China Industry

The indispensable economy? — The Economist

 

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The indispensable economy?

China may not matter quite as much as you think

 

THE town of Alpha in Queensland, Australia, has only 400 residents, including one part-time ambulance driver and a lone policeman, according to Mark Imber of Waratah Coal, an exploration firm. But over the next few years it should quintuple in size, thanks to an A$7.5 billion ($7.3 billion) investment by his company and the Metallurgical Corporation of China, a state-owned firm that serves China’s mining and metals industry. This will build Australia’s biggest coal mine, as well as a 490km (300-mile) railway to carry the black stuff to the coast, and thence to China’s ravenous industrial maw.

It is hard to exaggerate the Chinese economy’s far-reaching impact on the world, from small towns to big markets. It accounted for about 46% of global coal consumption in 2009, according to the World Coal Institute, an industry body, and consumes a similar share of the world’s zinc and aluminium. In 2009 it got through twice as much crude steel as the European Union, America and Japan combined. It bought more cars than America last year and this year looks set to buy more mobile phones than the rest of the world put together, according to China First Capital, an investment bank.

In China growth of 9.6% (recorded in the year to the third quarter) represents a slowdown. China will account for almost a fifth of world growth this year, according to the IMF; at purchasing-power parity, it will account for just over a quarter.

For the first 25 years of its rise, China’s influence was most visible on the bottom line of corporate results, as it allowed firms to cut costs. More recently it has become conspicuous on the top line. Audi, a luxury German carmaker, sold more cars in China (including Hong Kong) than at home in the first quarter. Komatsu of Japan has just won an order for 44 “super-large dump trucks” from China’s biggest coal miner.

The Economist has constructed a “Sinodependency index”, comprising 22 members of America’s S&P 500 stockmarket index with a high proportion of revenues in China. The index is weighted by the firms’ market capitalisation and the share of their revenues they get from China. It includes Intel and Qualcomm, both chipmakers; Yum! Brands, which owns KFC and other restaurant chains; Boeing, which makes aircraft; and Corning, a glassmaker. The index outperformed the broader S&P 500 by 10% in 2009, when China’s economy outpaced America’s by over 11 percentage points. But it reconverged in April, as the Chinese government grappled with a nascent housing bubble.

China is, in itself, a big and dynamic part of the world economy. For that reason alone it will make a sizeable contribution to world growth this year. The harder question is whether it can make a big contribution to the rest of the world’s growth.

China is now the biggest export market for countries as far afield as Brazil (accounting for 12.5% of Brazilian exports in 2009), South Africa (10.3%), Japan (18.9%) and Australia (21.8%). But exports are only one component of GDP. In most economies of any size, domestic spending matters more. Thus exports to China are only 3.4% of GDP in Australia, 2.2% in Japan, 2% in South Africa and 1.2% in Brazil (see map).

 

Export earnings can, of course, have a ripple effect throughout an economy. In Alpha, the prospect of selling coal to China is stimulating investment in mines, railways and probably even policing. But these “multipliers” are rarely higher than 1.5 or 2, which is to say, they rarely do more than double the contribution to GDP. Moreover, just as expanding exports add to growth, burgeoning imports subtract from it. Most countries outside East Asia suffered a deteriorating trade balance with China from 2001 to 2008. By the simple arithmetic of growth, trade with China made a (small) negative contribution, not a positive one.

China plays a larger role in the economies of its immediate neighbours. Exports to China accounted for over 14% of Taiwan’s GDP last year, and over 10% of South Korea’s. But according to a number of studies, roughly half of East Asia’s exports to China are components, such as semiconductors and hard drives, for goods that are ultimately exported elsewhere. In these industries, China is not so much an engine of demand as a transmission belt for demand originating elsewhere.

The share of parts and components in its imports is, however, falling. From almost 40% a decade ago, it fell to 27% in 2008, according to a recent paper by Soyoung Kim of Seoul National University, as well as Jong-Wha Lee and Cyn-Young Park of the Asian Development Bank. This reflects China’s gradual “transformation from being the world’s factory, toward increasingly being the world’s consumer,” they write. Gabor Pula and Tuomas Peltonen of the European Central Bank calculate that the Philippine, South Korean and Taiwanese economies now depend more on Chinese demand than American.

