LEISURE: Wanda Hires from Disney, Google in Global Talent Hunt

Bottom line: China’s Wanda Group will continue a recent trend of hunting for top global talent to build its growing entertainment empire, as it seeks to challenge the likes of Disney.

The aggressively expanding Wanda Group is filling up its ranks with foreign-trained China veterans as it tries to challenge the likes of global names like Disney (NYSE: DIS) with moves into the movie and theme park spaces. Now the company is going on a major shopping spree for top talent from some of those companies, led by new reports that it has just poached a top Disney theme park executive to head its own theme park division. At the same time, other reports are pointing out that Wanda also recently hired Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) former top China executive to help lead its Internet division.

All of these reports come as one of the more authoritative reports on wealthy Chinese has just put out its annual list that shows Wanda chief Wang Jianlin is officially the country’s richest man, with a fortune worth $32.1 billion. (English article) Wang made his original fortune on China’s real estate market, but Wanda has become extremely aggressive on the global stage in the last 3 years as he tries to build a new entertainment empire.

Wang is apparently using some of his cash to try and lure the big Hollywood studios to China, with separate new reports saying he is offering generous subsidies to anyone willing to shoot films at his newly launched massive production lot in the northeastern seaside city of Qingdao. (English article) Staying on that Hollywood theme, Wang has even hired A-list actor Matt Damon to narrate a promotional film for the new facility.

Among major western players, Wang’s empire looks most similar to Disney’s, since it includes both theme parks and film studios, among other things. In a nod to their growing rivalry, media are reporting that Wanda has now lured former Hong Kong Disneyland chief Andrew Kam to lead its own burgeoning theme park division. (English article; Chinese article)

The reports say Kam left his position as managing director of Hong Kong Disneyland earlier this year, and will be a vice president at Wanda in charge of its theme park division. There’s no additional detail on the move, which comes as Wanda embarks on a major drive that includes opening around 20 parks in China and at least one overseas in Paris. The latest of those came just last month when Wanda officially opened a massive 35 billion yuan ($5.2 billion) entertainment complex including a theme park in the eastern interior city of Hefei.

At the same time, separate reports are also pointing out that Wang has hired John Liu, a former China chief for Google, to be a vice president at his company’s e-commerce unit, which the company has targeted as one of its 4 main business areas. (English article)

Wang Goes to Hollywoood

Finally there are the other new reports  that come as Wang made his own trip to Los Angeles to look for tenants for his new movie shooting complex in Qingdao. In a bid to attract film makers to the facility, Wang announced a $750 million fund established by Wanda and the Qingdao government to support the business. That fund will be used to provide rebates of up to 40 percent of certain costs for companies that chose to shoot films at the new lot.

Among China’s vibrant field of major private companies, Wanda has been the most active in recent years, and its name has become a  regular fixture in the global deal-making headlines as Wang tries to build his global entertainment empire. His purchases over the last few years include theater operator AMC Entertainment (NYSE: AMC) and studio Legendary Entertainment, and he also signed a recent major co-production deal with Sony Pictures.

This latest bid to poach executives from big global names seems like a natural extension of Wang’s deal-making, since he will need such experienced people to run his operations. His incentive plan for the new Qingdao facility also looks smart, since it  will provide yet another reason to come to China for the many Hollywood studios that already want to shoot films there to take advantage of the nation’s booming box office.

At the end of the day I’m just a tad skeptical about all of these plans, since it seems like quite a lot of activity in a very short period of time for someone with very little experience  in the sector. But Wang has already proven himself quite capable in real estate, and clearly you don’t become one of the world’s richest men by making bad business decisions.

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