CEE Equity in the media
The Bulgarian Duo Leading an Indoor Rock Climbing Revolution. The unlikely story of how two friends created the world’s biggest climbing wall company in Europe’s poorest country. By Esmé E. Deprez From Bloomberg Businessweek
The Bulgarian village of Letnitsa (population 2,547) is a cluster of red-roof-tiled homes in a rural stretch of countryside in the Danube River valley, between the Balkan Mountains and the Romanian border. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive east from Sofia along a two-lane highway lined with monotone Soviet-era apartment buildings and sunflower fields. As the poorest and most corrupt member of the European Union, Bulgaria is still struggling to shed its communist past as it transitions to a market economy. A small town here is an unlikely place to manufacture walls for that most First World of sports: indoor rock climbing.
“I tend to consider myself as more clever than the others,” says Ivaylo Penchev, before leading a tour of his factory, on Letnitsa’s western edge. He and Metin Musov founded Walltopia in 1998 and have since turned it into the largest builder of climbing walls in the world. They’ve assembled more than 2.5 million square feet of them in more than 50 countries. That’s enough to cover all of the office space in the Empire State Building. They’ve surpassed older, more established companies riding the surge in interest in climbing by taking advantage of Bulgaria’s cheap labor and Penchev’s ego.
„All the time, I knew that we will succeed,” he says, circling a crew of 12 workers who are applying fiberglass to a 38-foot-long stretch of plywood ribbing. Resting on a support of rusty metal pipes, it will become a climbing structure bound for a gym in Wichita. “It was a matter of building a few climbing gyms, having people feel happy afterward, and then they would spread the word.”
Penchev, 45, had pulled up moments earlier in his immaculate 2014 silver S-Class Mercedes, just shy of 12:30 p.m., when a buzzer signaled the end of lunch. Dozens of men in blue overalls and sweat-stained T-shirts stamped out their cigarettes and went inside to weld together long, square-shaped ducts, then cut thin birch panels and smother them in layers of glue and quartz sand.
When Penchev was here earlier in the summer, he was in disguise for the Eastern European version of Undercover Boss, hiding behind a brown wig, spectacles, and a bushy mustache. “I looked like a getting-old redneck rocker-loser type,” Penchev recalls. “People were very supportive, and they were convincing me that I am quite good in what I am doing. Obviously everyone is watching too much American movies, and political correctness spreads out even on the Balkan Peninsula.”
As they walk the factory floor, Penchev and Musov crack jokes in Bulgarian amid the clamor of power tools and the stench of polyester resin, marveling at their latest creations, headed for Austria, Russia, and Dubai.
The pair, who met in high school while climbing at their local crag, both grew up poor before the collapse of communism. Musov never went to college; Penchev says he didn’t eat in restaurants until his mid-20s. Musov, who has a mop of unruly brown hair and short, bowed legs, now oversees the 250-worker factory in Letnitsa. He drives a white BMW X6. Penchev, who speaks English and Russian in addition to Bulgarian, spends as much time flying around the world for meetings as he does at the company’s headquarters in Sofia. He recently added an arrest-me-red Lamborghini to his car collection. On this humid September afternoon, he sports a casual, big-city polish: jeans, Adidas sneakers, and a fitted, pale pink polo. His head shines—he’s shaved it bare every morning since he started going bald almost two decades ago—and his hands are soft. The trademark calluses of the climber he once was were lost long ago to typing on a laptop and glad-handing.
Walltopia, which employs about 650 people, is building two factories that will double its capacity. New capital from a first round of outside investment has valued the company at $70 million. Walltopia agreed this month to take a stake in Momentum, a small gym chain out of Salt Lake City, to help it expand nationwide. “It’s very smart for them to be on both sides of this business: making the walls as the supplier but also profiting in getting people into the gyms,” says Peter Mortimer, a climber and filmmaker. “They’re going to help grow the industry, and they’re going to profit from it. It’s like Budweiser opening a bar.”
