Entrepreneurship

What is the Major Source of China’s Economic Competitiveness? Surprise, it’s Not Labor Prices

 

True of false? The basis of China’s global economic competitiveness is cheap labor? False. It’s cheap factory land.

No doubt,  until a few years ago, China’s low labor costs were a vital part of its economic growth story. That is no longer the case. Labor costs have risen sharply in the last five years. There are now many countries with a decided labor cost advantage over China. And yet China remains the “factory of the world”. For one thing, its workers have higher productivity than those earning lower wages in countries like Vietnam, India or Indonesia.

But, there is a more fundamental, and most often overlooked, reason for China’s global economic competitiveness. Factories, and other productive assets like mines or logistics centers, are built on land that is either free of close to it. The result is that in China land costs usually represent an inconsequential component of overall manufacturing and operating costs. This, in turn, gives China an inbuilt edge and, when added to the productivity of its workers, an insurmountable cost advantage over the rest of the world.

There is no good international data on the percentage of a company’s fixed costs that come from purchase or rental of land. But, it is certainly the case that in China, this percentage will be far lower than in any developed – and many developing – countries. This isn’t because land is cheap in China. It isn’t. The market price, in most areas, is often on par with land costs in the US. But, good businesses in China don’t pay market price. Often they pay nothing at all.

This has two useful aspects for the favored Chinese business. First, it means the cost of expanding operations is limited primarily to the cost of new capital equipment and factory construction. Second, the business given a plot of land is thus endowed with a valuable asset it can use as collateral to secure more funding from banks. Even better, if the business runs into trouble or later goes bust, the owner will be able to sell the land at market price and pocket a huge personal gain.

It can’t be overstated just how important this is to a business owner’s calculation of risk, and so the success of Chinese entrepreneurial companies. Owners know that if all goes bad, they still hold land acquired for little or nothing for that is worth millions of dollars.

All land in China belongs to the Chinese government. Every year, a fraction of it is released on a long-term lease (usually forty years or longer) for development into commercial or residential land. While there is no official central policy to make land available at low prices to successful businesses, in practice, this is the way the system works. Land is sold at deeply-discounted prices, or given outright, to businesses that are seeking to expand, often by building a new factory or office building.

Land in China, it goes without saying, is in very high demand. It’s a crowded country, and only 15% of the land is flat or fertile enough to be suitable for cultivation. This “good land” is also where most new factories get built.

There isn’t enough new land released every year to meet the enormous demand. This is true both for residential land, a key reason why housing prices are so high, and commercial land. For most businessmen, it’s impossible to get new land, at any price. A privileged group, however, not only gets land to expand, but gets it at artificially low prices. In China, land prices are elastic. Different levels of government have ways to transfer land to companies at prices equal to 5%-15% of its current market value.

Officially, the land allocation system in China is meant to work in a more market-oriented way, with new land for development being auctioned publicly, and selling prices controlled and verified by higher levels of government. In other words, the system is meant to discourage, if not prohibit, land being given to insiders at low prices. In practice, these rules are often more observed in the breach. Local governments have ways to control the outcome of land auctions and so guarantee that favored businesses get the land they want at attractive prices.

These below-market sales deprive the local government of revenue it might otherwise earn from a land deal done at closer to market prices. But, there is some economic logic at work. The sweetest of sweetheart land deals are generally offered to successful companies whose growth is being stifled by insufficient factory space. The new land, and the new factories that will be built there, will increase local employment and, down the road, tax revenues.

Note, the deeply-discounted land prices are available mainly to companies that are already successful, and straining at the leash to maintain growth and profits. Both private and state-owned companies are eligible. It’s a rare example of even-handed treatment by officials of state-owned and private companies.

Is corruption also a factor? Are cheap land deals really not all that cheap when various under-the-table payments are factored in? My personal experience, though limited, suggests such payoffs, if they happen,  are not compulsory.

I’ve played a walk-on part in several below-market land deals. My role is to meet with local officials, usually the mayor or party secretary,  to urge them to provide my client with the land needed for expansion. All local government officials in China are also motivated by, and rewarded for, having local companies go public. I stick to that point in my discussions with the local officials – my client needs land to grow and so reach the scale where the business can IPO.

In each case, the deal has gone forward, and clients have gotten the land they were seeking, at a price 5-15% of its then-market value. My client wins the trifecta: the business grows larger, unit costs remain low because of scale economies and the cheap land, and the balance sheet is strengthened by a valuable asset purchased on the cheap.

In all respects, this system of commercial land acquisition is unique to China. It is also a key component in the country’s economic policy, though it never has been proclaimed as such. The government at all levels is keen to keep GDP growing smartly. This process of rewarding good companies with cheap land for growth plays a key part in this, everywhere across China. China’s government (at national, provincial and local levels) is not hurting for cash, unlike for example America’s. Tax revenues are growing by upwards of 30% a year. So, maximizing the value of land released for development is not a fiscal priority.

Who loses? There are likely incidences where peasants are thrown off land with little or no compensation to make way for new commercial district. But, that way of doing things is becoming less common in China.

Mainly, of course, the losers are the international competitors of Chinese companies getting cheap land to expand. It’s hard enough to stay in business these days when facing competition from China. It verges on hopeless when the Chinese companies can build output and lower unit prices because of land they get for free or close to it.


Chengdu — Great City, but Where Are the Great Food Companies?

Ge dish from China First Capital blog post

Among major cities in China, Chengdu takes the prize as most pleasant, livable,  comfortably affluent, relaxed and charming. I arrived back here today. I’m reminded immediately there’s much to like about Chengdu, and one thing to love: the food.

