Photographer: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Chinese Dealmaker Sonny Wu Said to Lead Takeover of AC Milan

  • Wu’s GSR Capital, Steven Zheng behind team’s proposed takeover
  • Consortium nears $825 million deal with Silvio Berlusconi

Chinese dealmaker Sonny Wu, whose business holdings span renewable energy and lighting, is leading the proposed takeover of storied Italian soccer team AC Milan, people familiar with the matter said.

Wu’s private equity firm GSR Capital is the main investor in the consortium that is in advanced talks to buy AC Milan from Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest SpA, according to the people. The Chinese businessman, who led two failed attempts to buy Royal Philips NV assets in the last 18 months, is valuing the soccer club at about 750 million euros ($825 million) including debt, one of the people said, asking not to be named because the discussions are private.

Steven Zheng, a Chinese businessman with solar power interests, is also part of the buyer group, the people said. The deal will involve new sponsorship agreements with the seven-time European champion, according to one of the people. Berlusconi, the former Italian premier, said this month he had reached a deal in principle with the Chinese consortium without identifying its makeup.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, an avid soccer fan, is pushing the country to improve its global standing and last year published a national plan to grow the sport. Teams from China outspent those from any other country this past winter, spending a combined $280 million on European soccer stars.

“It’s both financially smart and politically smart for a Chinese company to buy a world-famous football club,” Mark Dreyer, the Beijing-based founder of industry website China Sports Insider, said by phone Thursday. “We can expect more investors in China to seek for opportunities to buy soccer clubs overseas in the near future.”

Property Tycoon

Should the acquisition go through, Chinese investors would control both Milan soccer teams following last month’s investment by Suning Holdings Group Co. in crosstown rival Inter Milan. The purchase would cap a remarkable push by Chinese companies to acquire soccer assets across the globe.

GSR Capital plans to meet with Berlusconi “to establish a partnership for global markets,” Wu said in an interview, declining to comment further. A spokesman for Fininvest said he couldn’t immediately comment.

The Chinese consortium has missed earlier targets to complete a deal with Berlusconi, hurting AC Milan’s chances of signing new players during the summer transfer season. The investor group, which had initially discussed buying about 60 percent of AC Milan, now plans to buy full control of the team, the people said.

Wu, a former Nortel Networks Corp. executive who grew up in southern China’s Guangdong province, co-founded early-stage investment firm GSR Ventures in 2004. He partnered with Hong Kong property tycoon Cheng Kin-ming in a $2.8 billion deal last year for Philips’s Lumileds lighting components unit, which fell apart after U.S. government opposition

Deal Delays

Wu’s GO Scale Capital separately bid for Philips’s other lighting unit, people with knowledge of the matter said in February, before the Dutch company decided instead to list the business in Amsterdam. His funds have invested in Lattice Power Corp., which is developing cheaper and more efficient LED chips, and Chinese electric-car maker Xin Da Yang. GSR Ventures is also a backer of Boston Power, which builds lithium-ion batteries for electric cars and buses.

GSR Capital announced plans in July last year to set up a $5 billion fund for overseas acquisitions. The fund had $1 billion of commitments at the time of the statement, which said it would target industries including clean energy, internet finance and culture.

The Chinese consortium has been in touch with Fininvest for almost two years about a possible purchase of AC Milan, one of the people said. Talks with the investor group stalled for several months when Berlusconi named Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol as his preferred buyer for the club. 

Discussions with the Chinese suitors resumed earlier this year when Bee failed to raise the money needed to buy one of soccer’s most-famous brands, according to the people. A further delay came when Berlusconi, 79, was hospitalized for several weeks after undergoing heart surgery in June. 

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