Wal-Mart

The Middle Kingdom’s Mighty Middle Class

Ming Jiajing from China First Capital blog post

China recently overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. China’s population, of course,  is ten times larger than Japan’s. So, per capita, China is still one-tenth as affluent as its Asian neighbor.

A far more important, if little noticed, economic trend is that China’s middle class is now far larger than Japan’s. Indeed, the Chinese middle class will soon surpass, if it hasn’t already,  America’s, and so become the largest middle class country in the world.

There is no standard definition of “middle class”. So, measuring the number of people falling within this category is an imprecise science. It generally refers to people whose household income allows them to enjoy all the comforts of life well-above pure subsistence: these include vacations, air-conditioned homes, the full assortment of labor-saving home appliances, personal transport, and sufficient savings to cope with shorter-term economic problems like unemployment or a health emergency.

In China, by my estimate, there are at least 250-300 million people who now fall into this category. This is an economic achievement of almost unimaginable scale. Thirty years ago, there was no “middle class” in China, and but for a tiny group of top or well-connected party officials, virtually no one in the country of 1.4 billion could be described as living above basic subsistence.

Today, China has more internet and mobile phone users than anywhere on the planet. It is the world’s largest market for new cars. Housing prices across the country, in most of the major cities, are at or above the average levels in the US.

These housing prices are a big reason for the swift rise in the middle class in China. With few exceptions, anyone who owns a home in a Chinese city can now be considered middle class. That’s because most urban housing now is worth at least $50,000-$70,000. In major cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen, housing prices are now among the highest in the world, and so just about every property-owner is sitting on an asset worth well in excess of $100,000.

Most Chinese either own their homes outright, or have mortgages that represent less than 50% of the home’s current value. Even in more rural parts of China, there are tens of millions of home-owners who have equity of at least $20,000 in their home.

Unlike in the US, Chinese can’t easily tap into the wealth locked up in their homes by taking out second mortgages. But, the wealth effects are still very real in China. People know how much their home is worth, have confidence the price will likely continue to appreciate. So, spending habits can reflect this.

In fact, most Chinese have a better idea of the current value of their homes than anyone in the US or Europe. That’s because property is sold based on price per-square-meter, and everyone in China seems to know that current value of the square meters they own. The Chinese government has been trying for the last sixth months, with limited success, to moderate the fast rise in property prices across the country.  Most housing has appreciated by at least 15% this year.

Housing is the main bedrock of middle class status in China. But, salaries are also rising sharply across the board in the professional class (as well as those working in factories), putting more cash in people’s pockets. The stock market has also become a major additional source and store of wealth.

It’s a common characteristic of the middle class everywhere to feel a little dissatisfied, and a little anxious about one’s economic future and ability to remain among the more better-off. This is very noticeable in China as well. Many of China’s middle class don’t consider themselves that comfortable.

The pace of social and economic change is so swift, and prices for many middle-class staples like cars, foreign vacations and housing are so high,  that people don’t have a real sense of “having made it’.  They also fret about their retirement, about saving enough to put their kids through the best schools, about job security. In other words, they’re very much like the middle class in the US.

Middle class spending is the single most important source of economic activity in the US. This isn’t yet true of China, but each year, it will become more important. This reality should be at the top of the agenda for boardroom planning at companies in China and much of the rest of the world. China’s middle class will become a market not only larger in size, but in purchasing power, than America’s.

China’s very rich (it now has more billionaires than any other country except the US) and poor tend to be the focus on most of the reporting by the world’s financial press. They are generally blind to the most significant development of all, the emergence over the last ten years of an enormous middle class in China. Without a doubt, more Chinese join the middle class each year than in the US, Europe and Japan combined.

Remember, many of the most successful global businesses in the US over the last 50 years – Ford, McDonalds, Disney, Coca-Cola, P&G, Wal-Mart to name just a few – got that way by focusing originally on selling to America’s middle class. China’s middle class is fast becoming an even richer target.

