Staying out of the public eye is getting a lot harder these days for Wu Xiaohui.
The chairman of China’s Anbang Insurance Group seems to prefer to keep a low profile. But his company’s multibillion-dollar bidding war against Marriott International to buy Starwood Hotels Resorts Worldwide has increased scrutiny on the serial dealmaker.
Starwood isn’t the only prize Wu has been pursuing. Anbang is close to wrapping up a separate deal to buy Strategic Hotels Resorts group for $6.5 billion from investment firm Blackstone Group, according to a source familiar with those negotiations.
And all that’s on top of Anbang’s 2014 purchase of New York’s iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel. At $1.95 billion, it remains the biggest Chinese real estate acquisition in the U.S.
While Wu appears to try to steer clear of the news media, he has gone on the record about Anbang’s global ambitions. The privately held company’s international investment team is always on the road looking for the next big deal, he boasted in remarks at an event at Harvard University last year.
“The total number of airline miles travel by this team is equal to a round trip between the Earth and the Moon, which is a testament of our investment decision process,” he said. “We must win the first battle and every battle thereafter as we are representing Chinese enterprises going global.”
Anbang’s trail of acquisitions around the world highlights its appetite. It has struck deals for major insurance companies including U.S. firm Fidelity Guaranty Life, Dutch insurer Vivat, and Fidea in Belgium.
Its latest push for foreign buys comes amid a major global shopping spree by Chinese companies since the start of this year. So far in 2016, Chinese firms have already announced $104 billion in outbound deals, which is 98% of the amount for the whole of last year, according to Dealogic.
China’s government has been encouraging domestic firms to invest overseas, but Wu’s current deal-making attempts for Anbang could run into trouble with the country’s regulators.
A respected Chinese financial magazine, Caixin, reported Tuesday that China’s insurance regulator was likely to reject Anbang’s recent hotel acquisition plans because they would break rules that ban insurers from investing more than 15% of their assets overseas.
Anbang and the insurance regulator weren’t available for comment Wednesday. As things stand, Marriott is poised to buy Starwood, unless Anbang and its partners come back with a higher bid.
Wu, a businessman from the southeastern city of Wenzhou, has ties to China’s upper political ranks. Last year, he was part of the business delegation that accompanied President Xi Jinping on a state visit to the U.K., according to official state media.
But verified public information about Wu is scarce. Anbang’s corporate website doesn’t provide any details about him.
As his company has risen in prominence, Chinese media have tried to fill in some of the blanks.
Caixin reported last year that Wu’s business career started with him renting cars before he moved into infrastructure construction projects, and later, insurance.
The magazine also reported that he married Zhuo Ran, a granddaughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, though the two later separated. Deng is considered the architect of modern China who launched a range of reforms that helped turn the country into the economic powerhouse it is today.
Anbang’s first branch opened in Beijing in 2004. From a small start, it has grown to become a financial behemoth that claims to have more than 1.9 trillion yuan ($292 billion) in assets. Its network includes 3,000 branches with 30,000 employees worldwide.
The insurer says it wants to become one of “the top 10 comprehensive financial groups in the world.” And Wu has said his ultimate goal is to list the company and its subsidiaries on major global stock exchanges, steps that are likely to bring it even more public attention.
— Jessie Jiang contributed to this report.