私募基金

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.

 

A Nominee For A PE Medal of Honor

medal

If they gave medals for valor and distinguished service to the PE industry, SAIFs 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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