. “China’s biggest problem is not how fast or slow the economy grows, but the loss of the spirit of entrepreneurship.”
No worries on that score at Wanda: Wang, one suspects, won’t rest until he’s achieved his goal of building a fully-fledged multinational, with 20 per cent of the global cinema market, by 2020. He may not be Superman, but don’t bet against it.