Private Equity China

CFC’s New Research Report, Assessing Some Key Differences in IPO Markets for Chinese Companies

China First Capital research report cover

For Chinese entrepreneurs, there has never been a better time to become a publicly-traded company.  China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange is now the world’s largest and most active IPO market in the world. Chinese companies are also active raising billions of dollars of IPO capital abroad, in Hong Kong and New York.

The main question successful Chinese entrepreneurs face is not whether to IPO, but where.

To help entrepreneurs make that decision, CFC has just completed a research study and published its latest Chinese language research report. The report, titled “民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市” (” Offshore or Domestic IPO – Assessing Choices for Chinese SME”) analyzes advantages and disadvantages for Chinese SME  of IPO in China, Hong Kong, USA as well as smaller markets like Singapore and Korea.

The report can be downloaded from the Research Reports section of the CFC website , or by clicking here:  CFC’s IPO Difference Report (民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市)

We want the report to help make the IPO decision-making process more fact-based, more successful for entrepreneurs. According to the report, there are three key differences between a domestic or offshore IPO. They are:

  1. Valuation, p/e multiples
  2. IPO approval process – cost and timing of planning an IPO
  3. Accounting and tax rules

At first glance, most Chinese SME bosses will think a domestic IPO on the Shanghai or Shenzhen Stock Exchanges is always the wiser choice, because p/e multiples at IPO in China are generally at least twice the level in Hong Kong or US. But, this valuation differential can often be more apparent than real. Hong Kong and US IPOs are valued on a forward p/e basis. Domestic Chinese IPOs are valued on trailing year’s earnings. For a fast-growing Chinese company, getting 22X this year’s earnings in Hong Kong can yield more money for the company than a domestic IPO t 40X p/e, using last year’s earnings.

Chasing valuations is never a good idea. Stock market p/e ratios change frequently. The gap between domestic Chinese IPOs and Hong Kong and US ones has been narrowing for most of this year. Regulations are also continuously changing. As of now, it’s still difficult, if not impossible, for a domestically-listed Chinese company to do a secondary offering. You only get one bite of the capital-raising apple. In Hong Kong and US markets, a company can raise additional capital, or issue convertible debt, after an IPO.  This factor needs to be kept very much in mind by any Chinese company that will continue to need capital even after a successful domestic IPO.

We see companies like this frequently. They are growing so quickly in China’s buoyant domestic market that even a domestic IPO and future retained earnings may not provide all the expansion capital they will need.

Another key difference: it can take three years or more for many Chinese companies to complete the approval process for a domestic IPO. Will the +70X p/e  multiples now available on Shenzhen’s ChiNext market still be around then? It’s impossible to predict. Our advice to Chinese entrepreneurs is make the decision on where to IPO by evaluating more fundamental strengths and weaknesses of China’s domestic capital markets and those abroad, including differences in investor behavior, disclosure rules, legal liability.

China’s stock market is driven by individual investors. Volatility tends to be higher than in Hong Kong and the US, where most shares are owned by institutions.

One factor that is equally important for either domestic or offshore IPO: an SME will have a better chance of a successful IPO if it has private equity investment before its IPO. The transition to a publicly-listed company is complex, with significant risks. A PE investor can help guide an SME through this process, lowering the risks and costs in an IPO.

As the report emphasizes, an IPO is a financing method, not a goal by itself. An IPO will usually be the lowest-cost way for a private business to raise capital for expansion.  Entrepreneurs need to be smart about how to use capital markets most efficiently, for the purposes of building a bigger and better company.


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ChiNext: One Year Later, Celebrating a Success

Zhou dynasty from China First Capital blog post

This past Saturday, October 30,  marked the one year anniversary of the founding of the ChiNext (创业板) stock market. In my view, the ChiNext has been a complete and unqualified success, and should be a source of pride and satisfaction to everyone involved in China’s financial industry. And yet, there’s quite a lot of complaining and grumbling going on, about high share prices, high p/e multiples,  “underperformance” by ChiNext companies, and the potentially destabilizing effect of insiders’ share sales when their 12-month lockup period ends.

Let’s look at the record. Over the last year, the board has grown from the original 28 companies to 134, and raised a total of 94.8 billion yuan ($14bn). For those 134 companies, as well as hundreds more now queuing up for their ChiNext IPO, this new stock market is the most important thing to ever happen in China’s capital markets.

Make no mistake, without the ChiNext, those 134 companies would be struggling to overcome a chronic shortage of growth capital. That Rmb 94.8 billion in funding has supported the creation of thousands of new jobs,  more indigenous R&D in China, and provided a new and powerful incentive system for entrepreneurs to improve their internal controls and accounting as a prelude to a planned ChiNext IPO.

China’s retail investors have responded with enthusiasm to the launch of ChiNext, and support those high p/e multiples of +50X at IPO. It is investors, after all, who bid up the price of ChiNext shares, and by doing so, allow private companies to raise more capital with less dilution. Again, that is a wholly positive development for entrepreneurship in China.

Will some investors lose money on their investments in ChiNext companies? Of course. That’s the way all stock markets work. The purpose of a stock market is not to give investors a “one way bet”. It is to allocate capital.

I was asked by a Bloomberg reporter this past week for my views on ChiNext. Here, according to his transcript,  is some of what I told him.

“For the first time ever, the flow of capital in China is beginning to more accurately mirror where the best growth opportunities are. ChiNext is an acknowledgement by the government of the vital importance of entrepreneurial business to China’s continued economic prosperity. ChiNext allocates growth capital to businesses that most need and deserve it, and helps address a long-standing problem in China’s economy: capital being mainly allocated to state-owned companies. The ChiNext is helping spur a huge increase of private equity capital now flowing to China’s private companies. Within a year my guess is the number of private equity firms and the capital they have to invest in China will both double.”

A market economy functions best when capital can flow to the companies that can earn the highest risk-adjusted return. This is what the ChiNext now makes possible.

Yes, financial theory would argue that ChiNext prices are “too high”, on a p/e basis. Sometimes share prices are “too high”, sometimes they are “too low”, as with many Chinese companies quoted on the Singapore stock market. A company’s share price does not always have a hard-wired correlation to the actual value and performance of the company. That’s why most good laoban seldom look at their share price. It has little, if anything, to do with the day-to-day issues of building a successful company.