Chengdu is famed for its “小吃”, (“xiaochi”) literally “small eats”. To translate 小吃 as “snack”, as most dictionaries do, doesn’t even remotely begin to do it justice. A 小吃  is a often one-bowl wonder of intense, jarring flavors. They not only take the place of a full meal with rice, they make the Chinese staple seem almost superfluous, a waste of precious space in the stomach.

There are about a dozen小吃 that can stop me in mid-stride, any time of day. These include several varieties of cold noodles, including the bean jelly ones called 凉粉, literally “cold powder”,as well as dandan noodles served dazzlingly hot, in both senses of the word.

My favorite 小吃 , by a wide margin, is 抄手 , literally, “to fold one’s arms”. It’s an odd name, since the last thing I’d ever do when I see a bowl of抄手 in Chengdu is fold my arms. They are always thrust outward, in anticipation.  抄手 is a bowl of wontons steeped in a fire-engine red soupy sauce, optimally with enough Sichuan pepper corn to numb the tongue all the way down the gullet. This frees up the nose to do the real work of decoding all the subtle flavors.

Offiically, Chengdu has a per capital income of around $5,200, about half Shanghai’s. But, I’d prefer living and working in Chengdu any day. So would many Chinese I know. The economy is doing well, despite some geographic disadvantages. Chengdu is the most westerly of China’s large cities, and so isolated from the most developed regions of China. It’s over 1,000 miles to Shanghai, Beijing, and almost as far to Shenzhen.

Chengdu is doing well economically – though you don’t always have a sense this ranks as high on the list of civic priorities as drinking tea and playing mahjong. The electronics and telecom industries are both doing well. Quite a few companies have received PE investment.

The one industry, however, that is still relatively undeveloped is the food business. This is odd. By logic, Chengdu should be a center of China’s food processing and restaurant industry. Not only is it a great food town, situated in a very region valley producing some of China’s best fruits and vegetables, but it is also capital of Sichuan Province.

Sichuan food is almost certainly the most popular “non native” cuisine across China. Within a mile of where I live in Shenzhen, there are probably over 50 Sichuan restaurants. It’s the same in Beijing, Shanghai and most other major cities.

There’s an innate association in Chinese minds between Sichuan and good food. In this, Sichuan reminds me a lot like Italy. Italian food is prized across all of the Western world, and as a result, some of the Western world’s biggest and most successful food companies are based in Italy. Among the larger ones are Barilla, Bertolli, Buitoni, Parmalat, Ferrero. These, and thousands of smaller ones making wine, cheese, salami, all benefit from the widespread popularity of Italian food, and the high market value of associating a food brand with Italy.

Chengdu and Sichuan should be no different. It should be the capital of China’s food processing industry. But, as far as I can tell, there are as of yet no great food companies or food brands based there.  If you shop around in Chengdu, the food products being marketed as “authentic Sichuan food ” are mainly an assortment of beef jerky, along with sweet and savory biscuits made from beans and peanuts.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these products, but there isn’t a big brand national brand among them. The mass market is going unserved.

Let’s look at two of the biggest food product categories where Sichuan brands should predominate: chili sauce and instant noodles. Each of these product areas have sales of billions of dollars a year in China. Yet, the leading brands come from outside Sichuan. In the case of instant noodles, the leaders are mainly Taiwanese and Japanese.

In chili sauce, the biggest brands all seem to come from Guizhou province. This, particularly, should cause a collective loss of face across Sichuan. Their spicy food  “owns” the palettes of hundreds of millions of people and yet the main brands of chili sauce in supermarkets come from the poorer province to its south.

The companies selling bottled pre-made Sichuan sauces (for popular dishes like Gongbao Jiding, Mapo Toufu and Yuxing Rousi) mainly come from Taiwan, Shanghai, even Hong Kong. It’s as if the most popular brands of spaghetti sauce were made in Brazil. Chinese food companies all over are eating Sichuan’s lunch.

This situation is unnatural and, I’d hope, unsustainable. Sichuan companies should by rights eventually dominate the market for many food products in China, much as Italian food companies are among the largest in Europe.

Some lucky PE investors should someday make a lot of money backing Sichuan food companies. Me and my company would love to play our part in this. Ambitious food entrepreneurs in Chengdu, call us anytime — 0755 33222093. If ever there were a billion-dollar unfilled market opportunity in China, this would be it.

 

China: The World’s Best Risk Adjusted Investment Opportunity

Seoul, Korea. At the Harvard Project for Asia and International Relations’ annual conference, I gave a talk today titled “China, The World’s Best Risk-Adjusted Investment Opportunity”. A copy of the PPT can be downloaded by clicking here. 

The slides are mainly just talking points, rather than fully fleshed-out contents. The idea was to work backwards from the conclusion, as propounded in the title, to the reasons why. My argument is that a confluence of factors are at work here, to create this agreeable situation where investing in Chinese private companies offers the highest returns relative to risk.

Those factors are:

  1. China’s current stage of six-pronged development (Slide 2)  
  2. A large group of talented entrepreneurs tested and tempered by the difficulties of starting and managing a private business in China (Slide 5)
  3. Plentiful equity capital (from private equity and venture capital firms) with clearly-articulated investment criteria (Slide 6)
  4. An investment strategy that offers multiple ways for capital to impact positively the performance of a private company,  lowering the already-minimal risk an investment will tank (Slide 7)
  5. The returns calculus (Slide 8 ) – the formula here is profits (in USD millions) multiplied by a p/e multiple, producing enterprise valuation. The first equation is an example of investor entry price, pre-IPO, and the second is investor exit price, after a round PE investment and an IPO. The gain is twenty-fold.  Thus do nickels turn into dollars
  6. Downsides – best risk-adjusted returns does not mean risk-free returns. Here are some of the ways that a pre-IPO investment can go bad (Slide 9) 

Since the audience in Seoul was largely non-Chinese, I also included two slides with the same map of China, illustrating the progression of economic development in China, from a few favored areas on China’s eastern seaboard during the early phases, to the current situation where economic growth, and entrepreneurial talent, is far more broadly-spread across the country.