Trade is not the only way that China’s ups and downs can spill over to the rest of the world. Its purchases of foreign assets keep the cost of capital down and its appetite for raw materials keeps their price up, to the benefit of commodity producers wherever they sell their wares. Its success can boost confidence and productivity. One attempt to measure these broad spillovers is a paper by Vivek Arora and Athanasios Vamvakidis of the IMF. According to their estimates, if China’s growth quickened by 1 percentage point for a year, it would boost the rest of the world’s GDP by 0.4% (about $290 billion) after five years.

Since the crisis, China has shown that its economy can grow even when America’s shrinks. It is not entirely dependent on the world’s biggest economy. But that does not mean it can substitute for it. In April the Bank Credit Analyst, an independent research firm, asked what would happen if China suffered a “hard landing”. Its answer to this “apocalyptic” question was quite “benign”. As it pointed out, Japan at the start of the 1990s accounted for a bigger share of GDP than China does today. Its growth slowed from about 5% to 1% in the first half of the 1990s without any discernible effect on global trends. It is hard to exaggerate China’s weight in the world economy. But not impossible.

 

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China’s Mobile Phone Market Is Maxxing Out on Growth

Portrait of Kangxi Emperor from China First Capital blog post

During the first eight months of this year, 547 million mobile phones were sold in China, a 36% increase over the same period last year. At the current rate, more mobile phones will be sold in China this year than there are mobile users. In other words, on average, everyone of China’s 780 million mobile subscribers will buy a new mobile phone this year.

Can this possibly be true? Outside of China, mobile phone sales are basically flat, with most of the growth now coming from sales of smartphones like those made by Apple and HTC. Based on the current sales pattern, China will account for over 60% of all new mobile phone sales in 2010.

What is happening in China that could account for phenomenally high growth rate? I’m at a loss to explain it. Anecdotally, I can’t find much evidence of this remarkably high rate of new phone sales.

Most Chinese I know are using phones that are at least a year old. Nokia phones are particularly common in my circle. Overall, Nokia is still the biggest selling mobile phone brand in China. But, its sales in China are not doing very well, and the company is losing market share.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology compiles the statistics on Chinese mobile phone sales. They do a professional job gathering and transmitting data on China’s mobile market. So, I have no reason to doubt the basic accuracy of the numbers. The absolute number may possibly be off, but the 36% growth rate is probably correct.

If so, the larger question may not be one of accuracy, but of sustainability. In other words, if mobile phone sales are growing by 36% a year, is there any way that rate of year-on-year growth could continue into 2011 and beyond? I have severe doubts about this. For one thing, if the 36% annual growth rates continued through 2012, overall annual sales will double from the current high level. If so, every Chinese mobile subscriber on average would end up buying two new mobile phones a year. That, as the British like to say, “beggars belief”.

It may well be that the fantastically high growth rate we now see in China will begin to plateau very soon. If so, the overall market dynamic will change from one of rampant growth, in which even the weakest players register growth every year, to one where a company’s ability to generate sales growth will comes mainly from increasing market share.

In other words, from a manufacturer’s standpoint, the market changes from one of absolute growth to one of relative growth – or loss. It will happen soonest for products like mobile phones, where the market is reaching saturation.

There is still plenty of organic growth left for other fast-growing items like new cars, computers, white goods, and a full range of brand name products, from laundry detergent to Italian suits.

I bought a new phone recently,  an HTC Legend, running on Google’s Android operating system. But, it didn’t register on the Ministry’s figures.

Like a lot of people living in Shenzhen, I bought my new phone in Hong Kong, where prices are as much as 35% cheaper, and there’s far more certainty of getting a phone with all its original circuitry intact. It’s not all that uncommon for brand name phones in China to be doctored before sale. They look authentic on the outside, but have some cheaper, replacement parts within.

HTC is still a niche brand in China, though with very ambitious plans for growth over the next year. I bought the HTC in large part because the company is an investor and partner of one of my clients.  I like the phone, and like the fact it’s not an iPhone.

I have nothing against the Apple product. I just prefer, in phones and most other things, to choose brands that aren’t already dominant in their market.

Apple phones, either genuine or knockoff, are far more common in China than anywhere else in the world, as far as I can tell. Apple just announced plans finally to begin selling its new iPhone4 in China, months after it went on sale in the US, Europe and much of Asia. The price is still well above the level in Hong Kong, but I have no doubt the phone will sell well.