Anyone selling services or products for the middle class ought to find a way to do so in China. Quickly.

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From China, a Plan to Topple One of America’s Most Dominant Brands

China First Capital blog post -- China private equity

Every list of America’s most valuable brands includes the same parade of names, year after year – Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Disney, Google. Every year, these lists also ignore what could be the single most dominant brand of all. This brand is known by everyone in America, enjoys a higher market share than any of those on the list, and is able to charge a price premium as much as 300% above its competitors. The brand? Crayola Crayons

That’s right, that most humble and low-tech of children’s toys. No one outside the company knows Crayola’s exact market share. A good estimate is at least 80% of the US crayon market. Maybe higher. In other words, Crayola is dominant enough not just to warrant an anti-trust investigation, but to be broken up as a monopoly. 

Of course, I’m partly joking here – about the anti-trust part, not about the market share. Heaven forbid the US Department of Justice should ever decide to police kids toys. But, Crayola really is astoundingly powerful and dominant in its market. It enjoys, according to the company’s own research, 99% brand recognition in the US. Its name is not only synonymous with crayons, but has more or less shut down any lower-cost competitor from grabbing much of its market share. How it does this is also something of a miracle, since as far as I can tell, they do comparatively little advertising to sustain this. In other words, they are not only the most dominant brand, they are also the thriftiest, in terms of how much is spent each year sustaining that position in parents’ minds and kids’ playrooms. 

We don’t know exactly how big Crayola is, or any other fact about its financial performance, because it’s a private company. In fact, even more impenetrably, it’s a private company inside a private company. Binney & Smith, the original manufacturer, was sold to famously-secretive Hallmark in 1984. It’s all educated guesswork. 

But, I’m lucky to know a Chinese boss whose guesswork is far more educated than most. David Zhan is boss and majority shareholder of Wingart, a manufacturer of children’s art supplies based in Shenzhen. David is one of the smartest, savviest and most delightful businesspeople I know. Wingart is also one of my very favorite companies – though they are not a client, nor an especially large and fast-growing SME. But, Wingart is exceptionally well-run and focused, with well-made and well-designed products, as well as the most kaleidoscopically colorful assembly line I’ve ever seen. 

Wingart makes crayons. They are better than Crayola’s. That’s not David’s pride speaking, but the results of some side-by-side testing done by one of the larger American art supply companies. I personally have no doubt this is true. I’ve seen Wingart’s crayon production. Not only are they better, but they are much cheaper too. 

Still, it’s almost impossible for Wingart to gain any ground on Crayola. Wingart mainly sells under other companies’ brand names in the US, including Palmers, KrazyArt and Elmer’s. They have good distribution for many of their products at Wal-Mart and Target. But, not crayons. Wal-Mart would like to start selling Wingart’s crayons – not just, presumably, because they are better than Crayola. But, Wal-Mart, famously, does not like to be reliant on a single brand, a single supplier, for any of the products it carries. 

For the time being, Wingart’s factory is too small to produce crayons in the quantity Wal-Mart requires. This should change within a year or so, when Wingart moves to a new and larger factory about two hours from Shenzhen. Then, perhaps for the first time ever, Crayola will begin to face some real competition. I can’t wait. I think Wingart has a realistic chance to build a crayon business, worldwide, that will compete in size with Crayola, which is pretty much a US-dependent company. 

I have a lot of admiration for Crayola – not so much the crayons, but the fact that a 106 year-old brand could be so predominant in its market, and enjoy such unrivaled – and largely uncelebrated — supremacy for so long. But, I’d still like to see Wingart knock them down a few notches, or more. Crayola has it too good for too long.  American kids deserve the best crayons – as, for that matter,  do European, Chinese and other kids on the planet.

