North Star maps out expansion plans in preparation for listing

DRIVING north from Beijing to the offices of North Star Industrial Group it becomes apparent just how vast this rapidly growing conglomerate has become.

Not only is the main approach road - a six-lane highway - named after the company, just about every building within a one-kilometre radius is owned by it.

North Star was founded just two-and-a-half years ago, in August, 1990, but has already become one of the largest property developers in China with projects throughout Beijing, Qingdao, Harbin, Zhuhai, Huizhou and Hainan Island.

The company - largely controlled by the local Beijing Government - boasts assets of 3.4 billion yuan (about HK$4.4 billion) and claims an annual income of more than one billion yuan.

It employs about 15,000 people and has offices in half a dozen countries around the world.

North Star's signature development is the Asian Games Village, a vast complex featuring apartments, offices, hotels, conference, exhibition and recreational facilities located about nine kilometres north of the city centre.

The complex was ''inherited'' by North Star following the Beijing Asian Games of 1990, but the company has not been content just to sit back and watch the revenue flow in.

North Star plans to turn the Asian Games Village into an international trade, finance, business and tourism centre.

A city within a city for international and domestic business, is how the deputy director of the general manager's office, Mr Si Haiqun, describes the project.

The complex already features Asia's largest urban amusement park, a joint-venture with Hongkong, a 1,200-room four-star hotel, plus numerous restaurants and sports facilities.

Future development of the village, Mr Si said, would focus on the expansion of its financial services.

A currency swap market has been in operation for about a year, and the group hopes to encourage banks to set up branches there.

Eventually, North Star wants to establish a stock exchange, should the necessary approvals from the central and local government be forthcoming.

Apart from the Asian Games Village, the group has three other major property developments under way in Beijing, with a total investment of 6.5 billion yuan.

These include two luxury residential projects, featuring landscaped gardens and villas, plus a high-rise residential, office and commercial complex by the Temple of the Moon Sports Stadium west of Beijing.

North Star is also helping to redevelop the city centre of Harbin in northeast China, as well as developing a large tract of land in Qingdao's Huangdao district and housing development projects throughout southern China. Should Beijing be awarded the right to host the 2000 Olympiad, North Star will be guaranteed the contract to build the Olympic Village on land adjacent to the existing Asian Games complex.

Mr Si is the first to admit that China's real estate market has become rather ''chaotic'', but insists all of North Star's projects will be sound investments.

He points to the 100-per-cent occupancy of Asian Games Village apartments sold to domestic customers as an example of the company's successful property development strategy. However, most independent observers say the sales were only achieved because thelocal Government assigned customers to North Star, something Mr Si vigorously denies.

''All sales were made through the market place, the government did not interfere at all,'' he said.

Despite Mr Si's assurances that the property market was still ''basically healthy'', he said North Star was anxious to diversify and expand its range of business interests.

The key area of development will be the group's tourism and travel related services. The group plans to spend some 3 billion yuan on further developing tourist facilities in northern Beijing and expanding its own travel companies. The group's ''new technology'' division, which already encompasses 16 separate manufacturing and industrial companies, will also see rapid expansion in the next few years, Mr Si said.

Likewise the group's construction and trade divisions will witness steady growth, he said.

The group itself will undergo a major restructuring programme, becoming a diverse shareholding company by the end of the year, should the local government approve its proposal.

Should the plan be approved, the group will first seek a listing on the Shanghai stock exchange and, should that prove a success, it will apply for a listing in Hongkong.

Mr Si hopes prospective investors will see North Star as a dynamic but well-ordered and reliable company.

North Star's management philosophy, he said, comes from Confucious: ''To govern [manage] with morality is like the north star. Once in its correct orbit, all the other stars [subsidiaries] will be united.''