Apple computers are still very rare in China. There are very few places to buy one. This is a major untapped opportunity for the California company, since anything with the Apple brand is going to sell well in China. Apple has begun opening retail stores in China, but as of now, there are only two, one each in Beijing and Shanghai.

Apple is certainly one of the companies that should continue to thrive in China’s mobile market, even as it shifts from absolute to relative growth. HTC too. As for the others, both global and domestic brands, it’s going to be a dogfight.


LEDs in China – Hope vs. Hype

Qing dynasty cloisonne lanterns

Can a technology invented in the US by General Electric 48 years ago give China its best shot at worldwide technological leadership? There are a lot of Chinese companies, entrepreneurs, investors, as well as billions of dollars in Chinese government money betting this is the case.

The technology is the Light Emitting Diode, or LED. Since their invention a half-century ago in Syracuse, New York, lots of otherwise smart people have been predicting LEDs would replace the traditional incandescent lights perfected by Thomas Edison well over a century ago as a primary source of illumination.

LEDs have numerous advantages – the key ones being they last longer than traditional incandescent and neon bulbs and use much less energy to produce the same amount of light.

In other words, LED sound like a sure thing. Problem is, they are almost as tricky to manufacture as integrated circuits, and so exponentially more expensive to produce than conventional bulbs. LED technology has improved dramatically over the years, but they are solid-state devices, made using a complicated semiconductor-layering technique.

The lights require lots of complex circuitry and heat sinks, and are very susceptible to changes in temperature. Each individual LED is about the size of a Christmas light, and produces a relatively small amount of light. So, an LED  with the same output of a typical street light will actually have dozens of small LEDs pinched together on a single stalk.

Like the non-polluting 500-mile-per-gallon auto engine and supersonic passenger jets, the era of universal, efficient, energy-saving LED lighting is another much-predicted part of our future that never seems to arrive.

Except, that is, in China. Here, there is abundant optimism that the commercial market for LED lighting is about to explode, and that Chinese companies will be the worldwide leaders in a new multi-billion-dollar industry.

There are more LED companies in China, and more investment flowing into them, than anywhere else in the world. On Alibaba.com, there are about two million Chinese companies selling LED products, a hundred times more than Taiwanese companies offering LED products. In Shenzhen where I live, there are 280,000 companies listed on Alibaba offering LED lamps and bulbs.

Last year, I went to one of the main trade shows for the industry in China, and hundreds of companies were crowded into the exhibition space. The majority of them were offering LED street and traffic lights, and systems to control them.

Looking at this, you’d imagine that just about every busy intersection in China was already controlled by an LED traffic light. That isn’t so today. Though the technology is well-developed, LED traffic lights are still very rare. But, the Chinese government is looking to spend a great deal of money to make this a reality. This, in turn, is drawing companies into the industry at an ever-increasing clip.

One small measure of this enthusiasm. The bosses of two companies we work with, including one that’s a leader in the jewelry industry,  are now investing in LED street lighting projects. Lots of the venture capital and private equity firms we work with are eager to invest in China’s LED industry.

There are those outside China who share some of this optimism about LED’s future. But, nowhere else is the fever quite as widespread as it is here.

To be successful in the LED industry will require a synthesis of advanced scale manufacturing techniques and some sophisticated technological skills and innovative science. In other words, China has the two essential elements for success.

However, good science and good factories won’t solve the primary problem that LED lights remain uneconomic for most users. Even with the energy savings and longer life, the typical payback period for an LED is eight to ten years. Of course, some of the greenest of environmentally-conscious green buyers will pay that kind of premium.  But, the reality is there just aren’t that many businesses or households that will invest in LEDs when they need to wait so long just to breakeven compared to conventional incandescents.

That leaves only government as a likely big customer. No other government is quite as keen on LEDs as China’s. From the central government on down, there are plans in place now to replace all conventional street lights with LEDs.  In theory, this represents a market worth many billions of dollars. The millions of LED companies in China all seem to be chasing this one market.

Governments everywhere, not just in China, tend to be far less persuaded than private businesses by the logic of a cost-benefit analysis. China’s government wants to cut energy use and wants to foster the domestic LED industry. If successful, the large-scale government purchases in China would drive down manufacturing costs to the point where LEDs become cost-competitive everywhere. If so, China’s LED industry will truly become both world-beating and gargantuan in size.

