Month: March 2014

3M in China: A Magnificent Minnesota Multinational

3M China picture, China First Capital


Through pain comes wisdom.  US manufacturing giant 3M has a superb business in China that by sales, growth, product diversification, brand equity, market share and margins must place it among the very best, if not the best, US companies operating here.

This overdue realization came courtesy of having a nasty little cavity filled in China. As I squinted through the pain, I saw my dentist reach for a small tube of 3M-branded epoxy to fill up the hole in my tooth. “3M is American, like you, right?” she asked in Chinese. “This is the best product on the market.”

Dentistry didn’t really much exist in China until around 20 years ago. Since then, the growth has been hypersonic. Today there are about 60% more dentists in China than in the US, 135,000 compared to 85,000. The number of dentists is growing by 15,000 a year in China. 3M helped build the dentistry market from the ground up, and now enjoys a level of market penetration and trust in China exceeding the US.

Dental products are just one among many dozens of areas where 3M has built a large and profitable business in China. Another one I know of: reflective tape used on traffic signs and glow-in-the-dark clothing worn by police and other first responders. 3M enjoys something like a monopoly here, during a time when no other country is adding as many miles of roads, and as many bright new road signs as China. I have a Chinese client that tried, without much success, to compete with 3M in the market. Despite having better government contacts and lower prices, this Chinese company has gotten steam-rollered by 3M in China.

In industrial adhesives, photovoltaic components and, of course, Post-It Notes, the situation is the same. 3M has flattened every Chinese competitor that came after it. 3M’s China strategy is as simple as it is successful: premium products, prices and market shares.

3M has been in the PRC since 1984, almost as long as the country has welcomed American investment. Over that time quietly but oh-so efficiently, it has built a powerful business in China, with revenues last year growing 16% to over $3 billion. China sales are growing three times faster than overall 3M revenue. The company’s local CEO is on the record predicting 3M’s revenues in China will overtake its sales in the US ($9.5 billion in 2013) within the next ten years.

That would be a helluva achievement. But, I wouldn’t bet against 3M.  It has as strong a platform for growth in China as any company I know of, domestic and international. It sells hundreds of different products in over eighty separate product categories in China. In a county where no company’s intellectual property (patents and know-how) is meant to be safe from pirates, 3M has defended its secrets, and stayed comfortably ahead of local brand knock-offs and copycats. Counterfeiting is a separate issue, and probably 3M’s biggest problem in China.

In a way few, if any, other US multinationals have, 3M has managed to achieve significant sales and a stellar reputation both in consumer and B2B markets. As China grows richer, 3M’s strategy looks smarter and smarter. Cheap, low-quality products are being driven out of the market here. Consumers, factories and government departments are trading up. This leaves many low-end Chinese brands in a very difficult and life-threatening position. They can only compete on price in a market that’s increasingly price-insensitive. 3M is precisely the kind of manufacturing company China most sorely lacks – a serial innovator with branded products that can command higher prices.

Both my dentist and my handyman still stock lower-quality Chinese-made products. They offer customers a choice – something I never ran across living in the US. You want the good imported stuff or a cheap knockoff? The price difference can be rather high. For cavity-filling compound, using 3M product will cost you about three times as much. To fix a chair leg using 3M glue it’s double the price. But, both my dentist and my handyman say almost none of their clients are opting for the local brands.

3M is admired just about everywhere for the quality of its products. But, in China, it has an almost saintly reputation. During the height of the SARS epidemic in 2003, 3M disposable masks were widely publicized in the Chinese media as the most effective way to prevent the deadly disease. Today, 3M disposable masks are widely used by Chinese for another purpose, to block out the pollution and fumes that envelop big northern cities like Beijing, Jinan and Shanghai.

Other US companies with large China businesses have hit on tough times lately in China. P&G and Coca-Cola Company are losing market share to local competitors. Yum! Brands and Mondelez have both suffered from perceptions they peddle unhealthy food. Their best days in China, from my vantage point,  are probably behind them.

