Forbes Magazine

How China buried India

Forbes India cover story 1994

Twenty years ago, India, not China, was the object of my absolute and total focus.  Back then, I was living in London and working as a European bureau chief for Forbes Magazine. In May 1994, a story I co-wrote called “Now We Are Our Own Masters” appeared on the cover of Forbes (click here to read the article). It was the first time a big American magazine took the risk to suggest India, after so many years of pathetic growth, famine and unending poverty, was ready for an economic take-off. It turned out to be a smart call. Since then, India’s economy has surged, growing seven-fold while poverty has declined steeply.

India GDP growth 1950-2010

I spent about a month in India researching the article, meeting with political and business leaders. It was my third trip to the country. The first had been in 1978, as a young backpacking college student, on my way back to the US from a summer in Taiwan studying Mandarin. The two most vivid memories of that first trip — nearly dying from untreated amoebic dysentery, and hiding out for days in a place called Aurangabad as masses of Indian men rioted on the streets against the forced sterilization policy of India Gandhi. (Life lesson learned at 19: political popularity will be short-lived wherever a leader orders men at gunpoint to undergo genital surgery.)

It took another three years before I first set foot in China. On a lot of levels, the two countries struck me as similar back then, both in the extent of the obvious poverty as well as the shared disappointment some thirty years after each had gained full independence as socialist states under charismatic intellectual leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Mao Zedong in China.

China began its reform process a decade earlier than India. I caught the first stirrings when I arrived in Nanjing as a student in 1981. When I went to India in 1994 for the Forbes article, it still seemed plausible India might one day emerge as the larger, more vibrant of the two economies. China had suffered a sharp setback in 1989, during the Tianmen Square Protests of 1989, an event I witnessed first-hand in Beijing. At the same time, India had begun at last to liberalize and energize its over-regulated and inefficient state-run economy.

While India’s growth has since surpassed my optimistic hopes in 1994, I firmly believe it will never rival China. This chart below shows how far the gap between the two has grown. Since 1994, China has all but left India behind in its tailpipe exhaust.

China vs. India GDP Growth 1960-2010

In per capita PPP terms, China is now almost 2.5 times wealthier than India. Year by year, the gap grows, as China’s gdp expands faster than India’s, while India’s birth rate is now almost triple China’s.

I haven’t been back to India since 1994. I have no doubt it’s changed out of all recognition. Changed for the better. Poverty is down. Exports are way up. Its biggest misfortune may be having to compete for capital, and for attention, with China.

Living full-time and working in China now for more than four years, I’m more impressed than ever how superbly China is engineered for rising prosperity. The comparisons I read between India and China generally give a lot of weight to the difference in political systems, between India’s raucous federal democracy with dozens of parties and China’s one-party centralized rule. The indisputable conclusion: sound economic policies are easier in China to design and execute.

The few times I’ve been asked to contrast the two countries, I prefer to focus on their most valuable long-term assets.  India has English. China has Confucius.

India doesn’t out-compete China in too many industries. But, in two of these — pharmaceuticals and computer software — English is probably the main reason. India’s educated population is basically native fluent in the language. China has tried to make more of a game of it, especially in computer software and services. But, China is now and will likely remain a bit player in these two large, global high-margin industries.

India also has, overall, a more innovative financial services industry. This isn’t really the result of widespread English, but the fact that India has a more open financial and currency system than China’s.

Both nations benefit from having large diasporas. In India’s case, it’s a huge source of cash, with remittances of over $65 billion a year, equal to 4% of gdp. In China, the benefits are as much in kind as in cash. Companies owned or managed by ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US have been large corporate investors in China, with the capital matched by transfer of technologies and manufacturing know-how. This is an ever-renewing remittance, as money pours in each year to finance projects with solid long-term rates of return.

China’s trump card, though, is its Confucian value system. Its potency as an economic force is amply demonstrated by the affluence of China’s Confucian neighbors, not just Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, but South Korea and Japan. Its impact is measurable as well in the outsized economic clout of Chinese immigrants in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia. Free market capitalism and Confucianism. Anywhere in the world you find sustained economic success and rising prosperity, you will find at least one. In China, they are entwined in a kind of ideal synthesis.

