Month: April 2011

Entrepreneurship in China– The Fuel in the Economy’s Engine

Fish bowl from China First Capital blog

China’s only abundant and inexhaustible natural resource is the entrepreneurial talent of its people. Nowhere else in the world can match the number of talented businesspeople, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the active population. That’s what I’ve learned in a 25-year career working alongside great entrepreneurs in the US, Europe and Asia. Today’s China is the most entrepreneurially-endowed place in the world. What that means, above all, is that China’s economy, propelled by robust entrepreneurial activity,  will prosper for the next several decades at least.

Entrepreneurs everywhere seem to share a common gene, and have more in common with one another than they do with the rest of the population in their home countries. They are more tolerant of risk, more compelled to try or invent new things, more able to see opportunities for profit, especially when they are invisible to others.

But, in China, entrepreneurs have some unique characteristics compared to those in the US and Europe. For one thing, until comparatively recently, China’s economy was a near-perfect socialist vacuum in which entrepreneurship could not survive.  The economy was almost entirely in state hands. Laws giving equal treatment to private companies were only introduced in 2005. Decades of pent-up entrepreneurial energy were unleashed. More great private companies have been started in the last ten years in China than in any other place in history.

We are still in the early years of the Big Bang of Chinese entrepreneurship. Everyone in the world is feeling the effects. Within China, private entrepreneurs now supply much of what China’s vast consumer market buys. Outside China, much of what’s labeled “Made in China” is produced in factories started and run by these new entrepreneurs.

There are some other important ways in which China’s entrepreneurs are different than those in US and Europe. A very minor percentage of China’s entrepreneurs are university graduates. They build their companies with almost no capital, and no access to bank credit. They face daunting challenges unknown to entrepreneurs most everywhere else: an absence of clear commercial laws or intellectual property protection, very burdensome tax and labor rules, holdover policies that give state-owned companies significant advantages.

Despite it all, every year, more of China’s population are going into business for themselves. Not all will build billion-dollar businesses. But, more will do so in China over the next several decades than anywhere else.

Partly, it’s simple math: China has both a huge domestic market and is the world’s largest manufacturing and exporting nation. But, these factors are themselves the product of China’s earlier entrepreneurial success, not a precondition for it. Earlier entrepreneurs created the fertile environment for today’s new private companies to thrive. The process is cumulative, and very fast-moving.. I see this every day in my work. We are meeting more great entrepreneurs now, on a weekly basis, than we did three, six or twelve months ago.

Another fact stands out when I compare these Chinese entrepreneurs to others I’ve worked with in the US and Europe. Chinese entrepreneurs do most everything single-handedly. They build companies without relying on a big management team or a circle of advisors. Decision-making is mainly based on hunch and experience, not on market research or focus groups. Even large private companies in China are managed like sole proprietorships. Nothing of importance is delegated. One person controls all the decision-making levers, casting the one and deciding vote on any issue of importance to do with operations, marketing, finance, strategy, sales. They are lone navigators, steering their businesses through very tricky waters, dealing with government officials, suppliers, customers, as well as their own employees.

Since starting China First Capital three years ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several hundred outstanding Chinese entrepreneurs from dozens of different industries. Most are cut from the same cloth — crisp, confident, charismatic. With few exceptions, most do not have college degrees or much experience working for anyone else. They are born entrepreneurs.

Take one boss I met recently. He began his working life 30 years ago, after high school, as a trader. He was good at it, and saved enough, eventually, to go into manufacturing one of the products he was selling as a wholesaler to others. He moved up quickly, from producing basic low-margin commodity products to investing in his own R&D. He kept plowing profits back into the R&D work, and then to build new factory lines to produce a range of unique, patent-protected products he invented. These products deliver higher margins and target a larger, richer market than anything he previously manufactured.

The business is now growing very swiftly. Also typical, his son has joined the business, after getting a college degree abroad.  This boss, like most others I have met, knows how to work the system to his maximum advantage. His new products let him qualify as a high-tech enterprise, and so pay a much lower corporate income tax rate. The local government has shown its further support by selling him a large tract of land to build a new factory on, at a fraction of its market price.

This boss, somewhat uncommonly, has a very strong management team around him to manage finances, factory production and marketing. He is the force of gravity holding whole business together. It’s hard to imagine anyone else, except perhaps one day his son, could run this business as well. That’s another characteristic shared by most good entrepreneurial companies in China – they are never quite as successful once the founder steps down.