Some of the large shareholders in ChiNext companies will likely begin selling their shares as soon as their lock-up period ends. For PE firms, the lock-up ends 12 months after an IPO. If a PE firm sells its shares, however, it doesn’t mean the company itself is going sour. PE firms exist to invest, wait for IPO, then sell and use that money to repay their investors, as well as invest in more companies. It’s the natural cycle of risk capital, and again, promotes overall capital efficiency.

There are people in China arguing that IPO rules should be tightened, to make sure all companies going public on ChiNext will continue to thrive after their IPO. That view is misplaced. For one thing, no one can predict the future performance of any business. But, in general, China’s capital market don’t need more regulations to govern the IPO process. China already has more onerous IPO regulations than any other major stock market in the world.

The objective of a stock market is to let  investors, not regulators, decide how much capital a company should be given.  If a company uses the capital well, its value will increase. If not, then its shares will certainly sink. This is a powerful incentive for ChiNext company management to work hard for their shareholders. The other reason: current rules prohibit the controlling shareholders of ChiNext companies from selling shares within the first three years of an IPO.

The ChiNext is not a path to quick riches for entrepreneurs in China. It is, instead, the most efficient way to raise the most capital at the lowest price to finance future growth. In the end, everyone in China benefits from this. The ChiNext is, quite simply,  a Chinese financial triumph.


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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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How PE Firms Can Add – or Subtract – Value: the New CFC Research Report

China First Capital research report

CFC has just published its latest Chinese-language research report. The title is 《私募基金如何创造价值》, which I’d translate as “How PE Firms Add Value ”.

You can download a copy here:  How PE Firms Add Value — CFC Report

China is awash, as nowhere else in the world is,  in private equity capital. New funds are launched weekly, and older successful ones top up their bank balance. Just this week, CDH, generally considered the leading China-focused PE firm in the world, closed its fourth fund with $1.46 billion of new capital. Over $50 billion has been raised over the last four years for PE investment in China. 

In other words, money is not in short supply. Equity investment experience, know-how and savvy are. There’s a saying in the US venture capital industry, “all money spends the same”. The implication is that for a company, investment capital is of equal value regardless of the source. In the US, there may be some truth to this. In China, most definitely not. 

In Chinese business, there is no more perilous transition than the one from a fully-private, entrepreneur-founded and led company to one that can IPO successfully, either on China’s stock markets, or abroad. The reason: many private companies, especially the most successful ones, are growing explosively, often doubling in size every year.

They can barely catch their breath, let alone put in place the management and financial systems needed to manage a larger, more complex business. This is inevitable consequence of operating in a market growing as fast as China’s, and generating so many new opportunities for expansion. 

A basic management principle, also for many good private companies, is: “grab the money today, and worry about the consequences tomorrow”. This means that running a company in China often requires more improvising than long-term planning. I know this, personally, from running a small but fast-growing company. Improvisation can be great. It means a business can respond quickly to new opportunities, with a minimum of bureaucracy. 

But, as a business grows, and particularly once it brings in outside investors, the improvisation, and the success it creates, can cause problems. Is company cash being managed properly and most efficiently? Are customers receiving the same degree of attention and follow-up they did when the business was smaller? Does the production department know what the sales department is doing and promising customers? What steps are competitors taking to try to steal business away? 

These are, of course, the best kind of problems any company can have. They are the problems caused by success, rather than impending bankruptcy.

These problems are a core aspect of the private equity process in China. It’s good companies that get PE finance, not failed ones. Once the PE capital enters a company, the PE firm is going to take steps to protect its investment. This inevitably means making sure systems are put in place that can improve the daily management and long-term planning at the company. 

It’s often a monumental adjustment for an entrepreneur-led company. Accountability supplants improvisation. Up to the moment PE finance arrives, the boss has never had to answer to anyone, or to justify and defend his decisions to any outsider. PE firms, at a minimum, will create a Board of Directors and insist, contractually, that the Board then meet at least four times a year to review quarterly financials, discuss strategy and approve any significant investments. 

Whether this change helps or hurts the company will depend, often, on the experience and knowledge of the PE firm involved.  The good PE firms will offer real help wherever the entrepreneur needs it – strengthening marketing, financial team, international expansion and strategic alliances. They are, in the jargon of our industry, “value-add investors”.

Lesser quality PE firms will transfer the money, attend a quarterly banquet and wait for word that the company is staging an IPO. This is dumb money that too often becomes lost money, as the entrepreneur loses discipline, focus and even an interest in his business once he has a big pile of someone else’s money in his bank account.   

Our new report focuses on this disparity, between good and bad PE investment, between value-add and valueless. Our intended audience is Chinese entrepreneurs. We hope, aptly enough, that they determine our report is value-add, not valueless. The key graphic in the report is this one, which illustrates the specific ways in which a PE firm can add value to a business.  In this case, the PE investment helps achieve a four-fold increase. That’s outstanding. But, we’ve seen examples in our work of even larger increases after a PE round.

chart1

The second part of the report takes on a related topic, with particular relevance for Chinese companies: the way PE firms can help navigate the minefield of getting approval for an IPO in China.  It’s an eleven-step process. Many companies try, but only a small percentage will succeed. The odds are improved exponentially when a company has a PE firm alongside, as both an investor and guide.

While taking PE investment is not technically a prerequisite, in practice, it operates like one. The most recent data I’ve seen show that 90% of companies going public on the new Chinext exchange have had pre-IPO PE investment. 

In part, this is because Chinese firms with PE investment tend to have better corporate governance and more reliable financial reporting. Both these factors are weighed by the CSRC in deciding which companies are allowed to IPO. 

At their best, PE firms can serve as indispensible partners for a great entrepreneur. At their worst, they do far more harm than good by lavishing money without lavishing attention. 

The report is illustrated with details from imperial blue-and-white porcelains from the time of the Xuande Emperor, in the Ming Dynasty.


 

TMK Power Industries – Anatomy of a Reverse Merger

lacquer box from China First Capital blog post

Two years back, I met the boss and toured the factory of a Shenzhen-based company called TMK Power Industries. They make rechargeable nickel-metal hydride, or Ni-MH,  batteries, the kind used in a lot of household appliances like electric toothbrushes and razors, portable “Dustbuster” vacuum cleaners, and portable entertainment devices like MP3 players. 