India, too, has close-knit families and a tradition of thrift and obedience. Confucianism adds to these a reverence for education and practical problem-solving. It contains nothing transcendent, not much, if any,  spiritual guidance for a soul-searcher make sense of his place in the cosmos. Honor your ancestors with burnt offerings, sweep their graves at least once-a-year and they’ll grease the wheels of success in this life.

The Confucian system hasn’t changed much for two thousand years. One vital adaptation over the last century, though,  was to accept that women could, and should, play an active role outside the house, reaching the same educational level as men and joining the workforce in equal numbers. Here, India is woefully far behind. China’s growth has been on steroids these past twenty years because its 650 million women have contributed exponentially more to economic growth and prosperity than India’s.

Of the couple hundred stories I wrote while at Forbes, I’m probably proudest of this India cover story published twenty years ago. It may not seem like it now, but it was a gamble to suggest back then under my byline India was about to come out of its long economic coma. Imagine if instead I’d gone on the record 20 years ago to forecast the coming economic miracle in Russia, Mexico or South Africa – all countries back then seen by some to be “the next great emerging market”.  I heard afterward the article helped generate more interest in India’s economic reforms and ultimately more investment in India by US multinationals. This grew about 30-fold in the ten years after the article appeared.

On a personal level, I made a larger, and I think even safer bet with my own professional life, to move to China and start a business here. Yes, India has English. I work every day in an alien tongue and in a culture steeped in Confucian values that play little or no part in my own ethical code. But, China was, is and shall long remain the great economic success story of all-time. I don’t need someone else’s magazine cover story to tell me that. I live it every day.

Why I Love What I DO

My love story began 25 years ago on a bus barreling down the Mass Pike highway in Western Massachusetts. It continues to this day, stronger and more captivating than ever. It has provided the joy, the passion, the inspiration, the endless study and purpose of my life. I’m talking about my love affair with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. 

Twenty-five years ago I was a newly-hatched baby reporter at Forbes Magazine in New York, on my first proper reporting assignment. An editor asked me to look into what was then still a small New England bus company with the unlikely name of Peter Pan Bus Lines. Against the odds, little Peter Pan was competing, and somehow winning, against America’s giant intercity bus company, Greyhound. I took one of their busses from New York’s dreary Port Authority station to the company headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

I sat down with the company’s CEO, Peter Picknelly. He gave me my first lesson in what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, the challenge and the delight of taking on – and eventually taking down – a big rival. To my surprise, as well as my editors, I was able to turn the conversation into an article that made it into Forbes, under my byline. My first. I was hooked– not so much with reporting and journalism. That was purely a means to an end. My life’s direction became meeting and learning from entrepreneurs.

At that time, I knew and cared little about small business and entrepreneurs. Both my grandfathers were founders of successful companies. But, growing up under their noses, I never quite appreciated just how special they — and their fellow entrepreneurs – really were. Only when I landed at Forbes, after years of studying Chinese history, then spending time in China and Hong Kong as a grad student, did it first begin to dawn on me how much I had to learn, and how deeply I should admire, the people who take the limitless risk to start businesses, find and please customers and, not all that infrequently, end up changing the world for the better. 

Fast forward to today, and I’m living a life that is the culmination of this 25 years of meeting, talking with, learning from some of the best entrepreneurs in the US, Europe and now China. In the four years since starting CFC, I’ve met in China more great entrepreneurs than in the previous 21. That is no small accomplishment, since among the entrepreneurs I met previously are Bill Gates, Miuccia Prada, Ken Olson and dozens more, less famous, but in many senses, no less remarkable and successful.

Entrepreneurs in China share much the same profit-making and opportunity-seeking DNA of entrepreneurs elsewhere. What makes them more remarkable, though, is fact that almost all got their start at a time when entrepreneurship, when starting your own company, was new, untried, often hazardous in China. They not only had to overcome the obstacles familiar to entrepreneurs everywhere (where do I find the money? How do I make a profit, feed my family and reinvest? What about my larger competitors?) but a raft of others that would daunt just about any other sane individual. 

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. Licenses were not granted to private businesspeople. Banks would not lend. This was the world today’s successful Chinese entrepreneur was born into. There were no role models. The previous generation of private entrepreneurs had, in large part, been expropriated and excoriated or fled the country in 1949. 

