Month: December 2009

China’s Party Apparatus

China First Capital blog post -- Qing dynasty peach bowl

Christmas has passed, but the reindeer antlers are still out in force. At my local supermarket in Shenzhen, the checkout team began sporting plastic antlers in late November. We’re a long way from the North Pole, and even farther, culturally, from the parts of the world where Christmas is traditionally celebrated. But, if there’s a party going on anywhere,  the Chinese want to be part of it. 

It’s not just the reindeer horns. A good 30% of all other shops’ sales force, as well as restaurant wait staff, are wearing those droopy red Santa caps. Most lobbies of the larger office buildings have Christmas trees, lit and ornamented. Mine also has a small crèche, that looks like a gingerbread house big enough to sleep three adults.  

Incongruous? Sure. But, one grows inured very quickly in China to things that don’t seem to make a lot of sense culturally. Red wine is increasingly the drink of choice among urban, upwardly-striving Chinese. Never mind that most of the wine is domestically produced, and has a thin, sour watered-down flavor a bit like salad dressing, and doesn’t compliment well the salty and spicy foods favored in much of China. 

Other examples: pajamas are occasionally used as outdoor-wear in China. The slowest-moving trucks on China’s expressways tend to putter along at one-third the speed limit in the left passing lane. Many ads for infant formula feature fat blond-haired babies. 

Christmas in China does not involve gift-giving, carol-singing, church-going. It’s a reason to decorate buildings, wear odd outfits, and send tens of millions (by my guesstimate) of SMS messages wishing other Chinese “圣诞快乐” ,literally “Happy Holy Birth”.  Santa Claus? His plastic likeness is plastered everywhere. In China, though, he is known as “圣诞老人“,or “Holy Birth Old Guy”. 

Not only is Christmas part of China’s holiday calendar now, so is Halloween in some of the bigger cities. But, it’s a Halloween celebrated only by adults wearing scary costumes to restaurants and bars that night. There’s no candy, no trick-or-treating. 

Much as China’s government still describes the economy as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, there’s a lot of my daily life here that can be understood as “Western civilization with Chinese characteristics”. Much is broadly familiar, but most things have a strikingly and singularly Chinese flavor. 

Thursday night is New Year’s Eve. It’ll be my first in China. Logic tells me it should mainly pass unnoticed. Chinese New Year, which falls this year on Valentine’s Day, is the most important holiday of the year, and is so deeply engrained in the consciousness that when Chinese say “next year”, they usually mean some time after Chinese new year, which has no fixed date on the Gregorian calendar. It begins either in January or February, depending on cycles of the moon. The New Year holiday lasts seven days in China. 

So while there’s no cultural imperative to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I do expect restaurants, bars and shopping areas to be unusually raucous on Thursday night, much as they were on Christmas and Halloween. Like a college fraternity, China seems determined to seize any excuse to throw a party. 



Not Accountable: Why Brilliant 15th-Century Italian Accounting Rules Are Sometimes of Limited Use in China


Luca Pacioli

Luca Pacioli


In the history of business, there are no innovations more important, transformative, valuable and widely-used than Luca Pacioli’s. Yet, few know his name. He never made a fortune and likely spent most of his adult life in prayer and cloistered meditation. 

Pacioli was a 15th century Italian mathematician and monk who first codified the system of double-entry bookkeeping. This made modern corporate management possible, by providing a standardized and generally foolproof system for summarizing a business’s financial condition. Pacioli’s system of offsetting credits and debits remains very much the basis of all modern corporate accounting. 

I looked around, but couldn’t discover when double-entry bookkeeping, Pacioli’s brainchild, was first introduced to China. It is certainly pervasive now. The principles of corporate accounting, like mathematics,  don’t change as you move across national borders. In private equity investing, the process of assessing a company’s performance and attractiveness as an investment will be a function, ultimately, of its profitability and net asset value. Pacioli’s methods are the tools to determine both. 

Yet, there are times when I think Pacioli’s accounting principles are no more useful a tool in private equity investment in China than his fellow Italian Marco Polo’s travelogues are to current-day tourists visiting the Great Wall. They are better than nothing. But, you will still need to do a lot of your own strenuous legwork. 

The reason is that accounting principles are not widely applied in the management of many of the better private SME in China. They are entrepreneur-led businesses. Usually the most complete statement of the businesses financial worth is not to be found on a company balance sheet, but in the mind  of the entrepreneur. Some of this is by habit, other by design, to thwart any unwanted outsider, especially the taxman, from knowing exactly what is going on in a company. 