At the time, it seemed to me a good business, not great. Lithium rechargeable batteries are where most of the excitement and investment is these days. But, TMK had built up a nice little pocket of the market for the lower-priced and lower-powered NI-MH variety. 

I just read his company went public earlier this year in the US, through a reverse merger and OTCBB listing. I wish this boss lots of luck. He’ll probably need it.

Things may all work out for TMK. But, at first glance, it looks like the company has spent the last two years committing a form of slow-motion suicide. 

Back when I met the company, we had a quick discussion about how they could raise money to expand. I went through the benefits of raising private equity capital, but it mainly fell on deaf ears. The boss let me know soon after that he’d decided to list his company in the US.

He made it seem like a transaction was imminent, since I know he was in need of equity capital. Two years elapsed, but he eventually got his US listing, on the OTCBB, with a ticket symbol of DFEL. 

Here is a chart of share price performance from date of listing in February. It’s a steep fall, but not an unusual trajectory for Chinese companies listed on the OTCBB. 

 TMK share chart

From the beginning, I guessed his idea was to do some kind of reverse merger and OTCBB transaction. I knew he was working then with a financial advisor in China whose forte was arranging these OTCBB deals. I never met this advisor, but knew him by reputation. He had previously worked with a company that later became a client of mine. 

The advisor had arranged an OTCBB deal for this client whose main features were to first raise $8 million from a US OTCBB stock broker as “expansion capital” for the client. The advisor made sure there wouldn’t be much expanding, except of his own bank account and that of the stock broker that planned to put up the $8mn. 

Here’s how the deal was meant to work: the advisor would keep 17% of the capital raised as his fee, or $1.35mn.  The plan was for the broker to then rush this company through an expensive “Form 10” OTCBB listing where at least another $1.5 mn of the original $8mn money would go to pay fees to advisors, the broker,  lawyers and others. The IPO would raise no money for the company, but instead all proceeds from share sale would go to the advisor and broker. The final piece was a huge grant of warrants to this advisor and the stock broker that would leave them in control of at least 15% of the post-IPO equity. 

If the plan had gone down, it’s possible that the advisor and broker would have made 2-3 times the money they put up, in about six months. The Chinese company, meanwhile, would be left to twist in the wind after the IPO. 

Fortunately for the company, this IPO deal never took place. Instead, I helped the company raise $10mn in private equity from a first class PE firm. The company used the money to build a new factory. It has gone from strength to strength. Its profits this year will likely hit $20mn, four times the level of three years ago when I first met them. They are looking at an IPO next year at an expected market cap of over $500mn, more than 10 times higher than when I raised them PE finance in 2008. 

TMK was not quite so lucky. I’m not sure if this advisor stayed around long enough to work on the IPO. His name is not mentioned in the prospectus. It does look like his kind of deal, though. 

TMK should be ruing the day they agreed to this IPO. The shares briefly hit a high of $2.75, then fell off a cliff. They are now down below $1.50. It’s hard to say the exact price, because the shares barely trade. There is no liquidity.

As the phrase goes, the shares “trade by appointment”. This is a common feature of OTCBB listed companies. Also typical for OTCBB companies, the bid-ask spread is also very wide: $1.10 bid, and $1.30 asked. 

Looking at the company’s underlying performance, however, there is some good news. Revenues have about doubled in last two years to around $50mn. In most recent quarter, revenues rose 50% over the previous quarter. That kind of growth should be a boost to the share price. Instead, it’s been one long slide. One obvious reason: while revenues have been booming, profits have collapsed. Net margin shrunk from 13% in final quarter of 2009 to 0.2% in first quarter of 2010. 

How could this happen? The main culprit seems to be the fact that General and Administrative costs rose six-fold in the quarter from $269,000 to over $1.8mn. There’s no mention of the company hiring Jack Welch as its new CEO, at a salary of $6mn a year. So, it’s hard to fathom why G&A costs hit such a high level. I certainly wouldn’t be very pleased if I were a shareholder. 

TMK filed its first 10Q quarterly report late. That’s not just a bad signal. It’s also yet another unneeded expense. The company likely had to pay a lawyer to file the NT-10Q to the SEC to report it would not file on time. When the 10Q did finally appear, it also sucked money out of the company for lawyers and accountants. 

TMK did not have an IPO, as such. Instead, there was a private placement to raise $6.9mn, and in parallel a sale of over 6 million of the company’s shares by a variety of existing shareholders. The broker who raised the money is called Hudson Securities, an outfit I’ve never heard of. TMK paid Hudson $545,000 in fees for the private placement, and also issued to Hudson for free a packet of shares, and a large chunk of warrants.

Hudson was among the shareholders looking to sell, according to the registration statement filed when the company completed its reverse merger in February. It’s hard to know precisely, but it seems a fair guess that TMK paid out to Hudson in cash and kind over $1mn on this deal. 

The reverse merger itself, not including cost of acquiring the shell, cost another $112,000 in fees. At the end of its most recent quarter, the company had all of $289,000 in the bank. 

These reverse merger and OTCBB deals involving Chinese companies happen all the time. Over the last four years, there’s been an average of about six such deals a month.

This is the first time – and with luck it will be the only time – I actually met a company before they went through the process. Most of these reverse merger deals leave the companies worse off. Not so brokers and advisors. 

Given the dismal record of these deals, the phrase 美国反向收购 or “US reverse merger” , should be the most feared in the Chinese financial lexicon. Sadly, that’s not the case.


 

CFC’s latest research report: 2010 will be record-setting year in China Private Equity

China First Capital 2010 research report, from blog post

 

China’s private equity industry is on track to break all records in 2010 for number of deals, number of successful PE-backed IPOs, capital raised and capital invested. This record-setting performance comes at a time when the PE and VC industries are still locked in a long skid in the US and Europe.

According to my firms’s latest research report, (see front cover above)  the best days are still ahead for China’s PE industry. The Chinese-language report has just been published. It can be downloaded by clicking this link: China First Capital 2010 Report on Private Equity in China

We prepare these research reports primarily for our clients and partners in China. There is no English version.