As a proxy to illustrate this diffusion of economic dynamism across China, slide 4 shows, in gold, the areas of China where CFC has added clients and projects in the last 18 months. Slide 3 shows the original nucleus of economic success in China – Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Beijing. We also have clients in these places. 

On seeing Slide 4, I realized it also displays my travel patterns over the last year.  I’ve been everywhere in red or gold, except Gansu, but adding in Yunnan, during that time. That’s a big bite out of a big country. This trip to Korea is my first flight outside China in two years, excepting a couple of short trips back to the US to see family. 

In the next two weeks, after returning from Korea, I’ll make three separate trips, to Henan, Jiangsu and Beijing, to visit existing clients and meet several potential new ones. While Chinese private SME provide the best risk-adjusted investment returns anywhere, you can’t do much from behind a desk. Opportunity is both widespread and widely-spread.

Private Equity in China, CFC’s New Research Report

 

The private equity industry in China continues on its remarkable trajectory: faster, bigger, stronger, richer. CFC’s latest research report has just been published, titled “Private Equity in China 2011-2012: Positive Trends & Growing Challenges”. You can download a copy by clicking here.

The report looks at some of the larger forces shaping the industry, including the swift rise of Renminbi PE funds, the surging importance of M&A, and the emergence of a privileged group of PE firms with inordinate access to capital and IPO markets. The report includes some material already published here.

It’s the first English-language research report CFC has done in two years. For Chinese readers, some similar information has run in the two columns I write, for China’s leading business newspaper, the 21st Century Herald (click here “21世纪经济报道”) as well as Forbes China (click here“福布斯中文”) 

Despite all the success and the new money that is pouring in as a consequence, Chinese private equity retains its attractive fundamentals: great entrepreneurs, with large and well-established companies, short of expansion capital and a knowledgeable partner to help steer towards an IPO. Investing in Chinese private companies remains the best large-scale risk-adjusted investment opportunity in the world, bar none.

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.

 

 

Remembering Digital Computer’s Ken Olsen: He Changed the World & My Life As Well

Ken

One of the true heroes of American business, Kenneth Olsen, died this week. Olsen was founder of Digital Computer Corporation (DEC), which during its heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, was one of the largest, most technically advanced and most successful computer companies in the world. Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, called Mr. Olsen “one of the pioneers of computing,” adding, “He was also a major influence on my life.” Gates’s interest in writing software was formed as a 13 year-old, while playing around on a DEC computer.

Olsen was also one of the businessmen I most admire, and played a small, but lasting part in my own career. I met him in 1986, at DEC headquarters in Maynard, MA, outside of Boston. I was there to interview him for Forbes Magazine. I remember Olsen as a warm, modest, wry  – and above all, very patient man.

It was my first assignment as a Forbes reporter, having only joined the magazine, on its lowest rung, a month earlier. Olsen was 60 at the time, one of America’s most celebrated and wealthiest entrepreneurs. I was a 27 year-old, with no real knowledge of business or journalism, and had never seen, or used, a DEC computer.  Thinking back, I’m amazed Ken Olsen didn’t take one look at me, and send me straight back to my windowless cubby in Forbes’ New York headquarters.

I’d persuaded my editors at Forbes to let me do some research on Georges Doriot, a then 87 year-old former Harvard Business School Professor. Doriot is the founding father of the venture capital industry in the US, and his VC firm, American Research and Development Corporation (ARDC),  was the original investor in DEC. I had a hunch that Doriot’s role in American high-technology was underappreciated. To my surprise, and even more to my editors’, Olsen agreed to see me to share his recollections of working with Doriot.

In 1957, Ken Olsen was a 31 year-old whose only experience up to then was as a lab worker at MIT.  Doriot agreed to invest $70,000 to finance DEC’s startup. Digital began producing printed circuit logic modules used by engineers to test electronic equipment. The company also started developing the world’s first small interactive computer, a forerunner of the IBM PC.

Within a decade, at the time of DEC’s IPO in 1967, Doriot’s investment was worth $355 million, a 500-fold increase.  Doriot’s investment in DEC  is generally considered not only the first great success of the US venture capital industry, but the standard all other venture capital investments have been measured against ever since, not only on financial terms, but also in lasting impact.

For more than a generation, DEC was one of the world’s most important and successful technology companies, dramatically lowering the cost and complexity of business computing, by selling smaller closet-sized computers that rivaled IBM giant room-sized mainframes in power and performance. DEC made all its own hardware and software. This was before the founding of Intel and Microsoft, the two companies that eventually toppled DEC’s dominance, doing to DEC what it had done to IBM.

When I met him, Olsen was nearing the pinnacle of a remarkably accomplished career. DEC was among the most admired and profitable companies in the world, with sales approaching $10 billion.  As for Doriot, the venture capital work was really something of a sideline for Doriot. He continued to teach management courses at Harvard Business School all the way up to his retirement.

As things turned out that day in 1986, Ken Olsen never got around to telling me  about Doriot. Instead, when I walked in, Olsen said matter-of-factly, “I just finished a long series of interview with reporters at Fortune Magazine”, Forbes’ main competitor. “They are planning a cover story about me.”

I may have been new to journalism, but I did figure out Olsen was spoon-feeding me my first scoop. If I could get him to talk about DEC, instead of Doriot, I could rush back to New York,  write up the interview and, with any luck, beat Fortune into print.

Fortune was renowned, back then, for spending months reporting, discussing, polishing, photographing and group-editing their cover stories, like a group of sous chefs fussing over preparations for a Royal Dinner at Buckingham Palace.  Forbes was always pluckier,  quicker to turn ideas into print – more like short-order cooking.