I’ve yet to see a single LED street light in China. I have seen working prototypes, and they seem quite good. When big government orders will arrive and who will receive them remain collective guesswork in the Chinese LED industry.

That sums up precisely the dilemma of the LED industry. The companies are all reliant on a single, large and very unpredictable customer. When that one customer is government, equally large problems invariably intrude. Government purchases in China, as in the US and elsewhere, are slow to materialize, highly bureaucratic and favor companies with friends in high places, rather than those with the best products.

Buying from the lowest-cost supplier is often less important than buying from friends and cohorts. Basic LED technology is already very well-established and lots of companies can make the lights. The result: the government cash will likely get spread around widely, to thousands of small local firms. If this happens, the risk is that no one Chinese firm develops the scale economies to become truly efficient, and a potential global leader.

For LED lights to realize the huge potential first glimpsed when they were invented 50 years ago, they need to come down very dramatically in cost, to levels at least comparable with compact fluorescents. These CFL bulbs last eight to fifteen times longer than incandescents, and use only 30% as much energy. Their payback period is much quicker than LEDs, and they are already quite pervasive in homes and offices.

China has a chance to take the lead and take LED lighting to another level. I love all the excitement and entrepreneurial activity in the industry. Hope or hype, we’re likely to find out in the next three to five years.


Under New Management — Chinese Corporate Management Is Changing Fast

Gold splash censer from China First Capital blog post

“Five years ago, all I had to worry about was producing enough to earn a small profit. Now I spend time dealing with employment issues, environmental regulations, tax policies, trying to increase market share and staying ahead of competitors. The pressure is much worse. ”

Welcome to the suddenly changed and increasingly pressured world of Chinese corporate management. 

This comment comes from the boss of a large, integrated chemical factory in Shandong. He and I were talking recently. He is still a relatively young guy of around 40. But, in his 15 year career as first an engineer, then a manager and finally as factory boss, he has seen the purpose, methods, scope, goals and responsibilities of Chinese management change from top to bottom. 

Like much else in China, company management has undergone a lifetime’s worth of change in a matter of a few years. It’s a byproduct of larger forces at work in China’s economy – the withdrawal of direct state planning and control, the ascendancy of the private sector, China’s entry to the WTO and the opening of China’s markets to imports, the rise of a vibrant consumer market. All of these have made planning and decision-making far more intricate and the stakes far higher for Chinese corporate managers, both in state-owned and private companies. 

In the case of my friend in Shandong, he is working for a company majority owned by the state. In theory, that should make his management tasks far easier. In most cases, the Chinese government – whether at national, provincial or local level – is a very lenient shareholder. In fact, they would appear to the ideal owner for any manager who is looking for easy ride. 

In China as elsewhere, when the state is the owner, no one is really in charge. The Chinese government is not looking for dividends. Most profits stay inside the company.  

Here’s the paradox that Chinese managers all live with: as undemanding as the Chinese government is as a shareholder, they are increasingly demanding as a regulator and law-maker. That is a big reason why corporate management has gotten so much more complex in China. In a short space of time, China has gone from a more laissez-faire stance to one with strict environmental, tax and labor laws that rival those of the US and Western Europe. 

True, these tougher regulations are not yet universally applied or enforced. But, any Chinese manager who chooses to act in total disregard of these rules will eventually find himself in deep, deep trouble. Take labor laws. China continues to introduce new forms of workplace protection that give important new rights to hired staff and restrict the prerogatives of management. Any Chinese with a complaint over pay or conditions can complain directly to the Laodong Ju, or Labor Bureau, a quasi-state body that enforces labor laws. 

The process is not without its hiccups. Management can still intimidate and threaten workers who seek redress. But, the system does work. 

Example: a friend of mine worked for several years as a salesperson for an electronics company based in Shenzhen. She was paid part in commission. She did her job well. For months, then years, the boss held back the commission payments, claiming cash flow problems. This is old style China management: don’t pay, offer excuses. This boss assumed he could continue indefinitely with this trickery, in part because the general view is that female workers in China are more easily cowed or mollified. 

Instead, my friend quit without warning,  went right to the Labor Bureau, which made one call to her ex-boss. No investigation. Just a phone call and a stern warning from the Labor Bureau. My friend got her money – about $20,000 in total – within a week. The boss will now have a much harder time doing what he’s always done – pad his own take-home by cheating workers out of what they are entitled to. Tyrannizing workers is no longer a workable HR strategy for a Chinese management team. 

