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.