US and Chinese investors buy Cirque du Soleil

US and Chinese investors buy Cirque du Soleil

MONTREAL - American private equity firm TPG and China's Fosun on Monday bought Canadian entertainment juggernaut Cirque du Soleil for an undisclosed sum as the carnival looks to expand in Asia.

The circus troupe's founder Guy Laliberte retains a small stake of the Montreal-based company he started in 1984 and will continue providing "strategic and creative input." Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

However, Canadian media said TPG, which has also invested in ride-share firm Uber and the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas, acquired 60 per cent of the firm valued at US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion).

Chinese billionaire Guo Guangchang's Fosun, which in February won a bidding war for French holiday company Club Med, gets 20 per cent.

And the Quebec government through its investment arm Caisse de Depot et Placement picks up a 10 per cent stake, in exchange for assurances the Cirque's head office and creative team remain in Canada.

"After 30 years building the Cirque du Soleil brand, we have now found the right partners in TPG, Fosun and the Caisse to take Cirque du Soleil forward to the next stage in its evolution as a company founded on the conviction that the arts and business, together, can contribute to making a better world," Laliberte said in a statement.

Since its inception, Cirque has thrilled almost 160 million spectators in over 330 cities and 48 countries. It will present 18 shows around the world in 2015.

But the company has experienced financial woes in recent years, and struggled to set a new direction since deciding in 2006 that it needed a partner to grow further.

For the first time ever, Cirque posted a loss in 2012 and subsequently cut 1,000 out of 5,000 staff globally.

Notably, its eight Las Vegas shows are responsible for half of its revenues, while its others, including travelling tent shows, have struggled to be profitable.

Laliberte reportedly blamed slack internal spending controls during his absence while he trained for a flight into space and spent time with family.

The former fire-eater and stilt-walker who in 2009 enjoyed a two-week trip to the International Space Station, previously sold a small stake in his company to two Dubai investment firms in order to fund a major international expansion, which never came to fruition.

"Unfortunately after receiving the check from them, everything kind of fell apart in the economy," Laliberte told a nationally televised press conference.

"At some point we realised that our partner was not going to follow us in our adventure towards international development."

Buyers push for control

According to reports, Laliberte originally sought to sell off only a minority stake in the firm that he helped grow from a ragtag troupe of street performers to an entertainment giant.

But The Globe and Mail daily, citing sources familiar with the negotiations, said buyers pushed for control of the company.

Laliberte said he caved after speaking with his five children and deciding they should not inherit the business, saying he does not believe in "second-generation entrepreneurs." "I wasn't going to wait 10 or 15 years for my youngest child to take over," he said, noting that his seven-year-old daughter is the only one of his children who "wants to be a clown" when she grows up.

Quebec businessman Mitch Garber, who has strong business ties to TPG, will become chairman. Daniel Lamarre will keep his post as president and chief executive.

The firm's head office will stay in Montreal.

In addition to a proposed thrust into China and neighbouring countries, TPG and partner Fosun also said they hope to raise revenues by licensing intellectual property to third parties.

And Laliberte hinted in his televised address at plans for an amusement park.

The deal is scheduled to close in the third quarter of this year.

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