Laws giving equal treatment to private companies were only introduced in 2005. Even then, private companies have had it very tough, in many cases. It remains a challenge. Taxes are numerous and high. Regulations can be as stifling as anywhere else in the world. Laws change frequently. Worker salaries are now growing by 25% a year or more. Every good business idea, almost within minutes, attracts hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors. Success or failure can be conferred at the whim of a local bureaucrat. 

And still, the great entrepreneurs of China keep marching forward, in ever greater numbers. A week doesn’t go by when I don’t meet or hear about a successful and accomplished entrepreneur. I’m just back from a five day trip to cold and barren Northwestern China. For me, it was far more enjoyable than a long weekend on the beach at Bali. 

During my trip, I met back-to-back with the founders of nine different companies, sharing hours of discussion with each, and a delicious meal with most. Each of the nine is successful, in industries ranging from cooking oil to laser components, from high-tech fiberglass threads to the world’s largest producer of a refined mineral used by steel mills all over the world. 

In my next blog post, I will tell the story of this mineral company and its remarkable founder. In eight years, since starting his business with little capital and no relevant experience or higher education, he has built a business worth, conservatively, $2 billion. He owns 99% of it. His wife and daughter the remaining 1%. 

Each of these entrepreneurs, like so many others in China and elsewhere, will achieve more in their lives than most, and likely leave a lasting imprint on generations to come. This was true for my grandfathers, whose success (one as the owner of a department store, the other as the founder of a button-making company) in the middle part of the 20th century created the wealth to send their children to college, get advanced degrees, and so ultimately provide a very affluent upbringing and even more possibilities in life for me and my brothers and cousins. 

The roots of so much of my own happiness are opportunities and experiences made possible by the business success of my two entrepreneurial grandfathers. It is the greatest of privileges for me to now work helping in a small way some outstanding entrepreneurs here in China.

Cease and Desist on Delist-Relist — Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

WSJ1

It’s only a moderate exaggeration to say that everything I’ve learned of value and enduring truth about politics and economics over the last 25 years came from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. For just as long, the one writing goal I’ve held onto was having an op-ed published there. Today’s the day.

Cease and Desist on Delist-Relist” is running in today’s Asian edition. I’m delighted. I owe a huge debt of thanks to the Journal’s Joe Sternberg who encouraged me to submit the piece, and then did masterful work shaping and reworking the text from earlier blog posts. 

I’ve known my fair share of editors. When I was at Forbes Magazine many years ago, I had the good fortune to have a fair percentage of my stories edited directly the then Editor-in-Chief, Jim Michaels, who richly deserves the reputation as one of the finest ever in business journalism. He was a maestro. Other Forbes editors? Often klutzes. Joe’s editing work is of Michaels quality. I have no higher standard, or stouter praise.

The full text as published by the Journal is copied below. For anyone who’d like to read the earlier draft, about 15% longer than this version, you can click here. 

  
  
 

 

  • The Wall Street Journal

 

Foreign private-equity firms have a history of running into trouble in China. Generally consigned to buying minority stakes instead of the traditional buy-out-and-turn-around model they mastered back home, several big-name firms have become collateral damage in various corporate fraud sagas. Yet now some PE investors look set to jump into what could be the worst China investment move of all: the “delist-relist” deal.

The theory is simple. Hundreds of Chinese companies have gained listings in the U.S. via reverse takeovers, injecting all of their assets into a dormant shell company with shares traded on NASDAQ, AMEX or, more commonly, over-the-counter. Only then do the Chinese firms discover the enormous compliance costs associated with being listed in America, not to mention the low valuations for U.S.-traded shares relative to what a Chinese company could pull from equity markets back in China.

Enter PE investors to buy out the American shareholders, delist in the U.S., and then cash out by relisting in China. Several such deals have already been hatched, including one by Bain Capital to spend $100 million taking private NASDAQ-listed China Fire & Security Group; two deals orchestrated by Hong Kong-based Abax Capital, the planned buyouts of NASDAQ-listed Harbin Electric and Fushi Copperweld for more than $700 million; and Fortress Group’s financing to take Funtalk Holdings’ private. Conversations with market participants suggest quite a few other PE firms are now actively looking at such transactions.

Yet while the superficial appeal is clear, the risks are enormous and unmanageable, and have the potential to mortally wound any PE firm that tries.