It all worked as well as planned. My story came out about a month before the Fortune cover article, which called Olsen “America’s most successful entrepreneur”.  This was my first byline at Forbes, and one of the few times a new junior hire was allowed to get a story into the magazine. It was the start of, and probably set the tone for, my very charmed nine year career at Forbes. Within less than a year, I was promoted twice and handed my dream job as a foreign correspondent in London. As far as I know, it was the fastest rise ever at Forbes, from cub reporter to foreign correspondent. Though I never got to meet Ken Olson again, I never forgot his central role in all this.

When I read Olsen’s obituary, I went searching online for my Forbes article. I hadn’t read it since it came out. No luck. Forbes’ online archive doesn’t go back 25 years. I called the Forbes switchboard in New York. I don’t know anyone working now at the magazine. I eventually got through to a librarian. She sent me the article. Here it is:  Olsen article

I’d remembered Olsen’s key part in undoing the dominance of mainframes. But, I hadn’t recalled he was such an early proponent of networked computing. At the time, I didn’t grasp the significance of what he was telling that day in his office, about introducing a new kind of office computer, called the VAX 8000 that would link newly-launched IBM PCs together. I do understand it now.  Those linking computers came to be known as servers, and this “client-server architecture” is still the way the internet, as well as company networks, are configured.

For this, Olsen deserves to be remembered as one of the earliest and most influential pioneers of the internet. Back when I met him in 1986, there was no such thing as the internet or broadband. Signals traveled between computers using 14.4 bit modems. A typical 10kb story of mine would take about five minutes to upload to my Forbes editors. Today, sending that file would take less than a second.

Thanks to the VAX line of computers, DEC became the world’s first dominant server manufacturer. It was because of this that Compaq, a PC company that later was bought by HP, agreed to buy DEC in 1998 for $9.8 billion. Eventually, Sun Microsystems overtook DEC as the leading specialist manufacturer of networking servers, before it too was holed below the water line – in Sun’s case, by cheap servers using Intel chips. These Intel-based servers remain preeminent today. But, this was all long after Olsen retired from Digital in 1992.

Olsen didn’t get it all right, of course. He thought servers would always do most of the work of business computing and so earn most of the money, that PCs would remain, what they were when I met him, expensive machines with too little memory and processing power to do more than the most rudimentary tasks. I’m writing this now on a Dell laptop that is a thousand times more powerful than the VAX computer DEC launched right around the time I met him.

While much else has changed in my life over the last 25 years, I continue to meet great entrepreneurs. I’m lucky enough to have some as clients. But, no entrepreneur played a larger role in getting me to where I am today than Ken Olson. By handing me a scoop, he handed me my first big career break. I can’t begin to compute all the wonderful things that have come my way as a result,  and so can’t begin to compute the debt I owe him.


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US Government Acts to Police OTCBB IPOs and Reverse Mergers for Chinese Companies

cover

In my experience, there is one catastrophic risk for a successful private company in China. Not inflation, or competition, or government meddling. It’s the risk of doing a bad capital markets deal in the US, particularly a reverse merger or OTCBB listing.  At last count, over 600 Chinese companies have leapt off these cliffs, and few have survived, let alone prospered. Not so, of course, the army of advisors, lawyers and auditors who often profit obscenely from arranging these transactions.

Not before time, the US Congress and SEC are both now finally investigating these transactions and the harm they have done to Chinese companies as well as stock market investors in the US. Here is a Chinese language column I wrote on this subject for Forbes China: click here to read.

As an American, I’m often angry and always embarrassed that the capital market in my homeland has been such an inhospitable place for so many good Chinese companies. In fact, my original reason for starting China First Capital over two years ago was to help a Jiangxi entrepreneur raise PE finance to expand his business, rather than doing a planned “Form 10” OTCBB.

We raised the money, and his company has since quadrupled in size. The founder is now planning an IPO in Hong Kong later this year, underwritten by the world’s preeminent global investment bank. The likely IPO valuation: at least 10 times higher than what was promised to him from that OTCBB IPO, which was to be sponsored by a “microcap” broker with a dubious record from earlier Chinese OTCBB deals.

In general, the only American companies that do OTCBB IPOs are the weakest businesses, often with no revenues or profits. When a good Chinese company has an OTCBB IPO, its choice of using that process will always cast large and ineradicable doubts in the mind of US investors. The suspicion is, any Chinese entrepreneur who chooses a reverse merger or OTCBB IPO either has flawed business judgment or plans to defraud his investors. This is why so many of the Chinese companies quoted on the OTCBB companies have microscopic p/e multiples, sometimes less than 1X current year’s earnings.

The US government is finally beginning to evaluate the damage caused by this “mincing machine” that takes Chinese SME and arranges their OTCBB or reverse mergers. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “The US Securities and Exchange Commission has begun a crackdown on “reverse takeover” market for Chinese companies. Specifically, the SEC’s enforcement and corporation-finance divisions have begun a wide-scale investigation into how networks of accountants, lawyers, and bankers have helped bring scores of Chinese companies onto the U.S. stock markets.”

In addition, the US Congress is considering holding hearings. Their main goal is to protect US investors, since several Chinese companies that listed on OTCBB were later found to have fraudulent accounting.

But, if the SEC and Congress does act, the biggest beneficiaries may be Chinese companies. The US government may make it harder for Chinese companies to do OTCBB IPO and reverse mergers. If so, then these Chinese firms will need to follow a more reliable, tried-and-true path to IPO, including a domestic IPO with CSRC approval.

The advisors who promote OTCBB IPO and reverse mergers always say it is the fastest, easiest way to become a publicly-traded company. They are right. These methods are certainly fast and because of the current lack of US regulation, very easy. Indeed, there is no faster way to turn a good Chinese company into a failed publicly-traded than through an OTCBB IPO or reverse merger.


