Pan Sutong bet billions on a massive project to build opulent homes in Tianjin for China’s nouveaux riche—but the gamble backfired and now Pan’s creditors want to seize his assets.
Pan Sutong’s empire at its peak had few rivals. The 59-year-old property mogul had once amassed a $12.2 billion fortune that included a palatial mansion in Hong Kong virtually next door to the city’s wealthiest person, Li Ka-shing. He owned vineyards in California and France, as well as a horse-breeding and training ground in Australia stretched across more than 1,200 acres.
Despite having never finished high school, Pan managed to build his Goldin Group into a sprawling conglomerate spanning consumer electronics, winemaking, financial services and, most important of all, property. His master plan was to build Goldin Metropolitan, a sprawling mini-city in Tianjin, a port of about 14 million people some 85 miles southeast of Beijing. His project would encompass 12 tower blocks, 33 mansions and the tallest skyscraper in China, rising 117 stories into the air.
But Pan’s plans are now unraveling under a mountain of debt. Work on his pet project has largely ground to a halt and creditors are seeking the liquidation of his companies in both Hong Kong and Bermuda. Even his mansion in Hong Kong had to be remortgaged multiple times to raise much-needed cash. The once flamboyant entrepreneur, who rose as high as No. 6 on the Hong Kong wealth ranking just five years ago, now faces an uphill battle just to stay afloat.
In July, Hong Kong’s high court ordered Pan to declare bankruptcy and unwind one of his holding companies over unpaid liabilities of HK$8 billion ($1 billion) owed to Citic Bank. The order is being appealed, because the tycoon and his holding company have the ability to fully repay the debt, according to a Pan representative. But Pan’s troubles don’t end there. The Bank of China has lodged a separate bankruptcy petition against him in Hong Kong for another 740 million yuan ($109 million) in outstanding debt he hasn’t paid.
That case, which was heard August 2, is currently on hold pending the outcome of Pan’s appeal against the earlier ruling. In the meantime, China’s bad-debt manager Cinda Asset Management has added further to Pan’s legal troubles by suing him as well as several of his associated companies for another 7.4 billion yuan ($1.1 billion) in unpaid loans and accrued interest tied to the Tianjin project.
A unit of Deutsche Bank has filed a petition in Bermuda to apply for the liquidation of Goldin Financial Holdings, the Hong Kong-listed firm that holds Pan’s wine, finance and real estate development businesses.
“He has to find a way to pay off those debts, or reach a new agreement with the lenders,” says Kenny Ng, a securities strategist at Everbright Securities. “Otherwise, he has no choice but to go bankrupt.”
“He has to find a way to pay off those debts, or reach a new agreement with the lenders. Otherwise, he has no choice but to go bankrupt.”
Pan, who spent his teenage years in the U.S. but moved to Hong Kong at the age of 21, initially ventured into consumer electronics. He founded the Matsunichi brand in the Asian financial hub in 1993 to produce MP3 players as well as karaoke TV monitors. In 2002, he took over the Hong Kong-listed Emperor Technology Venture and renamed it Matsunichi Communication Holdings. Then a booming real estate market in China in the 2000s caught his eye, and he decided to pivot.
Matsunichi was renamed Goldin Properties in 2008, the same year Pan acquired another Hong Kong-listed firm called Fortuna International, which was subsequently rebranded as Goldin Financial. Years later, the stocks of the sister companies soared, including a 40% surge in a single day, giving Pan a net worth of $12.2 billion in 2016. Hong Kong’s financial watchdog, however, issued a warning about Goldin Properties’s high concentration of shareholding after the wild price swings.
The $1 billion loan from Citic, personally guaranteed by Pan, was meant to fund his $1.5 billion privatization of Goldin’s property arm in 2017. Such a move is typically undertaken when controlling shareholders believe the public market is undervaluing their company, says Everbright’s Ng.
