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Tapping buoyant water industry prospects

China Everbright Water aims to boost tech R&D capabilities through M&As, adopting an asset-light approach, and focusing on industrial-academic tie-ups

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Mr Wang says Everbright Water will proactively explore opportunities in both domestic and overseas markets, in line with key national strategic plans.

FOR calligraphy buff Wang Tianyi, the 5,000-year-old art of writing Chinese characters with a brush and ink on rice paper, known as shu fa, is not merely a hobby - it's a discipline that hones skills and develops psyches.

"A calligrapher reveals his true character through his characters," the chairman of SGX-listed China Everbright Water Ltd said with a smile.

"It's an art form that calls for the relentless pursuit of perfection, and incorporates elements like focus, balance, structure and self-discipline - all of which help cultivate principles that are useful in both business and everyday life," he added.

Mr Wang holds a Doctorate degree in Economics, a Master's degree in Management, and a Bachelor's degree in Electronics from Tsinghua University. He is also the executive director and chief executive officer of Hong Kong-listed China Everbright International Ltd, which held a 74.85 per cent stake in Everbright Water as at end-2017.

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Currently a part-time professor of Tsinghua University, Mr Wang was formerly the dean of Shandong Academy of Sciences, as well as the vice-president, dean and professor of the School of Economics and Management of Yantai University in Shandong Province.

"Actually, I have been called an 'academic entrepreneur'," Mr Wang admitted, with a twinkle in his eye. "An aspiring entrepreneur with strong academic and research skills."

Everbright Water's principal business activities include water environment management, reusable water, wastewater treatment, sludge treatment and disposal, as well as research and development of water technologies, engineering and construction. It is also engaged in sponge city construction, or sustainable urban development, which includes flood control and water conservation.

Its geographical footprint spans nine provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions - including Shandong, Jiangsu, Beijing, Shaanxi, Liaoning, Inner Mongolia, Henan, Hubei, Guangxi - and covers over 40 locations.

The group was formed in 2014 when Everbright International conducted a successful reverse takeover (RTO) of SGX-listed HanKore Environment Tech Group - an integrated environmental water services provider - and renamed it Everbright Water.

Between 2013 and 2017, Everbright Water, which has a current market capitalisation of more than S$1 billion, has increased its earnings and revenues by a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.9 per cent and 29.2 per cent respectively.

Fragmented Market

Mr Wang hailed the group's decision to kickstart operations in China's eastern coastal region - including the provinces of Jiangsu and Shandong - as a smart move.

"That was good for us because of the stronger economic performances of these eastern coastal cities," he noted. "Our operations have since expanded to the central and western regions, in line with the country's changing economic needs."

The group has also focused on expanding its presence in Tier 1 and 2 cities - which have higher income and industrial production levels, and hence, larger volumes of wastewater - than Tier 3 and 4 cities.

As at March 31, 2018, Everbright Water had secured 95 projects, and its total water treatment capacity exceeded five million cubic metres per day. The bulk comprises 78 municipal wastewater treatment projects, with the remainder involving industrial wastewater treatment, water environment management, reusable water, water supply, as well as sludge treatment and disposal. Its total project investment amounted to approximately 16.7 billion yuan (S$3.3 billion).

"We're on track to grow our total water treatment capacity to 10 million cubic metres per day by 2020, which would rank us among the top three water players in China, up from fourth or fifth position currently," Mr Wang said.

China's wastewater treatment market remains fragmented, with the largest player in the industry - Hong Kong-listed Beijing Enterprises Water Group Ltd - holding a share of about 7 per cent.

The country's wastewater treatment industry is expected to reach US$58.2 billion by 2022, from US$42.1 billion in 2017, reflecting a CAGR of 6.7 per cent, BCC Research said in a report published in April 2018.

While growth in this sector over the next five years is expected to slow from the double-digit pace of annual expansion seen over most of the past decade, it will still be faster than many other countries globally, the report noted.

Over the years, Everbright Water has continuously emphasised its ethos of "technology leads development", Mr Wang said.

The group aims to boost its tech research and development (R&D) capabilities through mergers and acquisitions (M&As), adopting an asset-light approach, and focusing on industrial-academic collaborations that would encourage commercialisation of research results.

"Our research will focus on areas such as water environment management, integrated utilisation of water resources, and comprehensive protection of water ecology," he added.

Last year, the group filed 59 patent applications - a number that exceeded the total sum filed in previous years - and was granted 21 patents. It also expanded its business scope to new areas, such as water supply and standalone pipeline networks.

In February, the group set up an 80 per cent-owned joint-venture company in Germany to pursue R&D, engineering services, technology transfer, and business development in environmental services. The venture is expected to create overseas business channels, enhance international exchanges, and widen the pool of available talent.

Going green

Everbright Water will also proactively explore opportunities in both domestic and overseas markets, in line with key national strategic plans such as the Yangtze River Economic Belt, and development of the green Belt and Road Initiative, Mr Wang said.

And with China positioning ecological conservation as one of the country's sustainable development strategies, the water environment industry is expected to continue its robust growth.

Several government policies - including the newly amended "Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law of the PRC" and the "Special Plan on Scientific and Technological Innovation in the Environmental Sector for the 13th Five-Year Plan Period" - are guiding the regulated and systematic development of the country's water environment management industry.

Through these policies, the government has set various objectives and timelines, such as equipping all urban areas with wastewater treatment and recycling facilities by end of 2020, and eliminating all "black and odorous water bodies" in cities by 2030.

"In China, pollution control has been named as one of the three tough battles that the country must fight in the coming years," Mr Wang noted.

"This signifies the Chinese government's determination and belief in protecting and managing the environment, which in turn will become a driving force for the future development of the industry," he added.

But despite various challenges in managing the day-to-day operations of the business, Mr Wang loses very little sleep at night.

"I would like to believe that after you have crossed the age of 50, you would have built up a significant store of life experiences contributing to your resilience and character," the 56-year-old said with a smile.

"So there's not much in the way of work that will keep me awake."

Mr Wang's strength of character and sense of responsibility has been ingrained in him since childhood. He picked up critical thinking skills from his dad, a farmer-turned-medical-doctor, and learnt the importance of being kind from his mother, who passed away when he was 11.

His passion for sustainability and conservation is shared by his 28-year-old daughter, who is also pursuing a career in environmental protection. Their conversation topics often revolve around politics and the green movement.

"I would like to think that I, in turn, have passed on the attributes of intelligence, kindness and generosity to my daughter," he smiled. "These are important values that ultimately define who you are as a person."

  • This is an excerpt from SGX's Kopi-C: The Company Brew, a regular column featuring C-level executives of SGX-listed companies. Previous editions can be found on SGX's My Gateway website www.sgx.com/mygateway