On a trip to China last year, Penchev struck a deal to build as many as 50 climbing structures over the next five years. “Asia is booming,” he says. “It’s the future—so vivid, so alive.” But the U.S. remains the company’s most important market, where climbing gyms are opening almost every week. Of the 43 new gyms in 2015, Walltopia is behind 13. Climbing gyms will total almost 400 by 2015’s end, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to the Climbing Business Journal. Demand could support a thousand more, Penchev says.
Few are as high-profile as Sender One, in Santa Ana, Calif., which is joining with Walltopia to open its second location next year in Los Angeles. Sender One is co-owned by Chris Sharma, a climbing icon who was among the first generation of climbers to get their start in gyms. For Walltopia it’s like building golf courses with Rory McIlroy—they’re re-creating the arches and cracks and overhangs that Sharma’s scaled around the globe.
We Go Strong in Europe
“We believe in Poland and its region,” says Wang Hongwei, head of China-CEE Fund, in an interview for Rzeczpospolita.
Infrastructure Funds Revolve Over Poland
Banking sector is not the best source for financing road or energy investments. There are volunteers willing to fill this gap, e.g. CEE Equity Partners fund.
Puls Biznesu, 29.09.2014
Poland Sets the Tone
We did not witness many transactions in the region in H1. However, we should not complain about the lack of M&A transactions in the several forthcoming months.
Kulczyk Investments Signed a Partnership Agreement with EXIM Bank of China
The agreement follows CEE Equity Partners fund acquiring 16% of shares of Polish Energy Partners.
How to Bite Off USD 10 Billion from China
Exim Bank of China reinforces its engagement in Poland.
Puls Biznesu, 2.09.2014
Chinese-Israeli Wind Alliance
CEE Equity Partners and trade company Enlight will invest as much as USD 1.3 billion in the Polish wind energy sector.
Puls Biznesu, 2.09.2014
Jan Kulczyk’s Chinese Partners
An agreement under which CEE Equity Partners have become the minority owner of the Polish Energy Partners has been concluded.
Nowy Przemysł, 1.09.2014
PEP And Polenergia Will Merge
PEP and Polenergia will merge, while CEE Equity Partners will become the foreign investor in the new entity.
Farms And Biomass Are Better
PEP, in which CEE Equity Partners will invest, have significantly improved their financial results after H1 2014.
Wind Favours PEP’s Interests
The issue may be unpopular, but PEP’s results have improved.
Puls Biznesu, 7.08.2014
Jan Kulczyk is Selling
The businessman has attracted a partner, CEE Equity Partners, to PEP.
Six-fold Power Growth
Interview with Zbigniew Prokopowicz, PEP’s president.
Polenergia Wants to Obtain over PLN 400 Million from the Market
Merger in Kulczyk’s group and capital entry of the strategic partner – CEE Equity Partners –are only an introduction to building the market position.
Polenergia May Enter WIG50
Following the information about the merger of companies from Kulczyk’s group and entering the CEE Equity Partners company, PEP has registered a significant increase of rate.
Chances for WIG50 in the Future
PEP is a titbit for funds – estimate analysts.
PEP’s Investor is a Surprise
The analysts believe that CEE Equity Partners entering the company is more important than the assets introduced by Jan Kulczyk.
Puls Biznesu, 22.07.2014
Merger of Kulczyk’s Companies. Enters Chinese Investor
Joint PEP and Polenergia will secure massive financial support from CEE Equity Partners.
Kulczyk in a Company with the Chinese
CEE Equity Partners fund will take over 16% of shares in PEP, enlarged with Kulczyk’s energy-related assets.
Puls Biznesu, 21.07.2014
The Chinese Came to Kulczyk
Merger at Kulczyk Investments: PEP take over Polenergia and acquire a strategic investor – CEE Equity Partners.
M&A Market Will Come Back to Life in the Autumn
Polish M&A market should become interesting in the next few months.
Chinese Fund Prepares USD 250 Million for Acquisitions in Poland
CEE Equity Partners start business in our region and want to invest USD 500 million.
CEE Fund is Waiting for PIR
CEE Equity Partners company counts on the support of the government investment vehicle. The Hungarians and Romanians have already made attempts.
Puls Biznesu, 11.07.2014
Focus on a Listed Company
CEE Equity Partners have USD 500 million to spend.