China's Wanda Reports 10.8 Percent Revenue Fall in 2017, Chairman Vows Comeback

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Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin

Billionaire Wang Jianlin, the company's always outspoken chairman, predicted a reversal of fortunes and a return to growth in 2018.

Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin's Dalian Wanda Group reported a decline in revenue for the second consecutive year as the once high-flying conglomerate further abandoned its forays into Hollywood entertainment and global real estate.

Wanda on Saturday reported that revenue in 2017 was 227.4 billion yuan ($35.29 billion), down 10.8 percent from a year earlier. The slide largely stemmed from the recent sale of its Chinese theme park and hotel holdings, Wanda said.

Battered by Beijing regulators and under pressure from lenders, the debt-laden conglomerate has sold over $17 billion worth of assets in the past year.

The squeeze has been tightest for Wanda overseas, where major credit-rating firms have downgraded its flagship commercial-property subsidiary to junk status, triggering higher interest payments on its offshore loans. Wanda Commercial Properties owed more than $2 billion in offshore debt in 2016, its most recent regulatory filing.

In years past, that figure would have been a breeze for Wanda to handle. But with Beijing regulators blocking private firms from moving money offshore, Wanda has been forced to scramble to dispose of assets to ward off a default in the international sphere.

Last week, Wanda agreed to sell its interests in a London luxury development project for $81 million. The company is expected to announce the sale of two major Australian property projects in the coming days.

The group's two largest overseas acquisitions were AMC Entertainment — North America's largest movie theater chain — and film studio Legendary Entertainment, which it acquired for $2.6 billion and $3.5 billion, respectively. So far, Wanda has denied having any interest in selling the companies. (For its part, Legendary finally has a new leader in former attorney Josh Grode, following a months-long search after the exit of founder and former chief executive Thomas Tull.)

"We only need to sell half our [overseas] assets to pay off all the debt, which shows that we made money between when we bought and sold them," Wang said in a speech at Wanda's annual meeting, which was published Sunday on its website.

But Wang also pledged to reduce Wanda’s debt burdens "through all available means," including the sale of non-core assets and minority stakes in the businesses he controls.

The year 2017 was one of reckoning for Wang and Wanda. The tycoon saw his personal net worth slide $8 billion to an estimated $25.5 billion, according to Forbes, as he fell from first to fourth on China's list of richest individuals.

Early last year, Beijing singled out Wanda and several other Chinese conglomerates for their pricey, debt-fueled acquisitions of potentially risky assets overseas. Regulators were concerned that the buying sprees were limiting their efforts to constrain capital outflows, while also introducing systemic risk to the state banking sector.

Wanda responded by aborting deals — such as its $1 billion agreement to buy TV producer Dick Clark Productions — and shedding assets. The company said Sunday that 93 percent of its assets are now within China — a figure it had never previously revealed.

Always combative, Wang said in his year-end speech that the group's fortunes would reverse in 2018, predicting a 9 percent revenue increase as the company overcomes recent difficulties and returns to core competencies.

Wanda's weekend statements provided only a partial view of its full financial status, however, as most of the firm, closely held by Wang and his family, remains private and thus isn't required to disclose earnings.

Net profit across the group remained flat compared with 2016, Wanda said, without providing figures.

The biggest revenue hit came to Wanda's main commercial real estate arm, which saw revenue plunge 21 percent last year to 112.5 billion yuan. The division accounted for 90 percent of all Wanda revenue as recently as 2011; but following several years of aggressive diversification, the commercial-property arm made up just 49 percent of revenue in 2017.

The picture at the company's entertainment division, what Wanda calls the "Culture Industry Group," was brighter. The culture subsidiary, which comprises the company's movie theaters and film holdings, among other interests, saw revenue surge 32.6 percent to 63.78 billion yuan. Wanda said the division accounted for 28 percent of the group's total revenue in 2017, adding that it had "become one of Wanda’s pillar industries."

Revenue at the film division in particular hit 53.2 billion yuan, a 35.9 percent increase over 2016. Wanda opened 199 new movie theaters worldwide in 2017, adding 1,585 screens to its total of 15,932 screens across the globe.