entrepreneurship China

“If You Are Going to Do Something, Do It Big”

The first thing that strikes you is complete geographic implausibility of it all. In a rural corner of China’s barren, sparsely-populated and dusty Loess Plateau, sits an enormous complex of factories, dormitories, roads, and train tracks occupying an area of 38 square kilometers (14.6 square miles, almost 19 million square feet). That’s over half the size of Manhattan, 58 times larger than LA’s Disneyland, three times larger than the world’s busiest international airport, Heathrow in London.

The site belongs to a single Chinese company. It’s private, been in business less than a decade, has come from nowhere to become the world’s largest manufacturer of a critical component used in steel production, with likely revenues this year of over USD$1.5 billion (Rmb10 billion), profits of over USD$130 million , and assets of over USD$2.4 billion (Rmb 15 billion).  It’s 99% owned by its founder and chairman, with the other 1% held by his wife and daughter. By any measures, it is among the largest private industrial companies in the world, and certainly among the fastest ever to get to $1 billion in sales.

Not only have you never heard of it, neither has virtually everyone in China. It’s never listed among the biggest private companies in China. Its owner is never included among the ranks of the country’s private sector billionaires. Just how unknown is this remarkably successful entrepreneur? Here’s one measure. Believe me, I’m a big nobody in China. But, a Baidu search turns up more articles and references to me and my company than to this company boss and his.  In terms of orders of magnitude, his company employs about 2,000 times more people than mine, and occupies a premises that’s about, well, 190,000 times larger.

I’m not going to disclose the company or the boss’s name. We’re in discussions with them, and it would be unprofessional to do so. None of my competitors, as well as virtually no credible PE firms,  have visited the company.

My purpose here is two-fold: to shed a little light on a remarkable individual entrepreneurial achievement and also to give some sense of the scale of entrepreneurial greatness in China. I find myself, more often than I’d like, drawn into discussions – occasionally arguments – with people in the US and Europe about how entrepreneurship in China is in a class by itself, compared to everywhere else in the world, excepting perhaps the US and Israel.

Entrepreneurs are more numerous here (over 70 million private companies) and the best ones, numbering at least in the thousands, have created more wealth and spawned more positive societal progress in the last ten years than any other single group of people on the planet. I live in a perpetual state of wonder, doing what I do for a living in China, having occasion to meet entrepreneurs of the caliber of this particular boss.

A little more about him. He is, by my eye, about as modest an individual as you would likely ever run across. The only obvious concession to his enormous wealth is a rose gold watch he wears along with standard-issue baggy Chinese suit. If he sat next to you on a plane, my guess is you’d pin him as the owner of a small hardware store, not the owner of the world’s largest manufacturing business for a component used in a lot of what’s for sale there.

His office is hardly palatial, and sits just above the oldest section of his giant factory complex. He never went to college, and has no engineering or technical background, despite founding and now running one of the more complicated large-scale engineering and manufacturing businesses you’d ever hope to see.

Everything about the man, except his ego, is huge. “If you are going to do something,” he tells me, “do it big.” This applies not only to the huge area his business occupies, but the size of the investments he is making in its future. He is taking his business downstream and building, simultaneously, at least four huge new production sites, with total planned investment of over $3 billion. The local government is busy decapitating the top half of a silt mountain to create a level 500 acre site (about one square mile) for one of these new production areas. He begins building on it this year.

As I drove away from the factory area, I remarked to my colleague that the whole complex must be a source of intense interest at the CIA and National Security Agency in Washington, DC. Satellite photos will show the vast scale of this enterprise, as well as all the construction taking place. One recently-completed building is four stories tall and a mile long, all indoors.

My guess is the two spy agencies aren’t all that sure what exactly is being produced or planned here. I drove through it. Within a year, it will start producing steel products for the auto and home appliance industry.

How did this one entrepreneur build such a huge business is such a short time? Obviously, good timing, luck, some support from his local government and banks played a part. But, one key factor was a gamble he made in 2008 that paid off big time. When the financial crisis hit, his state-owned competitors (there were once three within a few hundred miles of him) cut way back on raw material purchases. This boss did the opposite. He exploited a steep drop in commodity prices, bought big and so locked in very large profits when customer demand began to pick up in 2009. Of course, had prices kept falling, he would have likely been bankrupt. His state-owned competitors? Now, all out of business.

Just about every “yuan” of profit he earns is poured back into expanding production. His bank loans are moderate –  about 10% of total assets. He’s only drawn down 70% of the credit lines provided by local banks. Measured by scale (factory size, employees, revenues) his company is similar to many larger SOEs in China. Asked to make a comparison, he explains that SOEs target only top line growth — girth for its own sake. He is far more focused on making money. The projected annual rate of return on newer projects is well above 25%.

He’s thinking about an IPO within two to three years. At a guess, his business could have a market capitalization at that point in excess of USD$8 billion. An IPO on that scale will bring him a lot of unwanted notoriety. He would likely instantly be vaulted into the ranks of the five hundred richest people on the planet. Billionaires in China rarely have it easy. Quite a few seem to end up in prison, or targeted by waves of bad publicity. For him, the real appeal of going public is the potential to raise an additional $1.5 billion to $3 billion to invest in further downstream expansion.

Whether or not my company works with his, it was one of the signal delights of my 35-year professional career to meet this entrepreneur, tour his factories and eat in his dining room.  At this moment in history, China is the entrepreneurial center of the world.

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.