The first problem relates to the aspect that most excites PE firms about delist-relist deals: the low share price in the U.S. The assumption generally is that this is simply bad luck. Many Chinese companies ended up trading over-the-counter or at low valuations on NASDAQ as a result of their reverse mergers. Share prices stay depressed, the theory goes, because American investors don’t understand the company’s business or trust its accounting.

That may be too generous to the Chinese executives. Those managers were foolish to have done a reverse merger in the first place. One can infer the boss has little knowledge of capital markets and took few sensible precautions before pulling the trigger on the backdoor listing that has probably cost the firm at least $1 million in fees to complete and ongoing regulatory compliance. An “undervalued asset” in the control of someone misguided enough to go public this way may not be undervalued after all.

Next, there are the complexities of taking a company private. For instance, class-action lawsuits have become fairly common in any kind of merger or acquisition deal in the U.S., with minority shareholders often disputing the valuation. With Chinese companies, distance, differences in accounting rules, and unusual corporate structures are likely to lead to bigger disputes over what a company is actually worth.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, it is far from certain that these Chinese companies, once taken private, will be able to relist in China. Any proposed initial offering in China must gain the approval of the China Securities Regulatory Commission. There is a low chance of success. No one knows the exact numbers, but from my own conversations with Chinese regulators, it seems likely that only 10%-15% of the more than 150 companies per month that applied to list last year gained listings. Companies whose U.S. listings failed will almost certainly suffer a serious stigma in the CSRC’s eyes. PE firms could end up owning firms that are delisted in the U.S. and unlistable in China.

Making a failed investment is usually permissible in the PE industry. Making a negligent investment is not. The risks in these deals are both so large and so uncontrollable that if a deal were to go wrong, the PE firm would be vulnerable to a lawsuit by its limited partners for breach of fiduciary duty. Such a lawsuit, or even the credible threat of one, would likely put the PE firm out of business by making it impossible for the firm to raise money. In other words, PE firms that do delist-relist deals may be taking an existential risk.

Why, then, are PE firms considering these deals? Because they appear easy. The target company is usually already trading on the U.S. stock market, and so has a lot of disclosure materials available. Investing in private Chinese companies, by contrast, is almost always a long, arduous and costly slog requiring extensive due diligence. Delist-relist seems like an easy way in, especially for smaller, less experienced PE firms.

By some counts, America’s largest export to China is now trash and scrap for recycling. These delist-relist deals have a similar underlying logic, that PE firms can turn American muck into brass in China. But that’s a big and very dangerous gamble. The only people certain to do well out of these deals are U.S. investors who sell out now at a small premium in the “take private” part of the deal.

Mr. Fuhrman is chairman and chief executive of China First Capital. This column is adapted from a report recently published by CFC.

Download PDF version.

 

 

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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PEs as Agents of Change

It’s been a turbo-charged week in China and Hong Kong. My time was evenly divided between our China First Capital clients and several of the PE and VC firms that we’re privileged to work with. I resist the use of the word “work”, because I feel so deeply fortunate to be involved in such important and valuable pursuits with such outstanding businesspeople. 

We’re all part of something far larger than just allocating capital. Capital, in the hands of a talented entrepreneur, is perhaps the greatest “change agent” of all, with the potential to achieve phenomenal rewards for the principals, as well as society as a whole.   

It’s easy to lose sight of this, of course, in the crush of negotiating or closing a deal. But, there is no more important work than creating conditions for an entrepreneur to thrive. I’ve seen this so many times over my career, the remarkable, transformational power of a great idea, in the hands of the right person with the capital resources to achieve his goals. This past week, I saw it at ground-level, as one of China First Capital’s clients signed a term sheet and began due diligence process with one of the largest Hong Kong-based PE firms. 

This is how wealth is created.   

As some of you will know, I worked for many years as a journalist with Forbes Magazine, and so had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with some of the world’s most successful business leaders, listening to and observing at close hand their approaches to earning a profit and rewarding their shareholders. 

It was about as good an education as one could have into what constitutes “best practices” in business. I’ve used those lessons over and over since I left journalism and started working in venture capital, and IPO markets. I use the same lessons just about every day here in China. Among our clients are entrepreneurs of a class that one finds at the top of some of the best global businesses. 

Among the PE investors we work with are individuals with a special 20-20 foresight that identifies and seizes on opportunities for profitable investment.  

Together, they are remaking China, and remaking the world.