Another distinguishing trait of entrepreneurship in China – there are far more women bosses here than I ever saw in the US or Europe.  The ones I’ve met, along with being successful entrepreneurs, are also all quite elegant, attractive, even seductive. Those aren’t words usually associated with entrepreneurs anywhere else in the world.

According to the magazine China Entrepreneur, there are currently more than 29 million female entrepreneurs in China,  or about 20% of the total number of entrepreneurs in the country. Overall, China has more entrepreneurs, male and female, than most countries have citizens.

China’s economy continues to perform at a level never achieved by a major economy. Can this continue? I believe it can. The most emphatic reason is the entrepreneurial genius of so many of its citizens.



How Big Can PE Industry in China Grow?

Ivory carved vase

By one conventional measure, China’s private equity industry is still a fraction of the size of larger developed economies. The PE penetration rate calculates the total annual flow of private equity finance as a percentage of total GPD. In China, the PE penetration rate is currently 0.1% of GDP. In the US, it’s eight times larger. In the UK, the flow of PE funding 2% of GDP, or twenty times the size of China.

While this calculation of PE penetration rate correctly suggests China’s PE industry still has significant room for growth, it is also somewhat misleading. It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. Private equity in the US and Europe is mainly used to take over large underperforming businesses or subsidiaries of big public companies. These are control investments, usually financed with heavy amounts of borrowed money and a relative sliver of equity. These deals routinely exceed $1 billion. Indeed, during the first half of this year, the ten largest PE deals, all involving US companies, had total transaction value of over $20 billion.

In China, these sort of leveraged buyout deals, for the most part,  are impossible. PE capital in China flows almost entirely into minority investments in profitable fast-growing private companies. Typical deal size is $10mn for 15%-20% of a company’s shares. Deals of this kind are far more rare in the US and UK.

The more accurate term for Private Equity investing in China is “growth capital investment.” The goal is to add fuel to a fire, providing a fast-growing company with additional capital to build new factories or expand its sales and distribution channels. This kind of investing has a far higher success rate than PE investing in the US and Europe. In China, PE firms support winners. In the rest of the world, PE firms generally try to heal the wounded.

If you measured the penetration rate of growth capital investment, I have no doubt China would now be number one in the world. Nowhere else in the world can match China in the number of great private companies that are growing by over 30% a year, have the scale, experience, management and market leadership to continue to double in size every two to three years. The only real limiting factor is a shortage of capital. That’s where PE firms come in. They invest, monitor, then exit a few years later through an IPO.

That’s another big difference between PE in China and the rest of the world. PE investors in China don’t work nearly as hard as they do elsewhere. In China, the hardest part is finding good companies and then agreeing on the size and valuation of an investment. After that, it’s usually smooth sailing. In the US and Europe, it’s not only difficult to find good investment opportunities. The big challenge begins after an investment is made, in designing and then implementing often complex, risky restructuring plans, including a lot of hiring and firing.

With so much bank borrowing involved, short-term cash-flow problems can prove fatal for the PE firm’s investment. Miss an interest payment and banks can seize the business, wiping out the PE firm’s equity investment. A notable example: Cerberus’s leveraged takeover of US automaker Chrysler. Within six months of the deal’s closing, Cerberus’s $7.4 billion investment was mainly wiped out when Chrysler’s sales plummeted.

In China, PE deals also occasionally turn sour. But, the most common reason is fraud or simple theft. PE money goes into a company and disappears, usually into personal bank account of the company’s boss. This isn’t very common. But, it does happen. The PE firm will usually have a legal right to take control of a company if its money is lost or misused. But, the legal process can be slow and the outcome uncertain. By the time a PE gains control, just about everything of value can be drained out of the company. The PE firm ends up owning 100% of a business worth far less than what they put into it.

In China, PE firms often play the role of a disciplinarian, setting up rules and doling out cash as a reward for good behavior. In the US and Europe, the PE is more like a doctor in a trauma ward.

McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm, has estimated that China’s private equity fund penetration rate could more than quadruple in the next five years, to reach 0.5% of GDP.  If so, the annual amount of PE capital flowing into private companies could reach Rmb200 billion (US$30 billion.)  There are certainly enough good investment opportunities.

At this point, the main thing holding the industry back is a lack of strong, talented people inside PE firms. Great entrepreneurs vastly outnumber great investors in China.