BEIJING (Reuters) - Founded as a provincial auto insurer, Anbang Insurance burst from obscurity with a $2 billion bid for New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 2014, casting the company and its ambitious chairman as flagbearers for a new breed of Chinese dealmakers.
But its headline-grabbing deals and the connections forged by chairman Wu Xiaohui - from Beijing to President Donald Trump’s son-in-law - have invited closer scrutiny.
On Wednesday, the privately held company said Wu had temporarily stepped aside, following unverified reports of his detention in China. It has not provided further details.
Wu, who married the grand-daughter of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, has been the driving force at Anbang since founding the company in 2004.
The group worked in obscurity before turning to more aggressive financing to catapult it over rivals who rake in much larger volumes of premiums.
Over the past three years, Anbang has secured acquisitions worth more than $30 billion - a diverse list that has raised regulatory questions at home and abroad.
As queries grew, the low-profile Wu made more public appearances this year at key events including the annual Boao Forum, China’s answer to the Davos World Economic Forum.
On one panel there he playfully sparred with Levin Zhu, the politically powerful former CEO of China International Capital Corp and a former Anbang director, who repeatedly questioned him on the company’s finances, attendees reported.
“Anbang’s rise to international prominence has been much like that of modern China itself - meteoric, with mystical origins, and often misunderstood,” said Brock Silvers, managing director of Kaiyuan Capital, a Shanghai-based investment advisory firm.
“The company was continuously dogged by rumours regarding its capital origins, yet continued to succeed,” he added.
Known for his hard-driving, hands-on approach and single-minded ambition, Wu is not the first high-profile executive reported to be targeted or questioned by Chinese authorities.
China-born billionaire Xiao Jianhua was taken from a luxury Hong Kong hotel in a wheelchair in January, a source told Reuters. Local media reported the group that took him away were mainland Chinese agents, which Chinese authorities have not commented on.
Fosun chairman Guo Guangchang reportedly lost contact with the healthcare-to-insurance conglomerate in 2015 before re-emerging to say he was assisting authorities in a probe.
Wu says he works at least 12 hours a day, and those working with him say calls from Wu at all hours of the day or night are not uncommon. Occasionally, he sleeps in his office.
“We must win the first battle and every battle thereafter as we are representing Chinese enterprises going global,” Wu, now 51, told students at Harvard University in 2015.
“We must have conviction that we can make profit even under the worst case scenario in order to move forward on each investment.”
Many of Anbang’s latest deals, though, have faltered.
The Beijing-based firm in 2016 offered $14 billion for U.S. hotel operator Starwood but pulled out from what would have been the largest Chinese takeover of a U.S. company.
A year later, it held talks with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, to develop a New York office tower. That deal foundered amid controversy over the extended family of the U.S. president selling to a politically connected Chinese tycoon.
Anbang’s $1.6 billion offer for U.S. annuities and life insurer Fidelity & Guaranty Life fell through in April.
Anbang had separately sought to list its life insurance business in Hong Kong and invited banks last August to pitch for the deal, sources familiar with the matter said at the time.
That too went quiet.
Wu’s strategy echoed that of famed U.S. investor Warren Buffett - an aggressive pursuit of yield-producing companies, funded by cash from selling insurance products and other sources.
In addition to his international deals, Wu also bought significant stakes in a number of Chinese banks and financial companies.
He also aligned with powerful allies.
When he set up Anbang, Wu enlisted a small consortium of private and state investors, led by Shanghai Automotive Industry Group Corp (SAIC), the parent of a government-owned automaker. State-owned China Petrochemical Corp later bought a stake.
In addition to Levin Zhu, Anbang’s original board included Long Yongtu, China’s chief negotiator when it joined the World Trade Organization. Wu also turned to Chen Xiaolu, a son of Chinese Marshal Chen Yi, for support.
One source who has advised Anbang said Wu worked hard to cultivate connections with politically connected figures and princelings, the children of the country’s political elite, including the Deng family.
“Even if you marry a princeling, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a full member of the family,” the source said.
Additional reporting by Julie Zhu in HONG KONG; Writing by Clara Ferreira Marques; Editing by Lincoln Feast