New environmental rules are, if anything,  even more disruptive of old lax ways of managing business in China. Managers who choose to improve margins by ignoring pollution standards are risking an early unpaid retirement. Example: a client of ours is the leading environmentally-friendly paper manufacturer in Shandong. Two years ago, he had 29 competitors in Shandong. Today, he has only three. 

The other 26 were shut down, virtually overnight, for violating environmental standards. The managers at those factories, most of which were around for many years, now likely understand better than most how much the craft of management has changed in China.  

Elsewhere in Shandong, my friend the chemical company boss, is now making another decision that was unimaginable when he began his career: he is working on a plan for a management buyout of the factory. The business is now 65%-owned by a large local coal mine, which in turn, is owned by the provincial government. 

The buy-out plan is still in its early stages. To succeed, he’ll need to persuade several levels of government – no one is quite sure how many – and also take over some significant liabilities, including debts of about $15mn.  It’s not clear if the current management will need to put up cash to buy the government’s controlling stake, or if, as preferred, they can pay in installments, using cash from the business. 

Servicing debt and having most of one’s wealth tied up in illiquid shares of one’s company are other adaptations now being learned by Chinese management. Each year, their working lives grow harder, more pressured and, for the more talented and nimble ones, far more financially rewarding.  Stride-for-stride with the modernization of China’s economy, Chinese corporate managers have gotten better faster than anywhere else, ever.


 

Meet China’s Newest — and Maybe Most Deserving — Billionaire

Aisidi

According to the most recent calculation by Forbes Magazine, there are about 800 dollar billionaires in the world. As of last week, there may be one more, Huang Shaowu.  And he’s a friend of mine.

On Friday, trading began on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange of mobile phone distributor and retailer Aisidi (爱施德) (Ticker: 002416) The IPO raised over RMB1.8 billion for the company, at a price-earnings multiple of 50. It leaves Shaowu’s holding company still in control of about 70% of the shares, now worth a little over $2 billion.

I was at the party to celebrate the IPO at the Hyatt in Shenzhen, along with about 300 others. The last time I saw Shaowu was about three weeks ago, after traveling around Shandong together for four days. Shaowu is a modest and sincerely warm man. He would never brag about his business. But make no mistake, he has a lot to brag about.

Aisidi is a leading distributor and retailer of mobile phones and Apple products in China. Its 2009 revenues were Rmb 8.75 billion (USD$1. 28bn), while net income reached Rmb875mn ($128mn). In the first quarter of 2010 net income rose by 70% over first quarter of 2009.

Aisidi got its start back in 1998, at a time when the mobile phone market in China was a fraction of its current size. That year, China Mobile had 25 million subscribers. As of now, they have over 700 million. In 1998, China was still then considered a poorer, developing nation. Shaowu took a big gamble back then, to begin distributing only brand-name mobile phones, and sell them at full market price. Shaowu saw more clearly than most the direction China’s mobile phone industry would take.

Aisidi’s business has grown enormously since 1998.  It acts as the trusted distributor for many of the top mobile phone brands, including Samsung, Sony Ericsson as well as Apple’s iPhone. It also has partnerships with China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom.

Aisidi doesn’t distribute, sell or otherwise transact in any way with shanzhai manufacturers. Only the genuine articles. Aisidi is also the key part of Apple’s retail strategy in China, with a market share of 45% of all Apple products sold in China.

The boss of Apple China was at Aisidi’s IPO party last week. I chatted with him, and for those who are wondering, there is still no timetable for when Apple’s new iPad will go on sale in China. When it does, it is certain to add significantly to Aisidi’s revenues and profits.

Way ahead of the pack, Shaowu saw that there was a market – and it turns out a truly enormous one – serving the Chinese who would pay top-dollar for phones they knew came straight from manufacturers, and would be repaired professionally and promptly if anything went wrong.

Shaowu built Aisidi to have the products and prices that allowed it to make money from the start and to become one of the larger private corporate tax-payers in China. Now as a public company, Aisidi has the resources to grow into one of China’s biggest entrepreneur-founded companies.

Shaowu  made his money doing something that took guts and insight. It was a real joy helping him celebrate Aisidi’s IPO. His success is deserved. He is both a nice guy and a helluva businessman.