3M, meanwhile, quietly and steadily goes from strength to strength. If any US company can add another $7 billion in revenue in China over next decade, 3M is the most likely.

3M not only introduced its products to China, it also transplanted its rather unique American Midwestern personality. 3M China is, by local standards, modest, self-effacing, even dull. It doesn’t advertise much, or throw its weight around as one of the largest US companies operating here. The Maplewood, Minnesota-based parent barely even mentions China in its 2013 10-K annual report. When you are doing this well in the world’s strongest-growing major market and beating up your competitors, why crow about it?


How China buried India

Forbes India cover story 1994

Twenty years ago, India, not China, was the object of my absolute and total focus.  Back then, I was living in London and working as a European bureau chief for Forbes Magazine. In May 1994, a story I co-wrote called “Now We Are Our Own Masters” appeared on the cover of Forbes (click here to read the article). It was the first time a big American magazine took the risk to suggest India, after so many years of pathetic growth, famine and unending poverty, was ready for an economic take-off. It turned out to be a smart call. Since then, India’s economy has surged, growing seven-fold while poverty has declined steeply.

India GDP growth 1950-2010

I spent about a month in India researching the article, meeting with political and business leaders. It was my third trip to the country. The first had been in 1978, as a young backpacking college student, on my way back to the US from a summer in Taiwan studying Mandarin. The two most vivid memories of that first trip — nearly dying from untreated amoebic dysentery, and hiding out for days in a place called Aurangabad as masses of Indian men rioted on the streets against the forced sterilization policy of India Gandhi. (Life lesson learned at 19: political popularity will be short-lived wherever a leader orders men at gunpoint to undergo genital surgery.)

It took another three years before I first set foot in China. On a lot of levels, the two countries struck me as similar back then, both in the extent of the obvious poverty as well as the shared disappointment some thirty years after each had gained full independence as socialist states under charismatic intellectual leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Mao Zedong in China.

China began its reform process a decade earlier than India. I caught the first stirrings when I arrived in Nanjing as a student in 1981. When I went to India in 1994 for the Forbes article, it still seemed plausible India might one day emerge as the larger, more vibrant of the two economies. China had suffered a sharp setback in 1989, during the Tianmen Square Protests of 1989, an event I witnessed first-hand in Beijing. At the same time, India had begun at last to liberalize and energize its over-regulated and inefficient state-run economy.

While India’s growth has since surpassed my optimistic hopes in 1994, I firmly believe it will never rival China. This chart below shows how far the gap between the two has grown. Since 1994, China has all but left India behind in its tailpipe exhaust.

China vs. India GDP Growth 1960-2010

In per capita PPP terms, China is now almost 2.5 times wealthier than India. Year by year, the gap grows, as China’s gdp expands faster than India’s, while India’s birth rate is now almost triple China’s.

I haven’t been back to India since 1994. I have no doubt it’s changed out of all recognition. Changed for the better. Poverty is down. Exports are way up. Its biggest misfortune may be having to compete for capital, and for attention, with China.

Living full-time and working in China now for more than four years, I’m more impressed than ever how superbly China is engineered for rising prosperity. The comparisons I read between India and China generally give a lot of weight to the difference in political systems, between India’s raucous federal democracy with dozens of parties and China’s one-party centralized rule. The indisputable conclusion: sound economic policies are easier in China to design and execute.

The few times I’ve been asked to contrast the two countries, I prefer to focus on their most valuable long-term assets.  India has English. China has Confucius.

India doesn’t out-compete China in too many industries. But, in two of these — pharmaceuticals and computer software — English is probably the main reason. India’s educated population is basically native fluent in the language. China has tried to make more of a game of it, especially in computer software and services. But, China is now and will likely remain a bit player in these two large, global high-margin industries.

India also has, overall, a more innovative financial services industry. This isn’t really the result of widespread English, but the fact that India has a more open financial and currency system than China’s.

