BEIJING—When Bank of America agreed a year ago to plop down $3 billion for a stake in China Construction Bank, there was no shortage of skeptics.
After all, China's major banks only now are struggling out from under a whopping pile of bad loans. Some global banks studied China's banking scene hard, saw entrenched bad habits and offered a curt "no thanks" to investment stakes.
But a year has passed, China Construction Bank's stock price is way up—making Bank of America's investment far more valuable on paper—and bankers on both sides are smiling. They go out of their way to say kind things about each other.
"All in all, Bank of America has many valuable experiences from which we can learn," said Zhao Lin, a board member and the vice president of China Construction Bank.
Walk the hallways of the 22-story headquarters of China Construction Bank on Beijing's bustling Finance Street and it's not uncommon to see midlevel Bank of America employees offering advice and observing the changes at CCB, as its partner is known. Some 20 translators are available to overcome language barriers.
"We have found CCB to be quite open, in fact quite eager, to talk with us about how Bank of America approaches the banking business," Robert L. Stickler, a spokesman for Bank of America, which is based in Charlotte, N.C., said in an e-mail.
Scratch the surface, though, and one can detect that it hasn't been altogether easy to blend cultures and banking practices, and to balance levels of control. Perhaps that's not surprising, given the differences in culture, history and political systems.
The chairman of CCB, Guo Shuqing, is the secretary of the Communist Party committee at the bank, a position that in the past would have given him more clout than any bank president and still carries considerable weight.
"Right now, the party committee is still the top decision-making body at the bank, but they have power only over the Chinese employees," said Wang Songqi, the editor in chief of The Banker magazine.
China is opening up, however, and in the end its vast market size may outweigh any difficulties in bringing foreign know-how to the banking sector. China's economy has grown at more than 9 percent a year for a quarter-century, and the pace isn't slowing. As one of the nation's Big Four banks, CCB has kept pace with the growth, and its payroll as of May totaled 300,000 employees, toiling at 13,977 branches.
Under the deal announced a year ago, Bank of America put down $3 billion for a roughly 9 percent stake in CCB. It received an option to increase its stake eventually to 19.9 percent, the ceiling that China sets for any single foreign bank.
It marked the largest single foreign stake in a Chinese company ever. China and the United States subsequently have displayed sensitivity to such investments. Last August, a Chinese state-controlled oil company, CNOOC Ltd., dropped an $18.5 billion takeover bid for the California energy firm Unocal, citing a hue and cry on Capitol Hill over national security concerns.
Bank of America wasn't alone in taking a CCB stake. The Chinese bank also sold a $1 billion stake to a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings of Singapore. For its part, Bank of America got a single seat on the CCB board, but no real control over operations.
By February, Bank of America had deployed "40 experts to work in the bank, who have focused on key projects such as retail banking and e-banking," according to CCB's recent annual report.
It's clear in an interview with Zhao, the vice president, that while Bank of America offers business acumen, CCB's executives feel they can handle the job alone.
"Great changes have taken place," Zhao said. "Among our domestic peers, and even in global emerging markets, we rank among the top banks."
Noting that the bank's stock price has risen by 50 percent since its October Hong Kong Stock Exchange offering, Zhao said the bank had instituted sweeping changes, accepting outside board members, improving retail strategy and fine-tuning credit risk.
By using better auditing techniques, CCB has uncovered problems, removing two senior provincial branch executives, Zhao said. The bank has improved retail service, beefed up computing systems, focused on training and cut the ratio of bad loans to 3.8 percent, he said.
Zhao spoke in an interview for nearly an hour before answering an initial question about how his bank was collaborating with Bank of America.
"They are here to assist us, to advise us, but they do not take part in decision-making. They do not interfere," he said. "It's been quite harmonious."
The two sides are still working out how to form a joint venture on retail credit-card operations, he said. They've also begun a no-fee withdrawal system at both banks' automated teller machines for CCB's best customers, he added.
Stickler, the Bank of America spokesman, said his bank "is quite happy with the partnership," noting that bankers in China "cannot simply copy Bank of America due to the differences in the two markets." But he added that CCB is improving data management and other systems. "There is definitely progress being made."
One of CCB's outside board members, Masamoto Yashiro, a former chairman of Shinsei Bank and a veteran executive of Citicorp's operations in Japan, said he thought that Bank of America was "providing very useful help."
He noted in general terms that it's not always easy for foreign investors in countries such as China to oversee their investments.
"They tend to be very pushy. They want their own way," Yashiro said. "They are very assertive."
In the end, he said, Bank of America probably made a shrewd investment in China Construction Bank, which is growing steadily and seeks an international footprint.
"Asset size is already big. Market cap is also big. They'll be much more global. ... In 10 years, they will count as an important global bank," he said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-BANK
Need to map