The Billion-Dollar Product In Search of an Inventor

China First Capital blog post -- Ming Dynasty lacquer screen

Too many inventive minds over too many years have focused on trying to solve environmental problems that may be insoluble: like a internal-combustion engine that gets +100mpg, or a new fuel that will burn cleaner and cost less than gasoline. Of course, a solution to either of these would earn its inventor a multi-billion fortune. That’s a very powerful motivator.

But, let’s face it. Some of these bigger problems may be beyond the wit of man and the realms of molecular science. There are so many smaller, more manageable problems to be solved that will both lower pollution and earn its inventor a very tidy sum. Case in point: a new water cooler for China. 

Here’s a problem crying out for a solution. Solve it and you could build one of the largest consumer products companies in the world, much like how Sony’s Akio Morita got his start inventing a small, portable transistor radio in the 1950s. 

Most offices, as well as a large percentage of urban households in China, have a water cooler. They look like the kind you see in the US, but with one addition: Chinese water coolers also have a hot water spigot. The machines keep hot water, as well as cold water, on tap. They do this by having a small in-built heating system to keep about one liter of water continuously heated to around 80-degrees centigrade (176-degrees Fahrenheit). The reason is obvious: many Chinese still like drinking tea. 

When I first came to China almost 30 years ago, cold potable water and bottled water were both all but nonexistent. Today, they are both pervasively common. Tea often seems like a dying brand in China, except as an accompaniment to a cooked meal. 

But, most Chinese water coolers still offer the hot water function, and will likely continue to do so for many long years to come. There are two problems with the current design in China. First, the hot water is produced continuously, even outside of working hours, at enormous cost in wasted electricity. Since in China most electricity is produced by burning coal, this equates to a lot more coal being mined and burned than is necessary. 

Problem number two: though heated, the water is kept at a temperature too low to make a decent cup of tea.  For that, you need water at or about boiling point. It’s not a difference discernible only by tea connoisseurs. You need the hotter water to get the flavor, as well as get the tea leaves to sink to the bottom of the cup. All tap water needs to be boiled, for health reasons in China. But, the water coolers use bottled water (in 18.9 liter jugs). Each jug weighs over forty pounds. The massive infrastructure to deliver these water bottles, mainly done by guys riding specially-configured bicycles that can hold four of the jugs over the back wheel, is another problem crying out for a solution. But, we’ll leave that one be, for the time being.   

China needs a better water cooler. The person who can invent one, and can protect it from copycats with patents,  is going to become very rich. Two relatively small changes would achieve the goal: (1) incorporate a timer so that the machine will waste less energy;  and (2) design a system that will bring water to a boil and then dispense it. Better air and better tea. Both marketing messages should resonate deeply with a large part of China’s urban population.   

I’m no engineer, but assume there will be a positive energy trade-off here. The new system will likely use more power to get water 25% hotter, to boiling point.  But, the timer would shut down the hot water production, in most cases, for at least 40% of the time, outside of office hours. 

How big is the potential market? My guess would be it’s quite big. In most of the larger hypermarkets in China like Wal-Mart or Carrefour, the section devoted to water coolers is quite large, with at least ten models on display – more space than is given to vacuum cleaners, for example. This gives some approximation of overall sales volume. The current models are all roughly equivalent. Top-of-the-line models not only have the hot water, but refrigerate the cold water before dispensing. These generally cost around $150-$200. An eco- and flavor-friendly model should be in the same price range. If so, it would likely become market leader. 

Inventors mostly like to tackle life’s biggest problems. But, there’s a lot of money to be made in “gradual innovation”, particularly when it delivers improvements on a product that is a ubiquitous in a country as large as China.


Field Report from Guizhou – Where Cement Turns Into Gold

Blue vase in China First Capital blog post

 

While writing this, I was more than a little the worse for drink. Over dinner, I drained the better part of a bottle-and-a-half of Maotai, China’s most celebrated rock-gut spirit, which sells for a price in China that French brandy would envy, upwards of $80 a bottle. It’s one of the more pleasant occupational hazards of life in China for a company boss. As far as I can tell, some Chinese seems to view it as a matter both of national pride and infernal curiosity to get a Western visitor plastered. By now, I know well the routine. I sit at a table surrounded by people generally drawn together with a common purpose – to treat me solicitously while proposing enough toasts to render me wobbly and insensate.  