A few of the takeaway points are:

  • China’s continued strong economic growth is only one factor providing fuel for the growth of  private equity in China. Another key factor that sets China apart and makes it the most dynamic and attractive market for PE investing in the world: the rise of world-class private SME. These Chinese SME are already profitable and market leaders in China’s domestic market. Even more important, they are owned and managed by some of the most talented entrepreneurs in the world. As these SME grow, they need additional capital to expand even faster in the future. Private Equity capital is often the best choice
  • As long as the IPO window stays open for Chinese SME, rates of return of 300%-500% will remain common for private equity investors. It’s the kind of return some US PE firms were able to earn during the good years, but only by using a lot of bank debt on top of smaller amounts of equity. That type of private equity deal, relying on bank leverage, is for the most part prohibited in China
  • PE in China got its start ten years ago. The founding era is now drawing to a close.  The result will be a fundamental realignment in the way private equity operates in China. It’s a change few of the original PE firms in China anticipated, or can cope with. What’s changed? These PE firms grew large and successful raising and investing US dollars,  and then taking Chinese companies public in Hong Kong or New York. This worked beautifully for a long time, in large part because China’s own capital markets were relatively underdeveloped. Now, the best profit opportunities are for PE investors using renminbi and exiting on China’s domestic stock markets. Many of the first generation PE firms are stuck holding an inferior currency, and an inferior path to IPO

Our goal is to be a thought leader in our industry, as well as providing the highest-quality information and analysis in Chinese for private entrepreneurs and the investors who finance them.


Kleiner Perkins Adrift in China

Gold ornament from China First Capital blog post

No firm in the venture capital industry can match the reputation, global influence and swagger of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (“KP”). KP is accustomed to outsized success and glory  – which makes the lackluster performance of KP’s China operation all the more baffling. For all its Midas-touch reputation in Silicon Valley, KP’s China operation looks more like 100% pyrite. It seems beset by some poor investment choices, setbacks and even rancor among its partners and team. The firm’s Chinese-language website even manages to misspell the Kleiner Perkins name. (See below.)

Two years ago, Joe Zhou, one of the founding managing partners of KP in China left the firm to set up a rival VC shop, Keytone Ventures. Two other KP partners in China have also left. Losing so many of its partners in such a short time is an unprecedented occurrence at KP — even more so that two of these partners left KP to set up rival VC firms in China.

A partnership at KP is considered among the ultimate achievements in the business world. Al Gore took up a partnership at KP in 2007, after serving as Vice President for eight years and then losing the presidential election in 2000. Colin Powell also later joined the firm, as a “Strategic Limited Partner”.

Joe Zhou left KP just 13 months after joining. When he left, he also took some of the senior KP staff in China with him. Zhou also negotiated to buy out the portfolio of China investments he and his team had overseen at KP China. They paid cost, according to someone directly involved in the transaction. In other words, KP sold its positions in these investments at a 0% gain. Factor in the cost of that capital, and the portfolio was offloaded at a loss.

This isn’t going to endear KP to the Limited Partners whose money it invests.  It also signals how little confidence KP had in the future value of these China investments the firm made. Other top VCs and PEs are earning compounded annual rates of return of +50% in China.

There was every reason to believe that KP would achieve great success when it opened in China in 2007. Indeed, when KP opened its China office, it issued a celebratory press release, titled “Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers Goes Global;Joe Zhou and Tina Ju to Launch KPCB China”.

Along with having the most respected brand in the VC industry, KP arguably has more accumulated and referenceable knowledge than any other VC firm on where to invest, how best to nurture young companies into global leaders. It’s roster of successful investments includes many of the most successful technology companies in history, including: Amazon, AOL, Sun, Genentech, Electronic Arts, Intuit, Macromedia and Google.

Opening in China was KP’s first major move outside the US – indeed, its first move outside its base in Silicon Valley. KP has only three offices in total, one in Menlo Park , California and one each in Shanghai and Beijing.  On its website, the firm’s China operations receive very prominent position. Two of the firm’s most renowned and respected partners, John Doerr and Ted Schlein, apparently played an active part in KP’s entry into China. Along with the high-level backing, KP also raised over $300mn in new capital especially for its China operations. One can assume KP has already taken over $15mn in management fees for itself out of that capital.

Beyond the capital and high-level backing, KP also prides itself on being better than all others in the VC world at building successful companies. So, it’s more than a little surprising that KP’s own business in China has so far failed to excel, failed even to make much of an imprint. Physician heal thyself?

I’m in no way privy to what’s going on at KP in China, and thus far have not had any direct dealings with them. I’ve always admired the firm, and fully expect the China operation to flourish eventually. For one thing, great entrepreneurs and good investment opportunities in China are just too numerous. A firm with KP’s deal flow, capital and experience should find abundant opportunities to make significant returns investing in IPO-bound businesses.

From the beginning, KP’s operation was  a kind of outsourced operation. Rather than sending over partners from KP in the US, the firm instead hired away from other firms partners at other China-based VCs. While this meant KP could ramp up in China more quickly, it also put the firm’s stellar reputation, as well as its capital, in the hands of people with no direct experience working at the firm.

The KP website lists 14 companies in the China portfolio. The portfolio is very heavily weighted towards biotech, cleantech and computer technology, mirroring KP’s focus in the US. Other tech—focused VCs in China have run into trouble, and are now shifting much of their investment activity towards established Chinese SME in more traditional industries. In the best cases, these SME have strong brands and very robust sales growth in China’s domestic market.

In my view, investing in these SME offers the best risk-adjusted return of any PE or VC investing in the world right now. KP has yet to make the shift. I wish KP nothing but success, and hope for opportunities in the future to work with them. Its technology bets in China may pay off big-time, in due course. But, meantime, KP is in the very unaccustomed position of laggard, rather than leader, here in China.

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It’s surely embarrassing, if not emblematic, that the home page of the Chinese-language version of KP’s own website manages to misspell the company’s name.  Check out the top-most bar on the page, where the firm is named “Kliener,  Perkins, Caufield and Buyers” .

Kleiner Perkins China website


Update: as of May 11, 2010, the Chinese version of Kleiner Perkins’ home page has been corrected.

 



The Worst of the Worst: How One Financial Advisor Mugged Its Chinese Client

stamp from China First Capital blog post

One of my hobbies at work is collecting outrageous stories about the greed, crookedness and sleaze of some financial advisors working in China. Sadly, there are too many bad stories – and bad advisors – to keep an accurate, up-to-date accounting. 