One example from my own work: I made a first visit to an excellent company, with a thriving retail business and brand that’s both well-established and well-known in large parts of China. I was immediately impressed and asked the finance director for the company’s last year’s revenues and profits. “I don’t know,” she replied. Quickly, it became clear she wasn’t being coy or secretive. She genuinely did not know. “Only the boss knows”, she explained, looking over at him. 

He looked momentarily baffled, as if the question had never been posed before, and then did the calculation aloud. He knew precisely how many products he manufactured last year, the average selling price, and unit profit. So with a little multiplication, we were able to get to a number. Turned out, revenues were well north of USD$65mn, and net profits over $7mn. Very solid numbers. We later brought in an accounting firm to do a trial set of financials, and in fact, the true figures were about 15% higher than that first calculation by the boss. Apparently, he hadn’t fully consolidated the results from an outsourced production facility. 

It’s a great company from every perspective – except if you’re trying to evaluate it quickly, using a statement prepared using Luca Pacioli’s principles. Anyone attempting to assess the company using such methods is going to hit a wall, right at the outset. 

The company, like many others of China’s best private firms, does not track its performance with a set of financials, or commission an annual audit. Management stays rigorously attuned to operational details, to cash in the bank, to inputs and outputs, to seizing any available economies to fatten its profit margin. Most often, none of this is ever summarized in a P&L or balance sheet. The boss doesn’t need it. He lives and breathes it every day. 

Any PE firm looking to evaluate the company needs to do the same  – spend time at the company, with the boss, in the factory, and get a feel for how the business is running. If you make it a precondition before any visit to have a set of financials, you’re going to be spending a lot of time anchored to your desk, or visiting only companies that are so hard-up for cash that they’ve spent a good chunk of money getting financials done, to please potential investors. Even in China, an audit done by a local Chinese accounting firm can cost well over USD$50,000. I’d rather have that money spent where it can do more good, like building the business.  

Some good private Chinese companies do have audited financials. They are usually the ones with sizable bank loans. An annual audit is often a covenant of such loans. But, in my experience, most good Chinese companies, with little or no debt and no urgent need to attract investors will not have the sort of financials that some PE firms want to see at the start. 

In China, a set of financials should not be an absolute prerequisite for PE investors. The first step should be to understand the business operationally, and then pay a visit, if the industry and business model both seem attractive. You learn more in two hour site-visit than you would in two days combing through financials.  Besides, any PE firm will commission its own audit, usually by a Big Four accounting firm, before it invests, during the due diligence phase. So, no one is committing money blindly. Eventually, Luca Pacioli’s principles will be put to work. The only issue is whether this is a first step, or one that comes later in the process. 

Accounting rules have enormous value.  Double-entry bookkeeping has never been improved upon, in the 500 years since Pacioli wrote the rules. But, in private equity investment in China, an over-reliance on financial statements, especially as a first-step in getting to know a company, will distort more often than it clarifies. As brilliant as he was, Luca Pacioli could not have anticipated the singular conditions and management style of the current generation of China’s successful private entrepreneurs. 

An Inflationary Epoch – “ a period of extremely rapid exponential expansion”

China First Capital blog post -- cloisonne censer

It’s been a particularly busy, gratifying workweek. Reaching for a metaphor from the Big Bang’s cosmological model, it felt like we entered an Inflationary Epoch, a period of extremely rapid and exponential expansion.  One measure: the traffic of outstanding “laoban” (company boss, in Chinese) in and out of our office was heavier than any other time in our company’s history. In all, six came by this past week. I expect most, or all, of these companies to become our clients. 

Our recent visitors run businesses with cumulative revenues of well over Rmb 3.5 billion ($500mn). Four are industry leaders in China.  My best guess would be that within five years, their combined revenues will exceed $3 billion, and cumulative market cap exceed $5 billion. To reach these levels, they need nothing more than to do precisely what they’re doing now – seeking out large market opportunities, and then having the products and discipline to prevail over any competitors. 

Raising private equity capital will accelerate the process and heighten the growth trajectory. But, like many of the best private businesses in China, they’ve shown they can succeed when investment capital is limited and very hard to come by. That’s another commonality among the six companies that visited us this week. None has raised equity capital thus far. All are large, successful and well-managed enough to put capital to effective use. But, raising money is not compulsory. 

It may be a bad recipe for success, but my strong preference is for clients like this, ones that don’t really need us. If we have a value, it’s being able to help laoban prioritize and plan over  a longer time frame. In first meetings, I often ask laoban a question along these lines: “If capital were not a problem, and you could invest in areas of your business with the greatest likelihood of success and highest rates of return over the next three years, what would you do?” 

