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ICBC's fledgling leasing arm spreads its wings

By Wang Wen | China Daily | Updated: 2015-07-28 08:31

Offshore deals help firm to expand in overseas markets, reports Wang Wen.

A newly built Airbus 320aircraft took off from its factory in Toulouse, France, on July 3 bound for Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal-the first airplane of the fledgling Himalaya Airlines.

The occasion was significant not only for the startup carrier but also for ICBC Financial Leasing Co Ltd, a specialist leasing operation based in the China (Tianjin) Pilot Free Trade Zone, because the deal was its first involving two overseas customers.

"The Chinese market alone cannot support the company's development ambitions and offshore leasing deals like this one will become increasingly important for us," said Lin Feng, managing director of aviation financing at ICBC Leasing.

Himalaya Airlines plans to eventually operate 15 A320s, to become Nepal's largest carrier within the next five years, and is already negotiating with ICBC on leasing several other aircraft, Lin said.

A subsidiary of China's largest commercial bank Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd, the leasing arm-the first of its type when it was launched in 2007 - has the government's key "going global" economic initiative at its core.

Cong Lin, its CEO, expects it to rank among the world's top five aviation-leasing companies. It is already in the global top 10, in terms of airplane fleet size.

It is also China's largest leasing firm with a portfolio of services covering the aviation, shipping and heavy equipment sectors.

Its total assets hit 23.56 billion yuan ($3.8 billion) at the end of 2014, delivering annual net profit of 2.813 billion yuan, according to its annual report. In 2013, its net profit was 2 billion yuan.

It received its first international aviation order in 2010 and overseas business accounts for half of its revenue. Insisting this rapid rate of growth will continue, Cong is well aware that the company needs to venture further afield for new orders, in a fiercely competitive global market.

Lin said its next stage of development will see it focus squarely on developing long-term relationships around the world, a target set as soon as it was established.

"We let the world know about ICBC Leasing right from the start," he said. "But it will take a lot more time and resources to explore the global market fully. It is no coincidence that the company's global business overlapped with that national strategy."

Like many business sectors, Lin also said the government's Belt and Road Initiative offers ICBC Leasing huge potential in countries and regions along the two ancient Silk Road trading routes.

President Xi Jinping launched the initiative in 2013, to focus on the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The strategy's aim is to strengthen connectivity and cooperation among the countries in Europe and Asia.

Encouragingly, the Chinese authorities have been actively promoting the aviation leasing sector in recent years, offering a range of policies in its support.

According to the government strategy to promote aviation leasing industry, issued by the General Office of the State Council in 2013, China expects to be an important aircraft leasing hub by 2030.

It has eased investment restrictions on aviation leasing firms. Value-added tax on the import of aircraft above 25 tons in weight, for instance, was cut from 17 percent to 5 percent, as was the rate for imports by domestic airlines, in a joint move by the Ministry of Finance and the General Administration of Customs and the State Administration of Taxation last year.

Domestic airline demand for leased aircraft has risen fast in recent years, said Tian Hui, a financing expert at the Development Research Center of the State Council, and become an increasingly important component of the country's overall finance sector.

Until the 1990s, Chinese airlines bought their fleets using loans from banks, Tian said, but by the end of 2013, around 900 of the 2,000 commercial airplanes registered in China were leased.

Some major foreign leasing companies have also turned their attention to the rising Chinese market, putting pressure on domestic leasing firms to search for business overseas.

As a latecomer to the international market, ICBC Leasing's business growth has been all the more impressive given it is now competing against some global operators that have been around for many years.

The industry's biggest players remain GE Capital Aviation Services and International Lease Finance Corp, Lin said.

China's current commercial airline fleet is mainly financed by those and other foreign leasing companies, meaning domestic firms can only realistically fund fleet expansions or startups, he said.

Overseas rivals are also a lot more experienced in servicing the entire development cycles of airlines, and at knowing how to react to any downturn in the industry, said Lin.

"ICBC Leasing has only experienced part of the cycle, and we need to adjust our strategies as we develop," he said.

In the West, especially traditional core markets for leasing such as Europe and the United States, it will be very difficult for ICBC Leasing to gain market share, Lin said, meaning its focus until now has been Asia.

Its figures show the business is currently split equally at 25 percent each, between Asia Pacific, the Middle East, Europe and China.

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