Over 600 Chinese companies, of all different stripes,  are listed on the unregulated American OTCBB. The one linking factor here is that most were both badly served and robbed blind by advisors.

Many other Chinese companies pursued reverse mergers in the US and Hong Kong.Some of these deals succeeded, in the sense of a Chinese company gaining a backdoor listing this way. But, all such deals, those both consummated or contemplated, are pursued by advisors to put significant sums of cash into their own pockets. 

Talking to a friend recently in Shanghai, I heard about one such advisor that has set a new standard for unrestrained greed. This friend works at a very good PE firm, and was referred a deal by this particular advisor. I’ve grown pretty familiar with some of the usual ploys used to fleece Chinese entrepreneurs during the process of “fund-raising”. Usual methods include billing tens of thousands of dollars for all kinds of “due diligence fees”, phony “regulatory approvals” and unneeded legal work carried out by firms affiliated with the advisor.  

But, in this one deal my Shanghai friend saw, the advisor not only gorged on all these more commonplace squeezes, as well as taking a 7% fee of all cash raised, but added one that may be rather unique in both its brazenness and financial lunacy. The advisor had negotiated with the client as part of its payment that it would receive 10% of the company’s equity, after completing capital-raising. 

Let’s just contemplate the financial illiteracy at work here.  No PE investor would ever accept this, that for example, their 20% ownership immediately becomes 18% because of a highly dilutive grant to the advisor. It’s such a large disincentive to invest that the advisor might as well ask the PE firm to surrender half its future profits on the deal to put the advisor’s kids through college.

The advisor clearly was a lot more skillful at scamming the entrepreneur than in understanding how actually to raise PE money. The advisor’s total take on this deal would be at least 17% of the investor’s money, factoring in fees and value of dilutive share grant. 

By getting the entrepreneur to agree to pay him 10% of the company’s equity, along with everything else, the advisor raises the company’s pre-money valuation by an amount large enough to frighten off any decent PE investor. Result: the advisor will not succeed raising money, the entrepreneur wastes time and money, along with losing any real hope of every raising capital in the future. What PE firm would ever want to invest with an entrepreneur who was foolish enough to sign this sort of agreement with an advisor? 

This is perhaps the most malignant effect of the “work” done by these kinds of financial advisors. They create deal structures primarily to enrich themselves, at the expense of their client. By doing so, they make it difficult even for good Chinese companies to raise equity capital, now and in the future.  

I’m sure, based on experience, that some people reading this will place blame more on the entrepreneur, for freely signing contracts that pick their own pockets. No surprise, this view is held particularly strongly by people who make a living as financial advisors doing OTCBB and reverse merger deals in China.  This view is wrong, professionally and morally. 

In most aspects of business life, I put great stock in the notion of “caveat emptor”. But, this is an exception. The advisors exploit the credulity and financial naivete of Chinese entrepreneurs, using deception and half-truths to promote transactions that they know will almost certainly harm the entrepreneur’s company, but deliver a fat ill-gotten windfall to themselves. 

Entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of every economy, creating jobs, wealth and enhancing choice and economic freedom. This is nowhere more true than in China. Defraud an entrepreneur and, in many cases,  you defraud society as a whole. 


 

The Harshest Phrase in Chinese Business

Shou screen from China First Capital blog post

What are the most reckless and self-destructive words to use while doing business in China? “Let’s skip lunch and continue our meeting.”  Of course, I’m kidding, at least partly. But, there’s nothing frivolous about the fact food is a vital ingredient of business life in China. This is, after all, the country where people for hundreds of years have greeted each other with not with “Hello” but with the question “Have you eaten?”. 

China is no longer a country where food is in any way scarce. But, perhaps because of memories of years of scarcity or just because Chinese food is so damn delicious, the daily rhythms of life still revolves around mealtimes in a way no other country can quite match. This is as true in professional as personal life. 

It’s a certainty that any business appointment scheduled within 1-2 hours of mealtime inevitably will end up pausing for food. In practical terms, that means the only times during working hours that a meeting can be scheduled without a high probability of a meal being included is 9-10am, and 1:30-2:30pm.

At any other time, it’s understood that the meeting will either be shortened or lengthened so everyone participating can go share a meal together.  Any other outcome is just about inconceivable. Whatever else gets said in a meeting, however contentious it might be, one can always be sure that the words “我们吃饭吧” , or “let’s go eat”, will achieve a perfect level of agreement.  

Everyone happily trudges off to a nearby restaurant, and talk switches to everyone’s favorite topic: “what should we order?” Soon, the food begins to pile up on the table. Laughter and toasts to friendship and shared success are the most common sounds. The host gets the additional satisfaction and “face” of providing abundant hospitality to his guests.  

And yet, there are some modern business people in China that can and do conceive of meetings taking precedence over mealtime. Thankfully, they are quite few in number, probably no more than a handful among the 1.4 billion of us in China. I just happen to know more of them than most people. 

In my experience, those with this heterodox view that meals can be delayed or even skipped are mainly Chinese who’ve spent time at top universities in the US. There, they learn that in the US it’s a sign of serious intent to work through mealtimes. It’s a particularly American form of business machismo, and one I never much liked in my years in businesses there. Americans will readily keep talking, rather than break for food. Or, as common, someone will order takeout food, and the meeting will continue, unbroken, as pizza or sandwiches are spread out on the conference room table. 

Heaven help the fool who tries to change the subject, as the takeout food is passed around, to something not strictly related to the business matters under discussion. If as Americans will often remind you, “time is money”, the time spent eating is often regarded as uncompensated, devoid of value and anything but the most utilitarian of purposes. 

Is it any wonder I’m so happy working in China? I love food generally, and Chinese food above all else. It’s been that way since I was a kid. These days, I often tell Chinese that adjusting to life in China has had its challenges for me, but I know that every day I will have at least two opportunities for transcendent happiness: lunch and dinner. 

So, not only do I accept that business meetings will usually include a break for a nice meal, I consider it one of the primary perks of my job. But, I do meet occasionally these US-educated Chinese who don’t share my view. They will ask if meetings can be scheduled so there won’t be the need to break for a meal, or if not, to make the mealtime as short and functional as possible, so “work can resume quickly”. 

