Tencent executive refutes criticism company has forsaken innovation to buy growth

Tencent executive said the company ‘is not an investment bank’ and that its investments are made to contribute to its core businesses

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 11:26am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 11:42am

A senior Tencent Holdings executive has come out to defend the Chinese internet giant’s strategy of backing multiple start-ups, saying the company is “not an investment bank” in the most comprehensive comments after industry observers accused it of prioritising investment over innovation.

Jeffery Li Zhaohui, managing partner of Tencent Investment, addressed an ongoing debate about whether the internet giant has “lost its dream” in an interview with BusinessWeek China published on Thursday. Tencent confirmed information in the interview but declined to provide further comment.

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The debate was sparked by a former tech editor, Pan Luan, who wrote an online essay in May criticising Tencent for driving growth these days through investments rather than original innovation.

“It’s totally wrong to put investment and self-developed business on opposite sides,” Li said in the interview. “It’s a misunderstanding of us that when investment is properly done, it would be bad for our own self-developed business, or that a certain business is weak because Tencent is more focused on investment.”

The company’s investments have contributed directly to Tencent’s core businesses, such as in games, by establishing long-term partnerships and securing the best games. Investments have also paved the way for the company’s expansion into new areas, he said.

Tencent invested more in the first half of 2018 than the whole of last year, following new investments in the fields of new retail and e-sports, and putting more money in existing investments in fundraising rounds, Li said.

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Founded by billionaire Pony Ma Huateng, Tencent looms large on China’s internet and media landscape, dominating with its instant-messaging software service QQ and social media platform WeChat, which topped 1 billion monthly active users earlier this year.

At the same time, the firm has been expanding into different sectors including e-commerce and automobiles, with analysts attributing its investment strategy as a key factor behind its 10-fold increase in market valuation since 2011. Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, competes with Tencent in a number of businesses including mobile payments and e-commerce.

Tencent has invested over 100 billion yuan (US$14.5 billion) in more than 600 companies since 2011, Tencent President Martin Lau said in March.

This year, the company will aggressively step up its investments in video, digital payments, cloud services, artificial intelligence and smart retail even though it could harm the company’s profitability in the short term, Lau said.

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In January, Tencent Holdings,, Sunac China Holdings and Suning Commerce Group spent a combined US$5.4 billion for a total 14 per cent stake in commercial property firm Wanda Commercial, in which Tencent spent US$1.6 billion to acquire a 4.12 per cent stake.

In April it signed a cooperation agreement with China Resources Group, one of the country’s largest shopping centre operators, to integrate the latest technology into its traditional grocery and department stores. A month later Tencent launched a joint venture with Wanda Commercial Management Group, taking a 42.5 per cent stake in the new yet-unnamed venture to up its ante in becoming a “smart” retailer.

The biggest misconception about Tencent was that the company was becoming an investment bank, Li said in the BusinessWeek China interview.

“Tencent Investment is not an investment bank,” Li said. “How we evaluate a company or establish trust with it requires lots of understanding of the product and recognition of the culture, for which we work closely with our product departments. Otherwise, all so-called financial skills would be useless.”

The direction for company’s investments will continue to centre on Tencent’s core businesses while exploring the boundaries, Li said. The company has no interest in sectors such as new materials or telecommunication equipment that Tencent is not familiar with.

“Our principle is that we only invest in what we understand,” Li said.