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The Greenest and Maybe Cleanest Vehicle on the Road

scooter

Is this the zero-emissions green vehicle of the future? For the masses, possibly not.  For me personally, maybe so. It’s a battery-powered electric scooter, with solar panels for recharging during daylight hours.

I’ve become a big fan, and a minor authority, on battery-powered electric scooters. I’ve owned a few. A Chinese-made electric scooter was my primary form of urban transportation while living and working in Los Angeles until moving to China last year.

Though I never saw another one on the road in LA, I’m a passionate believer in this mode of transport. In China, electric scooters are almost as common as passenger cars, with upwards of five million sold every year. The streets and sidewalks are crowded with them. They run on lead acid batteries, the same kind used in car batteries.

The electric scooters sold now in China rely on plug-in battery rechargers. That’s the biggest drawback of driving one. Lead acid batteries can take up to eight hours to recharge. This new solar-powered recharger should solve that problem. The battery recharges automatically as you ride around, as long as there’s sunlight. Assuming the solar recharger works, this electric scooter becomes a street-legal perpetual motion machine, never needing, at least during daytime, to stop for a recharge.

I met the inventor, Zhao Weiping, at a trade exhibition. I could barely contain my excitement. We discussed the science, the capacity of the solar panels, and the potential to upgrade the batteries to lighter, longer-lasting lithium batteries. He’s only built prototypes so far. He expects the cost, for a base model, to be around Rmb3,000 ($440).

With lithium batteries, the price goes up to around $750. Lithium batteries take half the time to recharge.

Another benefit of lithium: the batteries weigh less than half lead acid ones. Less weight means less drag and so farther range on a full battery and faster top speeds.  Engineer Zhao guesses top speed should be about 50kph (30mph) compared to 30kph (18mph) for lead acid models.

To me, it sounds like the ideal form urban transport: zero emissions, reliable, fast enough to keep up with traffic, and will rarely, if ever, require mains electricity to recharge. In other words, zero cost per kilometer traveled.

It gets better: in much of the US, including California, you don’t need a driver’s license or insurance to drive an electric scooter, and you can drive it legally in bicycle lanes. Of course, few traffic cops know any of these facts. I was pulled over routinely in California, while riding my electric scooter. Eventually, I created a plastic-coated car card with all the relevant clauses of the state traffic code. I’d present it to traffic police, and they’d usually let me head off after a few minutes.

In LA, I drove a Chinese electric scooter upgraded with lithium. Top speed was about 24 mph. Recharging time: four to five hours. As commutes go, my 9-mile trip to work was about as pleasant and relaxing as any could be. Most of my route was along the Pacific Ocean, and then through some of the hipper areas of Santa Monica and Venice. When the roads were crowded at rush hour, I’d switch into the bicycle lane. You can park anywhere on the sidewalk, just like a bicycle.

The biggest hazard is pedestrians. The scooters are so quiet that people don’t hear it coming. I had a few near misses.

I never understood why so few in California ride electric scooters. I never saw another one on the road. California is certainly one of the most environmentally-conscious places on earth. Motorized transport doesn’t get any greener than electric scooters. Zero emissions, zero fossil fuels, zero direct carbon footprint.

Those green credentials were never my main reasons for riding an electric scooter. I liked the convenience, the tranquility, the absence of traffic and the sheer exhilaration of riding it.

Exhilaration, however, is instantly transformed into despair when your battery runs out of juice.  It happened to me a few times, when I miscalculated the range. Open throttle riding, going uphill, lots of stops and starts can all drain the battery rather quickly. The meter showing battery life is, at best, unreliable. When the battery is empty, the scooter will shudder once, then conk out completely.

Run out of fuel with an internal combustion engine, you call the AAA or find a gas station. Run out of electricity with an electric scooter and your only real choice is to push the vehicle home for recharge. I’ve had to do it more than once.

Engineer Zhao’s solar-powered recharger should make that problem less common, if not eliminate it altogether. At worst, if the battery empties, you park it and in daytime, come back in a few hours and drive it away. Limitless range should make for limitless enjoyment.

Yes, but will Engineer Zhao’s machine work? Talking with him, it’s hard not to be confident it will. The solar panels are powerful enough to keep the batteries recharged and light enough not to create a lot of extra drag. The only way to find out, of course, is to get one. I’m thinking now of commissioning Engineer Zhao to build me one, with lithium batteries.

If it works, I’ll help Engineer Zhao get venture capital funding to build his company. My gut tells me I’m not the only one who’d ride around on one, and that there could be a very big market in the US, Europe and China for this solar-charged scooter.

I don’t particularly relish the idea of driving any sort of vehicle on Shenzhen’s streets. Driving is chaotic. Accidents common. Pollution awful. There are no bicycle lanes. But, I’m prepared to put my money – and perhaps my health – on the line to prove this is a vehicle with a future and perhaps even a mass market.

Wish me luck.

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CFC’s New Research Report, Assessing Some Key Differences in IPO Markets for Chinese Companies

China First Capital research report cover

For Chinese entrepreneurs, there has never been a better time to become a publicly-traded company.  China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange is now the world’s largest and most active IPO market in the world. Chinese companies are also active raising billions of dollars of IPO capital abroad, in Hong Kong and New York.

The main question successful Chinese entrepreneurs face is not whether to IPO, but where.

To help entrepreneurs make that decision, CFC has just completed a research study and published its latest Chinese language research report. The report, titled “民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市” (” Offshore or Domestic IPO – Assessing Choices for Chinese SME”) analyzes advantages and disadvantages for Chinese SME  of IPO in China, Hong Kong, USA as well as smaller markets like Singapore and Korea.

