Dutch ING group focuses on China

AAD Jacobs, chairman of the executive board of the Dutch ING group, has a lot to think about.

He has brought the entire nine-member executive board of ING to China so they can see for themselves how the Middle Kingdom is transforming itself and how ING's money is being used to help it do so.

The result of a 1991 merger between Nationale-Nederlanden, the largest insurance company in the Netherlands, and the NMB Postbank group, the third largest bank in the country, ING group is not a complete newcomer to China.

An antecedent of Nationale-Nederlanden had a presence in Shanghai in the 1880s but withdrew when Japan invaded.

But following the merger, Mr Jacobs realised the newly created group had to do some strategic thinking.

On the plus side, the bank had gained large amounts of long-term capital from the life insurance arm of the business and this meant a substantial amount of equity holdings and the ability to manage funds.

On the negative side, said Mr Jacobs, ''we were far too heavily dependent on the Netherlands for our revenue - at that time 70 per cent of our profit came from there.'' ''That kind of reliance made us vulnerable in the world scene,'' he said.

Mr Jacobs and his board sat down to think and concluded that the ideal move would be the acquisition of European retail banks to forge a Europe-wide network.

It was not to be. Although ING went ''almost to the edge of merger'' with a Belgian bank, the deal was eventually rejected as too costly. ''Our plan for a Europe-wide integrated financial house selling insurance and banking was not do-able,'' said Mr Jacobs, ''there were too few European banks available and they were too expensive.'' At the end of 1991, Mr Jacobs' initial ideas were in tatters and the bank still needed a sound new strategy which would help it use its new found mass internationally.

''We decided to expand where we knew we had a proven record,'' said Mr Jacobs, ''that meant emerging markets: South and Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Far East.'' The insurance wing of the group positioned itself to sell life insurance abroad, not by overseas mergers but through what Mr Jacobs called ''green field sites''. The most spectacular success was Japan, he said.

The banking arm looked to expand from traditional expertise in lubricating international trade to longer-term lending and also fee-based income.

''Export-import has always been an important part of the business,'' said Mr Jacobs, ''but we are also changing our policy there. Before the merger, we had short-term money and we had medium-term money. After the merger, there was very much longer term money in the group - subordinated loans, equity and relatively important equity portfolios.'' ''The equity portfolios mean that if we carry out a placement of shares, we can keep them if we don't seem to get the offers we want. Equities will give a better yield than fixed income over the long term,'' he said.

The bank would also mix loan deals with direct equity stakes as merchant banks do and ''we don't need to ask anyone else's advice . . . equity holdings added two billion guilders [about HK$8.28 billion] to our surplus in 1993,'' Mr Jacobs said.

With the opening of ING Bank's first Chinese branch, in Shenzhen, that flexibility will be even more useful.

Building on the strategy decisions of late 1991, ING now stresses what it calls the Greater China concept which looks for synergies from doing business in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.

The bank first accessed China through a joint venture with Beijing International Trust and Investment Corporation and KK Yeung Management Consultants in 1988 to form the first joint-venture management consultancy in China.

It also has representative offices in Shanghai and Beijing and has just launched a closed-ended fund intended to invest in the Greater Beijing area.

Mr Jacobs said ING was fully committed to China.

''The question is: Do you believe the past 10 to 15 years and especially the past five, are the beginning of a favourable trend for the next 30 to 40 years?'' ''My answer is yes,'' he said.