If history is any guide, the news will probably be yet another multimillion-dollar acquisition that will throw the spotlight once again on the 45-year-old Kentuckian and the company he named after his grandma's tobacco farm. Ripplewood Holdings might be little known in the U.S., but the private-equity firm, based in New York City, is virtually a household name in Japan, thanks to a $2.5 billion shopping spree in which it has grabbed national jewels, including a bank, a golf resort and a record label. The current deal may or may not involve KDDI, the Japanese phone giant Ripplewood is reportedly negotiating with for purchase of its wireless units. In any case it's bound to raise another round of hysterical cries about a foreign invasion—a nice irony for those who remember when Japan's corporate invaders were feared. But the real question is: Can Ripplewood do what Japan Inc. could not—turn these loser companies around?
On the face of it, the odds don't look good. In Japan, "restructuring" often means ordering just enough layoffs and cost cuts to qualify for another lifeline from the banks—themselves staggering under $1 trillion in bad debts. Meanwhile, the corporate graveyard is crowded with foreign investors who tried to make over Japanese failures. Most recently, Merrill Lynch, which bought out securities firm Yamaichi, is beating a retreat.
That's not to say Japan doesn't look like a buy. Foreign investments in the country surged 32% to $28 billion in the fiscal year ending last March, according to just-released government figures. In 2001, foreigners accounted for almost a third of the mergers and acquisitions, says Thomson Financial, up from only 13% the year before. GE Capital, investor Wilbur Ross and the private-equity arms of firms such as J.P. Morgan are committing billions of dollars. "Despite all the uncertainties, there comes a point where you just can't ignore the opportunities here," says John Lewis, a partner at J.P. Morgan in Tokyo.
Yet no firm inspires public outrage like $4 billion Ripplewood, thanks largely to its taste for companies that evoke Japanese national pride. Ripplewood in 1999 became the first foreign firm to buy out a Japanese bank—Long-Term Credit Bank, the fifth largest in the country. Last year it snapped up the biggest share in—and effective control of—Nippon Columbia, the 92-year-old record label whose name is synonymous with enka (Japanese folk ballads). Then Ripplewood bought out Seagaia, a sprawling golf-and-beach resort on the southern island of Kyushu that plays host to Japan's best-known golf tournament. Ripplewood also purchased Niles Parts, an auto-parts maker.
"Japanese companies always prefer to sell to other Japanese companies," says Dean Yoost, CEO of a PricewaterhouseCoopers division in Tokyo that advises on mergers and acquisitions. The foreigner is the buyer of last resort. That means the price is often right: Ripplewood paid $130 million for Seagaia (with a commitment to invest $100 million)—a total that is only 8% of the $3 billion it cost to build the resort, which opened in 1994. But Ripplewood faces a turnaround task that is the corporate equivalent of raising the dead.
To help find a buyer for the failed Long-Term Credit Bank, Japan's government erased much of the bank's bad debts and promised to take back any that turned south through to the spring of 2003. Collins hired Masamoto Yashiro, 72, who ran Citigroup's highly successful retail operation in Tokyo, as ceo. LTCB was born again as Shinsei Bank, which was appropriate: shinsei means rebirth.
Immediately, the bank kicked up controversy. It refused to bail out Sogo, a hopelessly debt-ridden but beloved chain of department stores, forcing it into bankruptcy. And the bank initiated bankruptcy proceedings against First Credit Corp., Japan's biggest mortgage-loan specialist. Aside from overhauling its investment-banking business, Shinsei also launched a retail business featuring fee-free, 24-hour services at its network of 56,000 atms—a concept considered revolutionary here. Shinsei offers savers returns higher than those of traditional banks, at which, Yashiro notes, the annual interest income on a 1 million yen deposit—about $7,700—is worth the equivalent of two bus tickets. The lobby of Shinsei's steel-and-glass headquarters in central Tokyo looks more like an Internet cafE than a bank, with customers lounging at flat-screen computers while making transactions and checking stock quotes. Other bank branches share space with Starbucks.
Will enough Japanese consumers take to banks with baristas in place of tellers? The early results are encouraging. For the six months ending last Sept. 30, Shinsei declared a profit of $275 million. And the bank is reported to be preparing to sell its stock to the public in an ipo. "We were pessimistic last spring," says Nana Otsuki, an analyst with Standard & Poor's, "but Shinsei has surprised us."
For the record label Nippon Columbia, Ripplewood's task was less to redefine the business than to get back to it. Over the years the company had simply stopped producing hits, relying for sales revenue on the albums of enka queen Hibari Misora—who died in 1989. Nippon Columbia owned Denon, an audio-equipment maker, and odd assets such as real estate and golf memberships. The staff was bloated, the headquarters stuffy, and the company had not turned a profit in 10 years.
Collins hired a renowned industry talent, Strauss Zelnick, former ceo of BMG Entertainment, who in turn hired a respected Japanese record exec to scout for new pop and rock acts. Ripplewood spun off Denon and other noncore assets and slashed the staff. The building also underwent a makeover, with Sheryl Crow on video screens in the lobby alongside posters of young artists like Kiyoshi Hikawa and Charcoal Filter.
Collins turned Ripplewood's renamed Phoenix Seagaia Resort over to his fly-fishing buddy Michael Glennie, who had run the Boca Raton Resort and Club and the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, but who concedes that "this is a different challenge." Seagaia boasts five golf courses, four hotels and a convention center on six miles of Pacific coastline. It offers bowling, tennis and riding. It also has a water park called the Ocean Dome that costs $5 million a year to operate and includes simulated waves lapping at a beach made of imported crushed marble.
Glennie has hired Starwood Resorts to manage the hotels as Sheratons and revamped pricing for the resort's services. But on a recent weekday, only a couple of dozen vacationers could be seen in the Ocean Dome. What are Glennie's plans for it? He scratches his head: "Still working on that one."