The report can be downloaded from the Research Reports section of the CFC website , or by clicking here:  CFC’s IPO Difference Report (民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市)

We want the report to help make the IPO decision-making process more fact-based, more successful for entrepreneurs. According to the report, there are three key differences between a domestic or offshore IPO. They are:

  1. Valuation, p/e multiples
  2. IPO approval process – cost and timing of planning an IPO
  3. Accounting and tax rules

At first glance, most Chinese SME bosses will think a domestic IPO on the Shanghai or Shenzhen Stock Exchanges is always the wiser choice, because p/e multiples at IPO in China are generally at least twice the level in Hong Kong or US. But, this valuation differential can often be more apparent than real. Hong Kong and US IPOs are valued on a forward p/e basis. Domestic Chinese IPOs are valued on trailing year’s earnings. For a fast-growing Chinese company, getting 22X this year’s earnings in Hong Kong can yield more money for the company than a domestic IPO t 40X p/e, using last year’s earnings.

Chasing valuations is never a good idea. Stock market p/e ratios change frequently. The gap between domestic Chinese IPOs and Hong Kong and US ones has been narrowing for most of this year. Regulations are also continuously changing. As of now, it’s still difficult, if not impossible, for a domestically-listed Chinese company to do a secondary offering. You only get one bite of the capital-raising apple. In Hong Kong and US markets, a company can raise additional capital, or issue convertible debt, after an IPO.  This factor needs to be kept very much in mind by any Chinese company that will continue to need capital even after a successful domestic IPO.

We see companies like this frequently. They are growing so quickly in China’s buoyant domestic market that even a domestic IPO and future retained earnings may not provide all the expansion capital they will need.

Another key difference: it can take three years or more for many Chinese companies to complete the approval process for a domestic IPO. Will the +70X p/e  multiples now available on Shenzhen’s ChiNext market still be around then? It’s impossible to predict. Our advice to Chinese entrepreneurs is make the decision on where to IPO by evaluating more fundamental strengths and weaknesses of China’s domestic capital markets and those abroad, including differences in investor behavior, disclosure rules, legal liability.

China’s stock market is driven by individual investors. Volatility tends to be higher than in Hong Kong and the US, where most shares are owned by institutions.

One factor that is equally important for either domestic or offshore IPO: an SME will have a better chance of a successful IPO if it has private equity investment before its IPO. The transition to a publicly-listed company is complex, with significant risks. A PE investor can help guide an SME through this process, lowering the risks and costs in an IPO.

As the report emphasizes, an IPO is a financing method, not a goal by itself. An IPO will usually be the lowest-cost way for a private business to raise capital for expansion.  Entrepreneurs need to be smart about how to use capital markets most efficiently, for the purposes of building a bigger and better company.


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ChiNext: One Year Later, Celebrating a Success

Zhou dynasty from China First Capital blog post

This past Saturday, October 30,  marked the one year anniversary of the founding of the ChiNext (创业板) stock market. In my view, the ChiNext has been a complete and unqualified success, and should be a source of pride and satisfaction to everyone involved in China’s financial industry. And yet, there’s quite a lot of complaining and grumbling going on, about high share prices, high p/e multiples,  “underperformance” by ChiNext companies, and the potentially destabilizing effect of insiders’ share sales when their 12-month lockup period ends.

Let’s look at the record. Over the last year, the board has grown from the original 28 companies to 134, and raised a total of 94.8 billion yuan ($14bn). For those 134 companies, as well as hundreds more now queuing up for their ChiNext IPO, this new stock market is the most important thing to ever happen in China’s capital markets.

Make no mistake, without the ChiNext, those 134 companies would be struggling to overcome a chronic shortage of growth capital. That Rmb 94.8 billion in funding has supported the creation of thousands of new jobs,  more indigenous R&D in China, and provided a new and powerful incentive system for entrepreneurs to improve their internal controls and accounting as a prelude to a planned ChiNext IPO.

China’s retail investors have responded with enthusiasm to the launch of ChiNext, and support those high p/e multiples of +50X at IPO. It is investors, after all, who bid up the price of ChiNext shares, and by doing so, allow private companies to raise more capital with less dilution. Again, that is a wholly positive development for entrepreneurship in China.

Will some investors lose money on their investments in ChiNext companies? Of course. That’s the way all stock markets work. The purpose of a stock market is not to give investors a “one way bet”. It is to allocate capital.

I was asked by a Bloomberg reporter this past week for my views on ChiNext. Here, according to his transcript,  is some of what I told him.

“For the first time ever, the flow of capital in China is beginning to more accurately mirror where the best growth opportunities are. ChiNext is an acknowledgement by the government of the vital importance of entrepreneurial business to China’s continued economic prosperity. ChiNext allocates growth capital to businesses that most need and deserve it, and helps address a long-standing problem in China’s economy: capital being mainly allocated to state-owned companies. The ChiNext is helping spur a huge increase of private equity capital now flowing to China’s private companies. Within a year my guess is the number of private equity firms and the capital they have to invest in China will both double.”

A market economy functions best when capital can flow to the companies that can earn the highest risk-adjusted return. This is what the ChiNext now makes possible.

Yes, financial theory would argue that ChiNext prices are “too high”, on a p/e basis. Sometimes share prices are “too high”, sometimes they are “too low”, as with many Chinese companies quoted on the Singapore stock market. A company’s share price does not always have a hard-wired correlation to the actual value and performance of the company. That’s why most good laoban seldom look at their share price. It has little, if anything, to do with the day-to-day issues of building a successful company.

Some of the large shareholders in ChiNext companies will likely begin selling their shares as soon as their lock-up period ends. For PE firms, the lock-up ends 12 months after an IPO. If a PE firm sells its shares, however, it doesn’t mean the company itself is going sour. PE firms exist to invest, wait for IPO, then sell and use that money to repay their investors, as well as invest in more companies. It’s the natural cycle of risk capital, and again, promotes overall capital efficiency.

