China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms — South China Morning Post

I’m delighted to share the OpEd essay written by my China First Capital colleague Dr. Yansong Wang and published in today’s South China Morning Post. Her piece is titled “China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms”. It offers up her analysis on the disappointing economic conditions and vast untapped potential in her home region, China’s Northeast, formerly known as Manchuria, and in Chinese as 中国东北. I agree with her policy prescriptions as well as prudent optimism the region can be transformed just as America’s Rust Belt.

Her final paragraph notes a paradox familiar to me as well. In Shenzhen, we’re lucky enough to know two of China’s most consistently successful listed company chairmen, Mr. Gao Yunfeng , the founding entrepreneur of Han’s Laser Group  (大族激光集团), the world’s largest laser machine tool company, and Mr. Xing Jie, of a highly innovative and successful publicly-traded SOE, Tagen Group (天健集团).

Both, like Yansong, come from Jilin Province and all three have found success far from where they were raised, in Shenzhen. Yansong puts across her final point with conviction: “We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.”

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Dongbei Yansong Wang

Over the course of my 35 years, China’s northeast has gone from being the country’s economic powerhouse to its most systematically troubled large region. Much of the region’s enormous state-owned industrial complex is in difficulty, while gross domestic product growth continues to lag. The deepest and most poignant signs of the economic malaise are a falling population and the fact that the northeast’s birth rate is now one-third below the national average.

The concern about how to revive the economy animates not only the highest levels of the central government, but also many people who recall the key role the region has played leading China’s modernisation. The concern is warranted. It now needs to be matched by some fresh thinking and new policy initiatives. I’d like to see the northeast become a laboratory for bold ideas about how to restructure state-owned enterprises in China.

I care deeply about what happens in the northeast. Though I now live and work in Shenzhen, I was born and raised in Jilin (吉林) province. My parents and 95-year-old grandmother still live there. I owe a lot of my life’s achievements up to now – undergraduate study at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei (合肥), followed by a PhD in physics from Princeton, to my current role in an international investment bank – to the mind-expanding public education I received growing up in the northeast.

The climate and its mainly landlocked geography are a challenge. But there is no reason the northeast should be a victim of its geography. The part of the US with the most similar conditions, the states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, has successfully moved away from a focus on heavy industry to being a world leader in all kinds of advanced manufacturing and food processing. Great companies, including 3M, Cargill and Amway, all hail from this part of the US.

Could my home region produce its own world-conquering companies? I believe so.

Step one is to reorient investment capital away from the tired and often loss-making state-owned enterprises towards newer, nimbler private-sector firms. At present, too much investment goes to one of the most unproductive uses of all: new loans to companies that can’t repay their existing ones. This kind of rollover lending generally does not produce one new job or one new increment of GDP.

The central government is stepping up, announcing in August plans for 127 major projects, at a cost of 1.6 trillion yuan (HK$1.8 trillion). The problem isn’t so much that the northeast has too much heavy industry; it’s more that it has too much of the wrong kind. Basic steel is in vast oversupply. But the northeast could shine in developing speciality steel for advanced applications in China. One example that strikes me every time I ride on China’s high-speed rail network: too much of the special steel used on tracks is imported from Japan and Europe. We can make that.

How do we go from being a tired rust belt to a rejuvenated region pulsing with opportunity? The central and provincial governments should encourage more experimentation to push forward the scope and pace of state-owned enterprise reform. A starting point: banks could shoulder more of the cost of restructuring state firms. That will allow for new forms of mixed ownership, asset sales, and bigger and more effective debt-for-equity swaps.

I would also like to see the northeast become the first place where service industries, now mainly restricted to state firms – including banking and insurance – are opened up to private competitors.

There is no shortage in the northeast of the most important facilitator of economic development: a well-educated population. For now, sadly, too many of the entrepreneurially inclined leave the region. Indeed, two of the most visionary listed company chairmen I know are, like me, Jilin natives now living in Shenzhen, Gao Yunfeng of Han’s Laser and Xin Jie of Tagen Group. We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.

Dr Yansong Wang is chief operating officer at China First Capital


3M in China: A Magnificent Minnesota Multinational

3M China picture, China First Capital


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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