Goldin Properties had primarily focused on high-end real estate. It’s the unit responsible for building the mega-project in Tianjin. The development broke ground in 2007 because Pan was confident in Tianjin’s prospects of developing into a regional economic hub, according to Goldin’s website.
Since then, however, Tianjin’s economic importance has only faded, and Pan’s investment holding company Silver Starlight hasn’t repaid a loan that first fell due in 2019. It also made no other payments except for a portion of overdue interest in 2020, court documents show.
Construction of the skyscraper had largely halted back in 2015 after receiving what Goldin claimed to be a $5.9 billion investment, which is still well short of the roughly $10 billion needed to complete the project. Today, the high-rise tower has come to be known on Chinese social media as the country’s largest lan wei lou, or derelict building.
Yan Yuejin, research director at the Shanghai-based E-house China Research Institute, says Pan will seek to avoid selling the assets and plots of lands in Tianjin to repay creditors because doing so would amount to acknowledging failure. It would also mean breaking up his real estate company.
“The Tianjin project is grandiose, and it’s hard to give up for Pan,” Yan says. “But if everything else fails, then he needs to sell it in exchange for cash to solve his debt problems.”
Price, however, is another problem. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been working to tamp down housing prices and reduce financial leverage, which dealt a stunning blow to the country’s property market. Developers are now reluctant to acquire land, particularly as so many have run into their own cashflow problems and recently defaulted on their debts.
To Pan, the prospect of losing control of the Tianjin project would mirror a fate that has already befallen another trophy asset. The 28-story Goldin Financial Global Centre in Kowloon Bay was seized by creditors in 2020 after the company failed to meet debts totaling more than $1.3 billion collateralized by the building.
Now, Goldin Financial Global Centre is in want of a new buyer after a previous deal to sell it at a reported $1.8 billion was terminated in May for unspecified reasons.
The building had served as the headquarters of Goldin Financial, which lost more than 90% of its value over the past five years. The company reported an almost 40% plunge in revenue to $47.2 million for the 12 months ending in June 2021, according to the latest financial report available. It also said it had $956 million in current liabilities due within 12 months, against cash and cash equivalents of only $2.1 million.
Pan resigned in June as company chairman and executive director, and handed the reins to former Vice Chairman Abraham Shek Lai Him.
Meanwhile, Pan has repeatedly mortgaged his mansion in Hong Kong’s exclusive Deep Water Bay neighborhood for at least $85.6 million. In fact, just a few years after Pan bought the property for $319 million in 2017, he was turning to his famous neighbor for help. Li Ka-shing’s CK Asset Holdings agreed to bailout Pan with a loan in 2020, but the deal ran into trouble and the two parties were on the verge of taking the matter to court before they managed to resolve their differences.
Pan also has an apartment project in the Ho Man Tin district of Hong Kong, which had its presales banned last year in an unprecedented move by authorities due to concerns over the company’s financing. Pan’s aforementioned representative said the Grand Homm project had already received its certificate of compliance from the Hong Kong authorities at the end of August, and it aims to deliver all of its homes within 30 days. The timeline, however, has been repeatedly pushed back since Pan first acquired this land parcel in 2016.
In recent years, Pan had to walk away from several other projects in Hong Kong. He gave up his right to develop a separate residential project in Ho Man Tin in 2020, and forfeited a $3.2 million deposit in 2019 to quit his involvement in a $1.4 billion bid for a land parcel at the former Kai Tak airport site. Goldin Financial had spent almost $1.2 billion to acquire a separate piece of land at Kai Tak in 2018 that was sold in 2020 in a heavily discounted $446.5 million cash deal, which also included a profit-sharing agreement entitling Goldin to 30% of any future income development of the site, after a previous $898 million sale was terminated.
“Judging from Pan’s debt disputes and projects in Hong Kong, he faces deep cash shortages,” says E-house’s Yan. “He is on the verge of bankruptcy, and it depends on whether he can sell more assets in Hong Kong to prevent this from happening.”