There are people in China arguing that IPO rules should be tightened, to make sure all companies going public on ChiNext will continue to thrive after their IPO. That view is misplaced. For one thing, no one can predict the future performance of any business. But, in general, China’s capital market don’t need more regulations to govern the IPO process. China already has more onerous IPO regulations than any other major stock market in the world.

The objective of a stock market is to let  investors, not regulators, decide how much capital a company should be given.  If a company uses the capital well, its value will increase. If not, then its shares will certainly sink. This is a powerful incentive for ChiNext company management to work hard for their shareholders. The other reason: current rules prohibit the controlling shareholders of ChiNext companies from selling shares within the first three years of an IPO.

The ChiNext is not a path to quick riches for entrepreneurs in China. It is, instead, the most efficient way to raise the most capital at the lowest price to finance future growth. In the end, everyone in China benefits from this. The ChiNext is, quite simply,  a Chinese financial triumph.


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A Nominee For A PE Medal of Honor

medal

If they gave medals for valor and distinguished service to the PE industry, SAIF’s Ben Ng surely earned one this past week. In a twelve hour stretch, he met with the laoban (Chinese for “boss”) of four different Chinese SME, at four different company headquarters, and probed each on the merits of their particular business.

The companies were at four different stages, from start-up to a 14-year-old company with a household name in much of southern China, and from four very different industries, from robotic manufacturing to a major fast-food chain, from agriculture to e-commerce.

Ben never wavered, never tired, never lost his genuine enthusiasm for hearing great entrepreneurs talk about what makes their businesses special, while explaining a little about his own company. As I found out later, Ben left a deep imprint with each entrepreneur, and in his understated way, showed each of them why SAIF is such an outstanding success in the PE industry in China, SAIF has backed more than 80 companies during its 10 year history, with $3.5 billion under management, and some of the more illustrious Limited Partners of any PE firm in the world.

By the end of the day, Ben was still full of life, mind sharp and mood upbeat. I, on the other hand, had a case of “PE battle fatigue”. I got home and almost immediately crawled into bed, trying to recall, without much success, which laoban had said what, and which business model belonged to whom. I’ve met a lot of company bosses in my 25-year career. But, I can’t recall ever having so many meetings at this high level in one day. Ben, on the other hand, mentioned he has days like this quite often, as he travels around China.

Ben is a partner at SAIF, with long experience in both high-technology and PE investing. He’s one of the professionals I most like and respect in the PE industry in China. I wanted these four laoban to meet him, and learn for themselves what top PE firms look for, how they evaluate companies, and how they work with entrepreneurs to accelerate the growth and improve the performance of their portfolio companies up to the time of an IPO, and often beyond.

Every great company needs a great investor. That about sums up the purpose and goal of my work in China.

I’d met these four laoban before and knew their businesses fairly well. In my view, each has a realistic chance to become the clear leader in their industry in China, and within a few years, assuming they get PE capital to expand, a publicly-traded company with market cap above $1 billion.  If so, they will earn the PE investor a very significant return – most likely, in excess of 500%. In other words, in my view,  a PE firm could be quite lucky to invest in these companies.

Will SAIF invest in any of the four? Hard to say. They look at hundreds of companies every year, and because of their track record, can choose from some of the very best SME in China. SAIF has as good a record as any of the top PE firms in China. According to one of Ben’s partners at SAIF, the firm has an 80% compounded annual rate of return.

That’s about as good as they get in the PE industry. SAIF’s investors might consider nominating the firm for a medal as well.

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China’s Economy: From Red Light to Highlights

Cinnabar Enamel snuff bottle from China First Capital blog post

After 30 years of economic progress unparalleled in human history, China can rewrite the rules on which leading economic indicators are most important to track.  I want to nominate a new one: the rate at which brothels are converted to beauty parlors.

At least in my Shenzhen neighborhood, this indicator is certainly at an all-time high. In the last four months, two rather seedy massage and KTV parlors have undergone very lavish renovation and reopened as large, expensive, multi-floored hair-dressing salons.

The clear implication: you can make more money in China these days selling perms and dye jobs than selling sex. This is an economic change in China of historic, if under-appreciated, importance.

Shenzhen has long had a reputation as one of the red light capitals of China. Some of the reasons: proximity to Hong Kong, a transient population made up largely of economic migrants, a local government with more of a laissez-faire attitude than elsewhere in China.

I can’t imagine anyone but the local police are keeping count, but I’d guess there must be thousands of places in the city offering sex for cash. These range from tiny storefronts with five to ten girls in folding chairs, to all manner of sauna, massage and KTV joints, most, but not all of which, augment their more legitimate offerings with the paid option to take one of the hostesses home with you, or do a little groping on the premises.

Or so I’m told. I know it may sound either prudish or disingenuous, but I’ve never been a customer of one of these places. I do, however, marvel at the variety and number of places selling sex here. The five-minute walk from my house to the local supermarket takes me past two big neon-lit places, called 会所, or “clubs” with touts out front and some heavily made-up ladies within. Down two smaller alleys are small storefront brothels.

In the building where I live, one of the fancier ones in my neighborhood, business cards are slipped under my door most every night offering “home delivery services”. They stress the a variety of women available, including  nurses, college students, migrants, mistresses, foreigners.

This is the part of Shenzhen’s sex trade I most deeply object to. The cards are put under every door. The photos on the card are of naked women.  My next-door neighbors include Chinese families with young kids. It’s unseemly, and I’ve complained numerous times to the doormen, but they claim not to know who is responsible for distributing the cards. My guess is they are paid to look the other way.

