SinoFortone – ragtag opportunists or a front for Beijing?
Richard Cook attempts to join the dots in the story of the London-based Chinese company that claims to be funding vast chunks of UK infrastructure
What is SinoFortone Group, the Chinese company based in London that says it is funding vast chunks of critical infrastructure, in the UK and beyond, and has been taken as a model for China’s state-run capitalist strategy? Is it really a front for China’s fast and aggressive global investment drive? Or just an opportunistic collection of entrepreneurs and industrialists, who smartly saw which way China’s commercial winds were about to blow and trimmed their sails accordingly?
SinoFortone Managing Director Peter Zhang hesitates when asked if his company is following Chinese state instructions. “We are following the Chinese president’s strategy closely,” he says, before pausing again. “I think the projects we are doing at the moment are following the Chinese president’s lead. In the past the focus was in Africa. Now China is more focused on Europe and in ‘One Belt One Road’ countries… For investment, we use a diversified financing model. We have used state funded investment support, like the China Development Bank and China Export and Credit Insurance (Sinosure) funding. And we also have also raised bonds from the general public.” He pauses before repeating himself. “We are following the ‘One Belt One Road strategy.”
SinoFortone Group Limited was incorporated in London in July 2015 using the UK’s cheap, and quick, online company formation and registration service, Companies Made Simple. Its two directors are 31-year-old Ms Xinyu Tang, a Chinese national, and Sir Richard Heygate, a British 77-year-old. The joint majority shareholders are managing director and frontman Peter Zhang and the Liaoning Fortone International Investment Group, a subsidiary of Liaoning Fortone Group, an engineering- and construction-focused conglomerate based in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang that lists its main business activities as “mega project investment.” The “Sino” part of the “SinoFortone” name comes from Sinolinks, a company formed by the same Peter Zhang in Hong Kong in 2012.
While it is hard to find mention of Tang anywhere in China or the UK – apart from on various SinoFortone documents and as a committee member of the China Innovation and Development Association when she was at York University – searches for Heygate show far more.
Sir Richard has a checkered CV that has seen him work as a management consultant, a salmon farmer, the founder of various tech start-ups and the author of a book on magic. In 2012, he founded the 88 Initiative with Sir Paul Judge, a City of London boardroom veteran and former director general of the UK’s Conservative Party, and set out to bring to the UK some of the billions of private and public money that China was looking to invest across the globe. It was then that Heygate met Zhang. Like Ms Tang, Peter Zhang also studied at York University – he was a research associate at its Management School – and was also a founding committee member of the China Innovation and Development Association. This association received, at the very least, Chinese embassy-level support from 2009 and seems to be something of a hothouse conduit for the billions of investment that came after President Xi’s visit to Britain in 2015.
“I think the projects we are doing at the moment are following the Chinese president’s lead. In the past the focus was in Africa. Now China is more focused on Europe and in ‘One Belt One Road’ countries”
Since its incorporation three months before the Chinese presidential visit, Sinofortone has given its address as a service office in Central London and has said it invested £2 billion (US$2.48 billion) in two Welsh biomass power stations, £3.2 billion in the London Paramount theme park development, £250 million on hotel developments. It has also said it will be involved in the proposed Crossrail 2 line running through London into Hertfordshire, besides new metro systems in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. Very impressive considering Peter Zhang was a student in York just three years before. “I had business experience before going to York,” he says. “I worked for China Railway Group in Africa.”
According to Zhang, more SinoFortone projects will soon follow – in Georgia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and across Africa – and while the biomass and theme park projects received publicity, the group really came to the UK public’s attention in the summer of 2016 when the UK press reported that SinoFortone was trying to buy Liverpool Football Club, initially for £700 million and then for an increased offer of £1bn. A letter outlining the offer that was circulated on social media – purportedly signed by Peter Zhang and printed on SinoFortone letterhead – was later said to be a fake.
Zhang says the buyout story was “only rumors.” Whatever the truth, it put the company, barely a year old, in newspapers across the world. As did the announcement, a few months later, of SinoFortone’s £10 billion investment talks with the Scottish government. The talks collapsed and became known in the UK press as the “Scottish shambles” after political opponents to Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon raised corruption and human rights concerns because of the involvement of China Railway Group in the SinoFortone team.
SinoFortone’s version of events is that they themselves withdrew from the deal, citing Scottish inactivity and the fact that the government released two announcements without its permission. And then, in December, came the high profile purchase of the Plough pub at Cadsden. It’s been quite a year for this fledgling company.
“In London we source the projects and our back office in China does assessments and then secures financing”
Zhang answers questions about SinoFortone’s lack of experience by pointing to his partner company’s pedigree and track record. “Fortone group is not a young company,” he says. “It used to be a state-owned company and is now one of the largest private construction companies in China, which means we have lots of successful experience in Africa, in the Middle East and in Asia.” He adds: “In London, we source the projects and our back office in China does assessments and then secures financing.”
Professor Yu Xiong, the Chair of Technology and Operations Management at Northumbria University’s Newcastle Business School, knows Zhang from his university days and also has, he says, advised SinoFortone and the British and Chinese governments on joint cooperation business strategies (indeed, he is also a director of a SinoFortone business). According to Yu, SinoFortone relies heavily on State funding but because of a slowdown on the release of funds – caused by a very real fear of corruption and tightened due diligence – the majority of this funding is not actually secured. “From my understanding they have signed some deals and secured some funding but Sinosure have not yet approved most it.”
That, however, should not stop SinoFortone from making many more newspaper headlines in 2017.