This is misguided on so many levels that I worry how these folks, who I otherwise usually like and admire, will ever achieve real career success in China. The meals are often the most valuable and important part of a business meeting – precisely because they are unrushed, convivial and free of any intense discussion of business. 

Trust is a particularly vital component of business in China. Without it, most business transactions will never succeed, be it a private equity investment, a joint venture, a vendor-supplier relationship. Contracts are generally unenforceable. The most certain way to build that trust is to share a meal together — or, preferably, many meals together. 

To propose skipping a meal is a little like proposing to use sign language as the primary form of negotiation for a complex business deal: it’s possible, but likely to lead to first to misunderstanding, frustration and then, inevitably, to failure.


Zhejiang Province: Why It’s China’s Richest and Will Be Richer Very Soon

QIng Dynasty vase, from China First Capital blog post

Geography is destiny. Nowhere is this more true, of course, than in China. The country is the world’s fourth-largest, in terms of territory. But, much of the country is inhospitable: with deserts, mountains,  loess and other areas less fit for human habitation. In a population of 1.4 billion, over 550 million are peasants and farmers. Yet, only 14.86% of the land in China is well-suited for cultivation. Too many hands with too little land to hoe. That basically sums up China’s vast agricultural economy.    

The most fertile agricultural areas are also the ones that have had the highest rate of industrial and overall economic development in the last 30 years. The three richest provinces in China also have the highest concentrations of fertile land: Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Together, these three coastal provinces have a population of about 230 million, or 17.5% of China’s total. But, their combined share of China’s gdp is almost twice that. 

When economic reform got underway, these provinces were already relatively well-off, because of the high quality and productivity of its farm output. They were not as heavily industrialized as more northern parts of China, which got the major share of government investment and attention during the first 30 years after the 1949 revolution. 

This lack of industrial infrastructure turned out to be a decisive advantage for the three provinces, especially Guangdong and Zhejiang.  As reform took hold, they weren’t weighed down by the bloat of forced industrialization. The rich farmland and relatively high living standards helped create a greater sense of economic security and this, in turn, bred more of an entrepreneurial mindset.

As the Chinese government relaxed controls on private business, Guangdong and Zhejiang were the first to seize the opportunities. Capital from private sources was more readily available because of the profitability of farming in the region. Entrepreneurship flourished. To this day, one can travel around Zhejiang and Guangdong and rarely, if ever, come across a state-owned business. Their economies are almost entirely in the hands of private business, with larger, private SME in the lead. 

Travel north or west and the situation is markedly different. Here, subsistence farming was often the norm. There were no large agricultural surpluses to finance the growth of private business. State-owned companies, often of the “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” variety,  have predominated. The private sector still fights for its share of resources in these other regions of China. Those with entrepreneurial flair often emigrate. Shenzhen is particularly full of such transplants, drawn from every corner of China. I’ve met many successful entrepreneurs here from inland provinces, especially Jiangxi, Hunan, Sichuan and Hubei.  

I’m in Zhejiang as I write this, and am stuck struck by the beauty of its scenery as well as the industriousness and wealth of its people. It reminds me most of Northern Italy, where I’ve spent a lot of time, earlier in my life. Northern Italy is one of the world’s most prosperous places, as well as among its most visually stunning.

In both places, mountains are close by nearly everywhere, and over recent decades, much of the rich farmland has been plowed under to build factories. Northern Italy includes most of that country’s (and the world’s) most successful private-sector companies and brands, including Benetton, Luxottica, Armani. The food is also particularly excellent, another trait it shares in common with Zhejiang. 

Northern Italy, statistically, is the richest area, per capita, in Europe – richer even than next-door Switzerland. Zhejiang, similarly, is the richest place in China, per capita. While Zhejiang can’t yet claim its home to any internationally-renowned brands, it does have China’s strongest nucleus of SME businesses. Many of these, in coming decades, will likely grow into large businesses that dominate their markets. One Chinese auto brand, Geely, which is about to complete its purchase of Volvo from Ford, is based in Zhejiang.                                               

Zhejiang is unique among provinces in China. It has three cities that vie for commercial and entrepreneurial supremacy. Wenzhou, Ningpo and Hangzhou act like separate pumps, channeling energy and wealth into the province’s circulatory system. I spent time recently in Fuyang, the area about 30 miles to the south of Hangzhou. We’re now lucky to have an outstanding client SME in that city. Fuyang is mainly mountainous. Thin strips of flat richly-fertile land hold much of the population, transport infrastructure and industry. 

It’s hard to imagine there could be a more productive slice of our planet than this flat land in Fuyang, including in Northern Italy. In a hectic 36 hours, I visited six different companies in Fuyang, each from a different industry, and each already of a scale that puts it in the top flight of all China’s SME. They are a very small sample of the great entrepreneurial output of this area of Zhejiang.  I was very impressed with each company, and with each “laoban” (老板), Chinese for “boss”. 

These companies, and Zhejiang itself, embody the two most powerful forces that are now reshaping the Chinese economy: the twin reliance on private sector SME, and on producing for China’s domestic market rather than manufacturing OEM products for export.   

Zhejiang started out with a lot of natural advantages that other regions in China could only envy: the fertile land, an abundance of fresh water, inland waterways (including the Grand Canal) and plentiful rainfall, proximity to the coast and the major ports in Ningpo and nearby Shanghai. But, it’s richest blessing is a population of talented, instinctive entrepreneurs. They’ve taken what nature provided and augmented it, building a thriving, vibrant industrial economy in an area that 20 years ago was still mainly farmland and rice paddies. 

Other people’s idea of a perfect holiday is a week on some beach, or a visit to a tourist city like Rome or Paris. Mine is to spend time in a place with great food and great entrepreneurs, visiting their factories, hearing their strategies to conquer new markets and seize new opportunities to make money. 

Zhejiang really is my kind of place.

  

Carlyle Goes Native: Renminbi Investing Gets Big Boost in China

 

Qing Dynasty lacquer box from China First Capital blog post

My congratulations, both personal and professional, to Carlyle Group, which announced last week the launch of its first RMB fund, in partnership with China’s Fosun Group. I happen to know some of the people working at Carlyle in China, and I’m excited about the news, and how it will positively impact their careers. 

