UCAR to exit from China’s biggest car rental group after Luckin Coffee scandal infects stock value

Daniel Ren

Charles Lu Zhengyao, the former billionaire co-founder of scandal-hit Luckin Coffee, appears set to exit from China’s largest car rental firm after agreeing to sell his remaining interest in the company to Beijing Automotive Group.

UCAR, an investment unit controlled by Lu, plans to dispose of all its remaining 21.26 per cent stake in Hong Kong-listed Car Inc to Beijing Automotive for an undisclosed price, according to an exchange filing on Monday. The stake is worth about HK$999 million (US$129 million) based on the firm’s current market value.

Car Inc surged 24.4 per cent to close at HK$2.22 on Monday, after gaining as much as 29 per cent. Lu is the chairman and non-executive director of the car rental company. The shares recently traded at HK$2.12.

“Car rental is still a market with great potential to tap in China,” said Cao Hua, a partner at private equity firm Unity Asset Management. “It is understood that new investors are still interested in Car Inc’s business while its founder looks to exit.”

Charles Lu Zhengyao, in happier time during Luckin Coffee’s debut on Nasdaq in 2019. Photo: finance.china.com.cn

The divestment is a humbling experience for the executive, who has since apologised to investors ensnared by fabricated sales at the coffee chain touted as China’s Starbucks. Though unrelated, the scandal has not only hit both their stock prices and eroded trust in Chinese corporate governance, but also provoked a tougher response from stock exchange operator Nasdaq.

The “strategic cooperation” with Beijing Automotive is the second block by UCAR since the Luckin scandal came to light on April 1. UCAR on April 16 agreed to sell a 17.1 per cent stake in Car Inc to a Warburg Pincus unit in two tranches for HK$1.12 billion. Only the first tranche of 4.65 per cent at HK$2.30 each, was completed but a second portion at HK$3.40, was aborted.

Car Inc’s shares plummeted 54 per cent on April 3 to HK$1.96 after the Luckin Coffee disclosure on 2.2 billion yuan of fictitious sales last year. Luckin has since fired chief executive Jenny Qian Zhiya and chief operating officer Liu Jian.

The break-up in UCAR investment leaves Legend Holdings, China’s leading investment group, as Car Inc’s single largest holder with a 26.6 per cent stake.

China’s largest car rental agent halts trading amid scandal at chairman’s associate company

Car Inc’s sales rose 19.4 per cent to 7.7 billion yuan in 2019. Earnings, however, plunged 89.3 per cent to 31 million yuan as the rental company offered discounts in promotional campaigns to woo more customers. It slipped into a 188 million yuan loss in the first quarter to March 31.

Lu’s financial headache, however, does not end there. Lenders led by Credit Suisse are targeting assets held by his offshore family trust as they try to recoup losses on more than US$500 million in margin loans that soured after the coffee chain’s accounting scandal came to light.

The Swiss bank, which is acting as an agent for the loan facility, filed the liquidation request to the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, High Court of Justice, in the British Virgin Islands on April 23, according to the BVI Gazette notice. A hearing is scheduled for June 8.

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