McDonalds China

In China, Yum and McDonald’s likely need more than an ownership change — Nikkei Asian Review

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HONG KONG — China’s fast-food sector has been dominated by U.S. chains like Yum’s KFC and Pizza Hut as well as McDonald’s. But now a question hangs over these household brands: Can new owners reverse their declining fortunes?

China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, is reportedly leading a consortium that also includes Baring Private Equity Asia and KKR & Co. to acquire as much as 100% of Yum’s China division, valued at up to $8 billion. According to a Bloomberg report, Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, teaming with Primavera Capital, is also vying for a stake in Yum China, whose spinoff plans were announced on Oct. 20 — five days after Keith Meister, an activist hedge fund manager and protege of corporate raider Carl Icahn, joined the board.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s is likely to start auctioning its North Asian businesses in three to four weeks. Among its would-be suitors are state-owned China Resources, Bain Capital of the U.S. and South Korea’s MBK Partners, among other buyout firms. The winner or winners would oversee more than 2,800 franchises — plus another 1,500 to be added during the next five years — in China, Hong Kong and South Korea.

The company on Friday reported that sales in China surged 7.2% in the first quarter ended in March.

Yum’s and McDonald’s goal to become pure-play franchisers comes as competition in China’s food services market is heating up and as middle-class consumers grow increasingly concerned about food safety and nutrition.

http://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Trends/In-China-Yum-and-McDonald-s-likely-need-more-than-an-ownership-change?page=1

General’s Mills’ Stunning Success in China

Wanzai Matou 湾仔码头

America’s most successful M&A deal in China is also possibly its most clandestine. The reason: an old-line Midwestern Fortune 500 company around since 1856 owns a company that is the dominant brand-name supplier in China of a vital Chinese national asset. No, it’s not missile fuel or encrypted handsets for battlefield command-and-control. It’s dumplings.

America’s General Mills, the iconic maker of US breakfast cereals Lucky Charms and Cheerios as well as Häagen-Dazs ice cream, owns a similarly iconic brand in China – Wanzai Matou (湾仔码头), or Wanchai Ferry, as it’s known in English. It is China’s major premium-priced and premium-quality supplier of frozen dumplings. Since acquiring the business thirteen years ago, it’s become a large and especially fast-growing business for General Mills, with China revenues of at least $300mn. Better still, the margins are probably a lot higher than Cheerios and just about any other product General Mills sells worldwide. The Wanzai Matou dumplings sell in China for equivalent of about $3.50 a pound. You can buy fresh hand-made ones just about everywhere in China for quite a bit less. But, people flock to the General Mills product, because it’s considered both tastier and healthier.

Dumplings are a central aspect of Chinese life and culture, a more potent part of national identity and the national diet than the Thanksgiving turkey, Big Mac, beef hotdog or apple pie are to us Americans. Dumplings (whether boiled, steamed or pan-fried) have been a daily staple of the Chinese diet, as far as anyone can judge, for about 1,800 years. They’re eaten here at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dumplings are also the mainstay for many Chinese at the most important meal of the year, the one that rings in the Chinese New Year. Dumplings symbolize a prosperous year to come.

For all the many global corporates still edgy about investing in or acquiring businesses in China, General Mills is prime evidence that inbound cross-border M&A can work in China. This one deal combines four aspects often thought to be unattainable in China deal-making: a large US company buys a smaller local Chinese brand, builds it into a national leader while piling up big profits. It is, hands down,  my favorite case study of how to do M&A right in China.

Not that General Mills is eager for the world to know. It doesn’t talk about its booming China business in its annual report. Packages of Wanzai Matou sold in China don’t include the General Mills name or famous blue logo.

While everyone knows about KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks big success in China, they are actually doing something much easier: introducing and selling exotica, American products to Chinese with a whim to try something from afar. General Mills is making money in China the hard way. Not only do they make the most popular brand of frozen dumplings in China (estimated market share of about 50%) , they also had to convert a large number of Chinese to buy in a supermarket a frozen version of a product only available previously fresh, hand-made.

As General Mills foresaw, making dumplings at home, once a daily chore,  has become something fewer and fewer Chinese have the time routinely to do. Done properly, it can take even experienced hands two hours or longer.

General Mills got control of Wanzai Matou in 2001 when it acquired US rival Pillsbury from British company Diageo. Pillsbury had bought majority stake in Wanzai Matou in 1997, when it was a rather tiny Hong Kong company with very limited presence in the PRC. Today, the freezer section of most larger big city supermarkets in China is stocked to bursting with different flavors and fillings of Wanzai Matou dumplings, along with Wanzai Matou frozen wontons and stuffed buns.

General Mills buys some tv advertising, but mainly the success here in China was earned by word-of-mouth. I’ve been a customer for as long as I’ve been living in China. Take it from me. There is no tastier frozen food sold anywhere than the boiled Wanzai Matou pork-and-corn dumplings (see package above).

Pillsbury made a vital strategic move in the early years after buying control of the Hong Kong Wanzai Matou. It was also an atypical one for big corporate buyers. They decided to keep Wanzai Matou founder, Kin Wo Chong, involved. Her photo is still prominently-featured on every package, in much the same way as Betty Crocker used to be pictured on every box of brownie mix made by that General Mills brand.

Betty Crocker is pure fiction, a made-up name for a made-up housewife. Ms. Chong is very much a genuine entrepreneur, a Hong Kong immigrant from dumpling-loving Shandong province. She started her professional life in 1977 selling dumplings from a push cart in a not-too-tony part of Hong Kong.