The economics of hair-dressing are certainly more favorable than the economics of prostitution. It’s not unusual for a woman to spend Rmb200-300 or more on a haircut and shampoo. Get your hair colored and the price can double. Though there are already dozens of hair salons in my neighborhood, they all seem to be jam-packed at all hours of the day. That never looks to be the case of the places selling sex. They always seem empty, over-staffed and under-patronized.

One thing hairdressers and brothels have in common,  the busiest time is 9pm-1am. Hairdressers, most of whom are men, earn a pretty good living, making around USD$1,000 a month. But, they work long hours, usually 12 hours a day. Most of the customers are women, but these places also cater to men. I pay Rmb 50 for a haircut and no shampoo. That’s a little less than the cost of a haircut at the joint I used to go to in LA’s Koreatown.

Every new beauty parlor that opens is confirmation of some larger economic trends in China.  Women have more disposable income, and more of an inclination to spend it on fashion, cosmetics, or a new hairstyle.  Prices are quickly reaching levels similar to those in the US. In Shenzhen, a young woman can now easily earn as much every month sitting at a desk in an office as sitting in a storefront brothel. That is probably a change from a few years ago.

China’s economy is changing quickly from export-dependence to a reliance on the domestic market, from dominance of manufacturing to the rise of the service sector. In my part of Shenzhen, what’s changing most quickly: who is serving what to whom for how much.



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.


Wanted – Great Retail Food Businesses in China

Xuande detail from China First Capital blog post

One of the world’s great discount retailing entrepreneurs, Theo Albrecht, died recently. He and his brother built Aldi into one of the world’s largest discount supermarket chains, with consolidated sales likely of over $50 billion. Along the way,  Theo also managed to buy what was then a small food store in Southern California, Trader Joe’s,  and then build it into one of the best and fastest-growing food retailing companies anywhere. 

Where is the Theo Albrecht of China? The question is not an idle one. No country can now match in absolute numbers or recent financial success the entrepreneurs of China. There are great home-grown Chinese companies everywhere, in just about every industry. But, not in food retailing. 

This is surprising. Food, of course, is the main thread, along with family, that weaves together Chinese civilization.  As nowhere else, people’s lives are organized around shopping, preparing and consuming of food. While it’s no longer a primary form of greeting as it was until about a century ago, the phrase “吃饭了吗?”, or “Have you eaten?” is still spoken or written by SMS more times each day in China than any other. 

The most successful retailers in China are, for the most part, all Western companies: Wal-Mart, Ikea, Carrefour, Zara. The most successful fast food chains: McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. There are Chinese competitors, some of which are quite good. But, in food retailing, the picture is bleak. There are lots of supermarkets in China, modeled on the American style, but none I’ve been to does anything special.  Certainly, there is no Chinese food store that can compare with the two chains Theo Albrecht built. 

I’ve yet to find a Chinese food chain that even attempts to be a source for quality discounted products, the formula Albrecht’s stores do so well. One result: supermarket food prices in China tend to high, considering income levels. There is no real low-end competition. 

Chinese love bargains at least as much as Germans and Americans. The Chinese market couldn’t be bigger, or more primed for a great discount food retailer to enter. The fact none has yet to surface in China is a source of real bewilderment to me – in part, because I’d likely be a frequent customer. 

A Chinese version of Aldi would be a great place to start. For those who’ve never been, Aldi stores tend to be much smaller than a typical supermarket. Everything about an Aldi store is bare bones – the merchandise is mainly stacked in corrugated cardboard shipping cartons, placed in pallets on the floor.

Aldi stores have a narrow range of mainly brand-name food products, things like cereal, detergent, beer, processed meats. Prices are low, probably around 25%-40% below prices in full-range supermarkets. Customer service is all but non-existent. Everything about the store screams at you: “come here to buy stuff cheap, not for the ambiance”. 

Aldi’s retail model, with its small stores and efficient use of floor space,  would work well in Chinese cities, where real estate prices are high. A limited range of only the most-commonly bought products is also suited to China. The Chinese market is simpler. People haven’t yet developed a preference, as many Americans have, for stores stocking 200 different permutations of potato chip. Margins at a Chinese Aldi would grow consistently over time. As the number of stores grows, the company would have more buying power and greater leverage with the brand-name manufacturers. 

If anything, a Chinese Trader Joe’s might do even better. Again, the store size is smaller than a typical supermarket. But, where Aldi focuses on selling mainly well-known global brands, almost everything sold at Trader Joe’s is the store’s “own brand”.

The Trader Joe’s products are all high-quality, as good or better than national brands. But, the prices can be much lower than branded products, since Trader Joe’s isn’t spending/wasting anything on marketing or advertising. That’s the retail proposition Trader Joe’s makes to its customers: “If you don’t mind buying our brand, we’ll sell you better stuff at lower prices than you can buy anywhere else”. 

If going to Aldi is like a trip to a supermarket stock room, a visit to Trader Joe’s is far more pleasant. The stores are always in nice areas, with helpful and friendly staff, free samples, wide and well-organized aisles. The customers seem overwhelmingly affluent and educated. They shop at Trader Joe’s because they like and care about good food, but don’t want to pay an unnecessary premium for a big brand. 

Trader Joe’s sells both staples like coffee, pasta, cooking oil, bread, milk, and also prepared foods, including fresh salads and soups. Non-food items include detergent,  vitamins, pet food, plants, and flowers. Every Trader Joe’s I’ve been to is crowded at all hours of the day. According to Businessweek, the company has the highest sales per square foot of any food retailer in the US. 

High quality “own brand” food items at lower prices sold in a nice environment is a retail idea I think would work very well in China’s major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen. There’s a big market for higher-quality food products. What’s more, big brands have only been around in China for about a decade. So, it should be comparatively easier in China than in the US to get people to support a single brand that offers top quality across a range of products. 

The Chinese market is ready. The big mystery is why no Chinese entrepreneurs have attacked it.