In Chinese purchase of J.D. Power, backers and motives remain a mystery

What are the sources of the money, and what does Xio Group plan to do with Powers?

About 18 months ago, a Chinese private equity fund called Xio Group bought J.D. Power and Associates for $1.1 billion. As with several other high-profile purchases in the past few years before the Chinese government clamped down, Xio Group, founded in 2014, came from nowhere to snag one of America's marquee automotive industry names. A Wall Street Journal article diving into the sale and Xio itself reported that S&P Global, the company selling J.D. Power, asked Xio one month into the deal where Xio got its money from. S&P Global never got an answer, and two years later, Xio says that no one outside Xio's four founders knows the sources of the fund's money. Nor do we have any idea what plans Xio has for J.D. Power.

Before the J.D. Power purchase, XIO Group had done two deals: buying German fertilizer company Compo Expert, and Israeli medical services company Lumenis. Yet Xio Group, with 70 employees, $5 billion in assets under management, and little experience, won the prize over other known bidders like 34-year-old British private equity firm Advent International. Advent, by comparison, employs more than 300 people, manages $31 billion in assets, runs eight global private equity funds, and has worked with blue-chip firms from Nabisco to Fifth-Third Bank.

Xio, which uses Cayman-Islands-based funds that don't require investor disclosure, won't even clarify whether it has one or multiple investors, nor whether the "China resident" investors are Chinese. Former employees told the WSJ that during the deal, Xio's general counsel resigned "in part because she didn't believe she had sufficient information about Xio's investors to do her job properly." It's clear, though, that Xio is well-connected. To help convince S&P Global it was a genuine bidder, one of Xio's founders contacted a former Swiss diplomat, who in turn contacted ex-S&P Global employee and ex-U.S. director of national intelligence John Negroponte. The deal got done, with Xio fulfilling the needs of U.S. regulators and attorneys along the way.

There's been a touch of havoc on the sidelines, though. Chinese billionaire Xie Zhikun, who said he provided nearly $1 billion in seed money, is suing Xio in China and the Cayman Islands for allegedly stealing his money. Xio said "Xie Zhikun is not an investor with Xio and never has been," even though the Journal has records of a trip where Xio took Zhikun to England to look at potential investments, including Aston Martin. Trip records refer to Zhikun as "LP," usually used to refer to a fund investor, and an e-mail described him as "Chairman of Xio Fund Advisory Board." At least 14 investment executives have left Xio, a subject of discussion forums used by private equity personnel.

And what's Xio's plan for J.D. Power? The firm says it wants to assist its purchased companies "in capitalizing on untapped opportunities in high growth markets, particularly in Asia." Will there be any involvement with Chinese automakers that want to come to the U.S., or will there be a push to work J.D. Power's award-heavy magic on the Chinese market? Will Xio hold onto J.D. Power long enough to make a difference? Xio told Britain's Hermes Investment Management that Hermes could nearly triple any investment in J.D. Power when Xio resold J.D. Power in three years. And will J.D. Power survive the venture capital playbook? A year after the sale and guided by Xio, J.D. Power borrowed $180 million to help fund its own sale, and to pay $100 million in dividends to those unnamed investors.

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