Keeping Ms. Chong involved, as both a senior executive and minority shareholder, has evidently worked well for both sides. General Mills gets all the benefits of her extensive knowledge of how to make tasty dumplings. She gets a deep-pocketed partner with the skills and resources required to make her small company into a Chinese household name.

This sort of arrangement is rare in the M&A world outside China. Generally, the buyer gives the current owner a two-to-three year earn-out period and then is sent packing. That’s the way MBA textbooks recommend M&A deals get done. The thinking is founders, once they’ve put a large chunk of cash in their pockets, are distracted, demotivated and anyway not amenable to taking orders on how to run their business from a large, often bureaucratic global corporation.

But, in China, the most successful M&A deals we know of all tend to have this same structure, that the founding entrepreneur stays on, stays active, long after the earn-out period expires. By contrast, the list of failures is long where an acquirer gets control of an entrepreneur-founded Chinese company, shows the owner the door and then tries to run it on its own.

General Mills also did add something Ms. Chong never would have managed to do on her own. It started up a frozen stir-fry-it-yourself business for the US market, under the Wanchai Ferry brand. In its first year, it had revenues in the US of over $50 million. Impressive.

As anyone living here can attest, when it comes to food, Chinese are every bit as jingoistic as the French or Italians. It would shock many of them to think Americans can produce dumplings better and more profitably than any domestic competitor. But, even if General Mills is outed, and more Chinese come to know who’s behind Wanzai Matou, I’m confident they will go on buying dumplings made for them by the company from Golden Valley, Minnesota. “Eating”, as the Chinese saying aptly has it, “is more important than the Emperor”. “吃饭皇帝“.

Good News About China’s Food Price Inflation: Chinese Peasants’ Time of Unprecedented Plenty

Bamboo painting from China First Capital blog post

Food prices in China, as everyone inside and outside the country now knows, are rising fast, in some cases by over 30% during 2010. The Chinese government puts some of the blame on speculators who are said to be buying large quantities of fresh food, holding it off the market and then profiting from price increases. There seems to be some evidence of this.

There’s no short-term fix for these price increases. The Chinese government has released for sale some of its food stocks. It is also urging peasants, and local cadres who govern rural China, to make sure more food is grown next year to increase supplies. The peasants probably won’t need any such encouragement.

The increases this year in food prices have done more, in a shorter time, to lift income levels for many of China’s 600 million peasants than any other single measure taken over the last 30 years.

There has never been a  better time, in China’s long agrarian history, to be a peasant. Fundamentally, food price inflation in China represents a colossal transfer of wealth from China’s more affluent urban areas to the rural hinterland where half of China’s population still lives.

If this lasts, it will narrow the gap in living standards and income levels between China’s cities and countryside. This is one of the overarching goals of the Chinese government. And yet, no one is applauding.

Instead, the Chinese central government has reacted with some alarm to the recent price increases. It knows that higher food prices are putting the squeeze on city-dwellers, including, of course, those in the capital Beijing and other major cities. In China, communist power originally took hold in the countryside, and a lot of party doctrine still speaks about its roots among the peasantry. But, political power today is firmly rooted in urban areas.  China’s political, economic and cultural elite all live in major cities, as do most of their friends and family. So, price rises effect this group directly.

When apples, the staple autumn fruit in most of China,  almost double in price, as they have this year, political leaders will soon hear about it. The fact that China’s apple farmers now have a lot more money in their pockets is not necessarily part of the political calculus.

Yet, it is undeniable that the fastest and most effective way to raise peasant living standards and real incomes is higher farm prices that don’t fuel overall inflation. There are signs that’s now the case, that the only area of significant double-digit inflation is in food prices. If so, this is unquestionably the best time in Chinese history to be tilling the land.

How long will this last? Of course, commonly, a spike in food prices leads to overall price levels rising as well. This can erode, or even wipe out,  the rise in income for farmers from higher food prices. Also, today’s high prices will certainly lead to more land being cultivated next year, as farmers chase the fat profits from today’s prices.

I was just in Jiangsu Province, in central China, and it seemed like most of the farmland is under plastic cover this winter, allowing peasants to keep growing and selling vegetables. Supply goes up, price comes down. Eventually.

How high are food prices at present? Looking around my local covered market, prices in the stalls for many fruits and vegetables are now as higher or higher than prices commonly seen in the US. Looking just at autumn fruit, apples are about $1 a pound; navel oranges around 60 cents; clementines about $1 a pound; bananas are 50 cents a pound. Meat prices have risen sharply.

Pork remains comparatively cheap at about $2 a pound, but chicken is quite a bit higher here. Garlic and ginger, the two fundamental staples of all Chinese cooking, are both at all-time highs of around $1 a pound.

So far, in my experience, higher food prices haven’t yet fed through to higher prices at restaurants, noodle shops or even the outdoor steamer wagon where I buy corn-on-the-cob and potatoes as snacks. This means restaurant margins must be hurting. One notable exception, McDonalds in China. They recently announced price increases to counter effect of rising raw material costs.  With about 900 restaurants in China, all in larger cities, McDonalds feeds a lot of people.

Wages are also rising very steeply in urban China, as is household wealth for anyone who owns property. This seems to be allowing most urban Chinese to absorb higher food costs without much of a fuss.

In other words, just about everyone across this country of 1.4 billion is doing much better, year by year. For now, the 600 million peasants are doing best of all. Viewed across the breadth of China’s long history, no less than across the last 30 years of unparalleled economic progress, this is a singularly welcome development.

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