Both nations benefit from having large diasporas. In India’s case, it’s a huge source of cash, with remittances of over $65 billion a year, equal to 4% of gdp. In China, the benefits are as much in kind as in cash. Companies owned or managed by ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US have been large corporate investors in China, with the capital matched by transfer of technologies and manufacturing know-how. This is an ever-renewing remittance, as money pours in each year to finance projects with solid long-term rates of return.

China’s trump card, though, is its Confucian value system. Its potency as an economic force is amply demonstrated by the affluence of China’s Confucian neighbors, not just Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, but South Korea and Japan. Its impact is measurable as well in the outsized economic clout of Chinese immigrants in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia. Free market capitalism and Confucianism. Anywhere in the world you find sustained economic success and rising prosperity, you will find at least one. In China, they are entwined in a kind of ideal synthesis.

India, too, has close-knit families and a tradition of thrift and obedience. Confucianism adds to these a reverence for education and practical problem-solving. It contains nothing transcendent, not much, if any,  spiritual guidance for a soul-searcher make sense of his place in the cosmos. Honor your ancestors with burnt offerings, sweep their graves at least once-a-year and they’ll grease the wheels of success in this life.

The Confucian system hasn’t changed much for two thousand years. One vital adaptation over the last century, though,  was to accept that women could, and should, play an active role outside the house, reaching the same educational level as men and joining the workforce in equal numbers. Here, India is woefully far behind. China’s growth has been on steroids these past twenty years because its 650 million women have contributed exponentially more to economic growth and prosperity than India’s.

Of the couple hundred stories I wrote while at Forbes, I’m probably proudest of this India cover story published twenty years ago. It may not seem like it now, but it was a gamble to suggest back then under my byline India was about to come out of its long economic coma. Imagine if instead I’d gone on the record 20 years ago to forecast the coming economic miracle in Russia, Mexico or South Africa – all countries back then seen by some to be “the next great emerging market”.  I heard afterward the article helped generate more interest in India’s economic reforms and ultimately more investment in India by US multinationals. This grew about 30-fold in the ten years after the article appeared.

On a personal level, I made a larger, and I think even safer bet with my own professional life, to move to China and start a business here. Yes, India has English. I work every day in an alien tongue and in a culture steeped in Confucian values that play little or no part in my own ethical code. But, China was, is and shall long remain the great economic success story of all-time. I don’t need someone else’s magazine cover story to tell me that. I live it every day.

China’s SOEs attract PE interest — Private Equity International Magazine

Private Equity International Magazine

China’s state-owned enterprise promise big returns for PE investors, as well as a big challenge.

By: Clare Burrows

In 2013, private equity investment in China dropped to just $4.5 billion – about 47 percent below the equivalent figure for 2012, according to data from Thomson Reuters. Since China’s dry powder level was estimated at $59 billion at the end of 2012, it’s clear that China’s GPs need to find new ways to deploy the vast amounts of capital raised during better times.

What seems to be catching the industry’s eye more than ever are the country’s state-owned enterprises:large, government-controlled organisations, many of which are in dire need of restructuring. While state-owned enterprises account directly or indirectly for 60 percent of China’s GDP, according to research by China First Capital, almost 100 percent of institutional capital, especially private equity, has
been invested into China’s privately-owned sector.

However, as the number of traditional opportunities falls, “this may leave investing in SOEs as the best, largest and most promising new area for private equity investment,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive at China First Capital suggests.

And, some industry sources ask: what better target for private equity than these bloated, inefficient giants, which the newly-appointed Chinese government is apparently so keen to reform? SOEs are highly compliant when it comes to tax and accounting laws (a rare phenomenon among China’s privately-owned companies). Better still, they’re a bargain – because China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) regulates their price based on net asset value.

“If you have a highly profitable SOE that has very low net assets, you can potentially buy it at incredibly low P/E multiples,” Fuhrman says. With one deal China First is advising on, 51 percent of the business is being offered at 2x EBITDA, he adds. China First is currently acting as an investment banker for five of China’s largest SOEs, including China Aerospace, China State Construction, China Huadian, Wuliangye Group and Shandong Energy.

Click here to read full article