As far as career liabilities go, this is one I can happily live with. I always try to eat my way to relative sobriety.  I’m in Guizhou Province. (I’ll wait five minutes while most readers consult an online atlas.) The food here is especially yummy – intense, concentrated flavors, whether it’s a chicken broth (I’m informed it’s so good because local chickens have harder bones than elsewhere in China), pig ear soup, a simple stir-fried cabbage, or a dizzily delicious dish of corn kernels from cobs gathered nearby. So, with each glass of Maotai (which started as thimble-sized and then were upgraded to proper shot-glasses) I tried as best as I could to wolf down enough solid material to hold at bay the nastier demons of drunkenness. 

Did I succeed? I believe so. At least in part. My Chinese didn’t sputter and seize up like a spent diesel engine, and my brain could just about keep up with the typhoon of sounds, smells and data points of the humongous cement factory I toured after dinner. 

If you can find a way to get to Eastern Guizhou, or Western Hunan, do. You’ll likely travel, as I did, along an otherwise empty but fantastically beautiful motorway, past the squat two-stored dwellings of the local Miao people, and the inspiringly eroded prongs that make up the local mountain-scape. If you are even luckier, and share my peculiar taste of what constitutes an ideal weekend, you might just end up, as I did, at the largest private cement company in Guizhou. It’s called Ketelin, and it’s to capitalism what a Titian portrait is to fine arts: drop-dead gorgeous. 

With Maotai bottles drained, and dinner inhaled, I went on a walking tour of the Ketelin factory, on a warm, breezy and clear summer night unlike any I’ve ever witnessed lately in smoldering Shenzhen and Shanghai. My host here is the company’s founder and owner, 宁总, aka Ning Zong. If I had to specify a single rule to determine how to discern a great entrepreneur, it might be “his favorite form of exercise is to walk 20 laps around his humming factory every night after dinner.” Such is the case with Ning Zong. Another great indicator, of course, is to have a business where customers are lined up outside your door, 24 hours a day, waiting to buy your product. That’s also true here. There is a queue of large trucks outside the front gate at all hours, waiting to be filled with Ketelin cement.  

Ning Zong is out here, in what is considered the Chinese “back-of-the-beyond”, and has built the largest private company in the province. And that’s just for starters. His only goal at this point is to build his company to a scale where it can serve all its potential customers, with the highest-quality cement in this part of China. This being China, that’s a very substantial, though achievable vision. He’s already built a state-of-the-art factory, on a scale that few can match anywhere else. And yet, there’s still so much unmet demand, not just in Guizhou, but in nearby provinces of Sichuan, Hunan and Hubei that Ning Zong’s burning desire, at this phase, is to expand his business by several-fold. 

That’s why I’m here, to work with him to find the best way to do so, by bringing in around $15 million in private equity. I have no doubt whatsoever that his plans and track record will prove a perfect match for one of the better PE firms investing in China. Whichever one of them gets to invest in Ketelin will be very fortunate. This facility, and this owner, are both pitchforks perfectly tuned to the key of making good money from the boom in China’s infrastructure development. Among other customers, Ketelin supplies cement to the big highway-construction projects underway in this area of China. 

 Is Ketelin an exception, here in Guizhou?  I don’t really have the capacity to answer that. Guizhou is generally considered by Chinese to be the also-ran in China’s economic derby, poorer, more hidebound and more geographically-disadvantaged than elsewhere in southern China. Water buffalo amble along the middle of local thoroughfares, and field work is still done largely without machines, backs stooping under the weight of newly-gathered kindling. While Guizhou is poor compared to neighboring Hunan and Sichuan, poor regions often produce some of the world’s best companies:  think of Wal-Mart and Tyson’s, both of which got started and are based in Arkansas, which is as close as the US has to a province like Guizhou.  

Guizhou, from what I’ve seen of it, is breath-takingly beautiful, with clean air and little of the ceaseless hubbub that marks the cadence in big cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai. This is China’s true hinterland, the part of this vast country that eminent outsiders have long said was impossibly backward and so beyond the reach of modern development.  

They are wrong, because what’s right here is the same thing that has already generated such stupendous growth in coastal China. It’s the nexus of vision and opportunity, of seeing how much money there is to be made and then doing something about it, to claim some of that opportunity and money as your own. Ning Zong has done so, on a scale that inspires awe in my otherwise Maotai-mangled mind. 

Come see for yourself.