The answers usually come back with little time wasted for deliberation. A good laoban knows where to go without needing to consult a spreadsheet financial model or market research studies. In today’s China, the answer is usually some variation on, “We need to grow larger and be in more areas of China where there is a clear demand for what we are selling”. 

It’s hard for me to comprehend sometimes given their size, but the best private companies in China are often still in their “test marketing phase”. China’s market is so huge, and growing so quickly, that few if any businesses have penetrated more than a fraction of it. The six companies that visited this week are typical. None of them now serves more than 5% of their current easily-addressable market. At the same time, their potential customer base is also increasing quickly every year. A business needs to grow by 30-40% a year just to stay in place, to hold onto existing market share. 

Of course, none of these six laoban would be content with that, with just growing at the speed of the overall market. They need and want to dominate their industries. That’s where capital can make the biggest difference – especially if it’s supplied by an experienced private equity investor that knows how to help, guide, encourage and finance rapid growth. 

These six companies, like our existing clients, are all so good that I envy the investor that gets to own a share of the business. Investment opportunities this good should be much harder to come by. Instead, as this past week has shown,  great private businesses exist in startlingly large numbers in present day China. 

I’ll only get to know about a small portion of them, and will work with an even smaller number. After a week like this one, it’s impossible not to feel extremely positive about China’s economic prospects, and deeply privileged to know some of the laoban who are doing so much to assure that bright future. 

It was a great week. If the coming one is a little quieter, I think me and my China First Capital colleagues will all be quite content. It’s a challenge to keep up with the pace, and to contribute as much as we aim to. We too are in “test marketing phase”, with so much yet to build and to accomplish with clients across China.


Going Private: The Unstoppable Rise of China’s Private-Sector Entrepreneurs

Qing Jun-style, from China First Capital blog post

China’s private sector economy continues to perform miracles. According to figures just released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, private companies in China now employ 70 million people, or 80 percent of China’s total industrial workforce. These same private companies account for 70% of all profits earned by Chinese industry. Profits at private companies rose 31.4% in 2008 over a year earlier, while those of China’s state-owned enterprises (so-called SOEs) fell by 16%. 

The rise of China’s private sector is, in my view, the most remarkable aspect of China’s economic development. When I first came to China in 1981, there were no private companies at all. SOEs continued to be favored sons, until recently. Only in 2005 did the Chinese government introduce a policy that gave private companies the same market access, same treatment in project approval, taxation, land use and foreign trade as SOEs. During that time, over 150,000 new private companies have gotten started and by 2008 had annual sales of over Rmb 5 million.   

These statistics only look at industrial companies, where SOEs long predominated. By last year, fully 95% of all industrial businesses in China were privately-owned. In the service sector, the dominance of private companies is even more comprehensive, as far as I can tell. While banks and insurance companies are all still largely state-owned, most of the rest of the service economy is in private hands – shops of all kinds, restaurants, barbers, hotels, dry cleaners, real estate agents, ad agencies, you name it. 

Other than the times I fly around China (airlines are still mainly state-owned) and when I pay my electric bill, I can’t think of any time my money goes directly to an SOE. This is not something, of course, I could have envisioned back in 1981. The transformation has both been so fast and so thoroughgoing. And yet, it still has a long way to go, as these latest figures suggest. Almost certainly, private company business formation and profit-generation will continue to grow strongly in 2009 and beyond. SOE contribution to the Chinese economy, while still significant,  grows proportionately less by the day. 

There once were vast regional disparities in the role of the private sector. Certain areas of China, for example the Northeast and West of the country, were until recently still dominated by SOEs. But, the changeover is occurring in these areas as well, and every year more private companies will reach the size threshold (revenues of over Rmb 5mn) where they will be captured by the statisticians. 

Equally, every year more of these private companies will reach the sort of scale where they become attractive to private equity investors. That happens when sales get above Rmb 100mn.  

Never in human history has so much private wealth been created so fast, by so many, as it has in China over the last 20 years. And yet, all this growth happened despite an almost complete lack of outside investment capital, from private equity and other institutional sources. This shows the resourcefulness of China’s entrepreneurs, to be able to build thriving businesses with little or no outside capital. Imagine how much faster this transformation would have happened if investment capital, and the expertise of PE firms, was more widely available. It is becoming more available by the day. 

China is primed, as it’s never been, for spectacular growth in PE investment over the coming 20 years.