Carlyle is the first among the private equity industry’s global elite to take this giant public step forward in raising renminbi in partnership with leading Chinese private company. It marks an important milestone in the short but impressive history of private equity in China, and points the way forward for many of the private equity firms already established in China. 

The initial size of the new renminbi fund is $100mn. By Carlyle’s standards, this seems almost like a rounding error – representing a little more than 0.1% of Carlyle’s total assets of $90 billion.  But, don’t let the size fool you. For Carlyle, the new renminbi fund just might play an important role in the firm’s future, as well as China’s. 

The reason: Carlyle will now be able to use renminbi to invest more easily in domestic companies in China, then help take them public in China, on the Shanghai or Shenzhen stock markets. Up to now, Carlyle’s investments in China, like those of its global competitors, have been mainly in dollars, into companies that were structured for a public listing outside China. Carlyle has a lot to gain, since IPO valuations are at least twice as high in China as they are in Hong Kong or USA. 

That means an renminbi investment leading to a Chinese IPO can earn Carlyle a much higher return, likely over 300% higher, than deals they are now doing.  By the way, the deals they are now doing in China are anything but shabby, often earning upwards of five times return in under two years. Access to renminbi potentially will make returns of 10X more routine.  Carlyle has ambitious plans to keep raising renminbi, and push the total well above the current level of $100mn. 

As rosy as things look for Carlyle, the biggest beneficiary may well turn out to be the Chinese companies that land some of this Carlyle money. PE capital is not in short supply in China, including an increasing amount of renminbi. But, smart capital is always at a premium. Capital doesn’t get much smarter – or PE investing more disciplined — than Carlyle. They have the scale, people, track record and value-added approach to make a significant positive impact on the Chinese companies they invest in. 

This is the key point: the best opportunities in private equity are migrating towards those firms that have both renminbi and a highly professional approach to investing. That’s why the leading global PE firms will likely join Carlyle in raising renminbi funds. Blackstone is already hard at work on this, and rumors are that TPG and KKR are also in the hunt. 

Carlyle now joins a very select group of world-class PE firms with access to renminbi. The others are SAIF, CDH, Hony Capital, Legend Capital and New Horizon Fund. These firms are all focused primarily (in the case of SAIF) or exclusively on China. While they lack Carlyle’s scale or global reach, they more than make up for it by commanding the best deal flow in China. SAIF, CDH, Hony, Legend and New Horizon have all been around awhile, starting first as dollar-based investors, and then gradually building up pool of renminbi, including most recently funds from China’s national state pension system. 

Like Carlyle, they also have outstanding people, and very high standards. They are all great firms, and are a cut above the rest. Up to now, they have done more deals in China than Carlyle, and know best how to do renminbi deals. Carlyle and other big global PE firms will learn quickly.  As they raise renminbi, they will elevate the overall level of the PE industry in China, as well as increase the capital available for investment. 

The certain outcome: more of China’s strong private SMEs will get pre-IPO growth capital from firms with the know-how and capital to build great public companies.


The Changing Formula of PE Investing in China: Too Much Capital ÷ Too Few PE Partners = Bigger Not Always Better Deals

Yuan tray


In the midst of one of the worst global recession in generations and the worst crisis in recent history in the global private equity industry, China looks like a nation blessed. Its economy in 2009 outperformed all others of any size, and the PE industry has continued, with barely a hitch,  on its path of blazingly fast growth.

In 2009, over $10 billion  of new capital was raised by PE firms for investing in Asia, with much of that targeting growth investments in China. For the first time, a significant chunk of new PE capital was raised in renminbi, a clear sign of the future direction of the industry. 

This year will almost certainly break all previous records. A good guess would be at least $20 billion in new capital is committed for PE investment in China. For the general partners of funds raising this money, the management fees alone (typically 2% of capital raised) will keep them in regal style for many years to come. 

In such cases, where money is flooding in, the universal impulse in the PE industry is to do larger and larger deals. But, in China especially, bigger deals are almost always worse deals on a risk-adjusted basis. Once you get above a $20 million investment round, the likelihood rises very steeply of a bad outcome. 

The reasons for this are mostly particular to China. The fact is that the best investment opportunities for PE in China are in fast-growing, successful private companies focused on China’s booming domestic market. There are thousands of companies like this. But, few of these great companies have the size (in terms of current revenues and profits) to absorb anything much above $10mn. 

It comes down to valuation. Even with all the capital coming in, PE firms still tend to invest at single-digit multiples on previous year’s earnings. PE firms also generally don’t wish to exceed an ownership level of 20-25% in a company. To be eligible for $20 million or more, a Chinese company must usually have last year’s profits of at least $15 million. Very few have reached that scale. Private companies have only been around in China for a relatively short time, and have only enjoyed the same legal protection of state-owned businesses since 2005. (see my earlier blog post)

Seeing this, a rational PE investor would adjust the size of its proposed investment. In most cases, that will mean an investment round of around $10 million – $15 million. But, rational isn’t exactly the guiding principle here. Instead of doing more deals in the $10 million – $15 million range, PE firms flush with cash most often look to up the ante.  Their reasoning is that they can’t increase the number of deals they do, because they all have a limited number of partners and limited time to review investment opportunities. 

This herd mentality is quite pervasive. The certain outcome: these same cash-rich PE firms will bid up the prices of any companies large enough to absorb investment rounds of $20 million or more. This process can be described as “paying more for less”, since again, there are very few great private Chinese companies with strong profit margins and growth rates, great management, bright prospects and  profits of $20 million and up. 

Some day there will be. But, it’s still too early, given the still limited time span during which private companies have been free to operate in China. There are, of course, quite a few state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with profits above $20 million. Most, however, are the antithesis of an outstanding, high-growth Chinese SME. They are usually tired, uncompetitive businesses with bloated workforces, low margins, clapped-out equipment and declining market shares. They would welcome PE investment, and are likely to get it because of this rush to do larger deals. Some SOEs might even get a new lease on life as a result of the PE capital. 

The certain losers in this process: the endowments, pension funds and other institutions who are shoveling the money into these PE firms as limited partners. They probably believe, as a result of their own credulity and some slick marketing by PE firms,  their money is going to invest in China’s best up and coming private businesses. Instead, some of their money is likely to go to where it’s most easily invested, not where it’s going to earn the highest returns. 

