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Overseas investments may expand quickly
Updated: 2005-01-16 14:26

The acquisition of the French perfume and cosmetics group Marionnaud by AS Watson, a company owned by the Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing, is another indication of how Chinese investors are expanding abroad.

Until recently, China was considered a developing country, and initial international investments tended to be aimed at securing natural materials, in particular in Australian and South American mines.

Purely commercial international ventures are relatively recent on the part of groups based in mainland China, going back around four to five years, though investors in Hong Kong have been active for some time.

The newer breed of entrepreneurs, like Russians a few years ago, "are still rather rare, but the speed with which they got on the path to international investing is striking," said Bernard Yvetot, project director at the French Agency for International Investments (AFII).

"They have moved faster than those in Taiwan or the Koreans, who nonetheless make decisions quickly."

Yvetot said Chinese investors "have a relatively opportunistic investment approach".

One reason they can make up their minds quickly is that the companies are often family-based, with a boss who can decide rapidly surrounded by younger managers trained in Western methods, he added.

Though most Chinese investments are made in Asia, it is worth noting that those in Western countries tend to be evenly divided between the United States and Europe.

Since many of the earliest ventures passed via companies in Hong Kong, Britain has been the primary benefactor, with around 150 major investments.

France has around 80, of which half are often more representative offices rather than factories or other businesses, Yvetot acknowledged.

At a total of around 900 million euros, Marionnaud represents one of the largest investments in France, along with a joint television venture created by the Chinese group TCL and the French company Thomson.

Another major site is the ERI group's location in southwestern France, where plastic is recycled for the Chinese market.

Cosco, a shipbuilding firm is also active in France, while the tomato giant Chalkis, a subsidiary of Xinjiang, bought the biggest French processing group, Conserves de Provence.

Finally, the Hong-Kong based luxury goods group Dickson Poon bought the cigarette lighter maker ST Dupont in 1987 and is still in operation in the French Alps town of Faverges.

"The investors we like are those who reinvest in the industrial tool," Yvetot said. Japanese investors are known and appreciated for such an approach.

Not enough time has passed to know whether Chinese investors will orient themselves according to a medium or long-term strategies.

Yvetot noted with satisfaction however that the initial investments have tended to be stable ones.

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