Bigger is clearly not better in Chinese PE. I say this even though we are fortunate enough now to have a client that is both very large and very successful. It is on track to raise as much as $100 million. It is every bit as good (if not better) than our smaller SME clients. Unlike PE firms, we don’t seek bigger deals. We just seek to work with the best entrepreneurs we can find. Most often for us, that means working for companies that are raising $10 million – $15 million, on the strength of profits last year of at least $5 million. 

Our business works by different rules than the PE firms. We aren’t using anyone else’s capital. There’s no imperative to do ever-larger deals. We have the freedom to work with companies without much considering their scale, and can instead choose those whose founders we like and respect, and whose performance is generally off-the-charts. 

The ongoing boom in PE investment in China is likely to continue for many, many years. This is due largely to the strength of the Chinese economy and of the private entrepreneurs who account for a large and growing share of all output. 

But, the push to do larger deals will cause problems down the line for the PE industry in China. It will result in capital being less efficiently allocated and returns being lower than they otherwise would be. PE firms will collect their 2% annual management fee, regardless of how well or poorly their investments perform. 

Raising private capital for PE investment in China is a good business. And, at the moment, it’s also an easier business than finding great places to invest bigger chunks of capital. 

China’s Brand New Brand Names

Ming Jiajing jar from China First Capital blog post

1837. That’s when the first and still grandest of all consumer brand companies got its start.  Procter & Gamble started off selling soap and candles, then in 1879, introduced its first major branded product, Ivory soap, which quickly became the leading soap brand in the US. P&G then gradually, over the next 130 years, added other brands that became market leaders, including Tide, Crest, Pampers, Gillette, Olay, Head & Shoulders

This same slow-and-steady pace characterizes most other well-known consumer brand companies, including: Unilever, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Mercedes-Benz, Gucci, Tiffany, Nike, Hershey, Crayola (http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/blog/archives/927), etc. 

The lesson: building brands takes time. Lots and lots of time. 

Except, that is, in China. Here, brands go from drawing board to market dominance in a matter of a few years, or less. The reason? Like so much else in China, economic and social change occurs so rapidly that time seems compressed. Three years of economic growth in China is faster than a generation’s economic growth elsewhere. No major economy in modern times has grown as fast, for as long, as China has over the last 30 years.

gdp

 The other reason, peculiar to China, is that there were few brands of any kind before the 1980s. Back then, a stolid proletarian China had a depressingly small number of equally stolid proletarian brands. Many have since disappeared. Those that are still around have often been overwhelmed into irrelevance by newer Chinese brands, or ones imported from abroad.

Good examples of this are Flying Pigeon bicycles and Bee & Flower soap. They were once near-monopolies in China, during Mao’s time. Today, they are bare remnants of their former, dominant selves. Neither has more than a 1% market share, if that. It’s hard to find any other examples outside China during the last 25 years of once-dominant brands losing so much market share so quickly. 

In the US and Europe, older brands often have cache. In China, they are toxic, for the most part, because they are the products of an era of scarcity and little to no consumer choice. So, the tens of thousands of Chinese consumer brands created over the last 25 years entered a market with few, if any, well-established incumbents. A few foreign brands have also done well in China’s mass market over this time: P&G has a great business here with Crest, Tide, Olay, Pantene. Other winners include junk food giants McDonalds & KFC, along with Coca-Cola, Nokia, Apple, Nike, Marlboro, Loreal.

But, in many cases, new Chinese brands have fought and won against competition from well-known imports. Protectionist trade rules have played some part in this, of course. But, a lot of the credit really belongs to smart Chinese entrepreneurs. Thanks to them, China’s consumer market has gone from brand-less to branded in less than a generation.

P&G’s kingpins, like Crest, Pantene and Tide, face a proliferation of Chinese competitors, priced both lower and higher than the global brands. In many other product markets, Chinese brands stand alone, including tissues and toilet paper (sold here in bulky ten-roll packs), bed linen, men’s and women’s underwear, and most food products.

Overall, there are few dominant brands with market shares large enough to discourage new competitors. In fact, new brands arrive all the time. In evolutionary terms, China is in the middle of a kind of Cambrian Explosion, with the rapid appearance of all kinds of new brands. Inevitably, the huge number of brands will shrink, as winners emerge, and has-beens die out. This process took decades in the US and Europe. It will almost certainly happen far more quickly in China. 

One reason for the especially rapid pace: lots of capital is now available to create and support new brands. Why? There is so much to be gained for any company that establishes a dominant brand in China. China will soon have the largest domestic market in the world. Grabbing a few points of market share in China will often equate to billions of dollars in revenue over the next five to ten years. 

In many of the most promising consumer markets, no brand has even emerged yet, with national scope and distribution. Here, smart entrepreneurs can build a brand in fertile virgin turf, rather than trying to force their way into an already crowded patch. If done right, you can turn a new brand into a billion-dollar household name in a short-time. 

I see this process very clearly with one of our clients. It’s still quite a ways from being that billion-dollar colossus, but it has a real potential to become one. The entrepreneur spotted a huge market opportunity five years ago, to create a brand to sell designer accessories to Chinese women from 20 to 35 years-old.

His key insight: the process of urbanization in China is creating an enormous group of working women in this age bracket, with the spare income to spend on not-too-expensive, but well-designed earrings, bracelets, necklaces, sunglasses. 

His business is now growing very fast, with over 100 stores in most of China’s major cities. Sales should double in 2010 to about $50mn, and keep doubling every 18 months for a long time to come. The best part: he faces no real competition, and so every day, his brand grows more and more known, and so less and less vulnerable to whatever competitors may one day come along. My guess is that this brand will be one of the quickest new consumer product companies in Chinese history to reach Rmb 1 billion in sales. 

Like many of the best entrepreneurs, this one makes it look very easy. It isn’t. He takes hands-on responsibility for the four key disciplines needed to build and sustain the brand: marketing, design, management and manufacturing.

That’s the other part about brand-building in China: it not only happens fast, it often happens inside smaller founder-run companies without the input of “specialists” or ad agencies.  I don’t know how many people in China have studied product marketing in school, but my guess is not many.