Field Report from Guizhou – Where Cement Turns Into Gold

Blue vase in China First Capital blog post

 

While writing this, I was more than a little the worse for drink. Over dinner, I drained the better part of a bottle-and-a-half of Maotai, China’s most celebrated rock-gut spirit, which sells for a price in China that French brandy would envy, upwards of $80 a bottle. It’s one of the more pleasant occupational hazards of life in China for a company boss. As far as I can tell, some Chinese seems to view it as a matter both of national pride and infernal curiosity to get a Western visitor plastered. By now, I know well the routine. I sit at a table surrounded by people generally drawn together with a common purpose – to treat me solicitously while proposing enough toasts to render me wobbly and insensate.  

As far as career liabilities go, this is one I can happily live with. I always try to eat my way to relative sobriety.  I’m in Guizhou Province. (I’ll wait five minutes while most readers consult an online atlas.) The food here is especially yummy – intense, concentrated flavors, whether it’s a chicken broth (I’m informed it’s so good because local chickens have harder bones than elsewhere in China), pig ear soup, a simple stir-fried cabbage, or a dizzily delicious dish of corn kernels from cobs gathered nearby. So, with each glass of Maotai (which started as thimble-sized and then were upgraded to proper shot-glasses) I tried as best as I could to wolf down enough solid material to hold at bay the nastier demons of drunkenness. 

Did I succeed? I believe so. At least in part. My Chinese didn’t sputter and seize up like a spent diesel engine, and my brain could just about keep up with the typhoon of sounds, smells and data points of the humongous cement factory I toured after dinner. 

If you can find a way to get to Eastern Guizhou, or Western Hunan, do. You’ll likely travel, as I did, along an otherwise empty but fantastically beautiful motorway, past the squat two-stored dwellings of the local Miao people, and the inspiringly eroded prongs that make up the local mountain-scape. If you are even luckier, and share my peculiar taste of what constitutes an ideal weekend, you might just end up, as I did, at the largest private cement company in Guizhou. It’s called Ketelin, and it’s to capitalism what a Titian portrait is to fine arts: drop-dead gorgeous. 

With Maotai bottles drained, and dinner inhaled, I went on a walking tour of the Ketelin factory, on a warm, breezy and clear summer night unlike any I’ve ever witnessed lately in smoldering Shenzhen and Shanghai. My host here is the company’s founder and owner, 宁总, aka Ning Zong. If I had to specify a single rule to determine how to discern a great entrepreneur, it might be “his favorite form of exercise is to walk 20 laps around his humming factory every night after dinner.” Such is the case with Ning Zong. Another great indicator, of course, is to have a business where customers are lined up outside your door, 24 hours a day, waiting to buy your product. That’s also true here. There is a queue of large trucks outside the front gate at all hours, waiting to be filled with Ketelin cement.  

Ning Zong is out here, in what is considered the Chinese “back-of-the-beyond”, and has built the largest private company in the province. And that’s just for starters. His only goal at this point is to build his company to a scale where it can serve all its potential customers, with the highest-quality cement in this part of China. This being China, that’s a very substantial, though achievable vision. He’s already built a state-of-the-art factory, on a scale that few can match anywhere else. And yet, there’s still so much unmet demand, not just in Guizhou, but in nearby provinces of Sichuan, Hunan and Hubei that Ning Zong’s burning desire, at this phase, is to expand his business by several-fold. 

That’s why I’m here, to work with him to find the best way to do so, by bringing in around $15 million in private equity. I have no doubt whatsoever that his plans and track record will prove a perfect match for one of the better PE firms investing in China. Whichever one of them gets to invest in Ketelin will be very fortunate. This facility, and this owner, are both pitchforks perfectly tuned to the key of making good money from the boom in China’s infrastructure development. Among other customers, Ketelin supplies cement to the big highway-construction projects underway in this area of China. 

 Is Ketelin an exception, here in Guizhou?  I don’t really have the capacity to answer that. Guizhou is generally considered by Chinese to be the also-ran in China’s economic derby, poorer, more hidebound and more geographically-disadvantaged than elsewhere in southern China. Water buffalo amble along the middle of local thoroughfares, and field work is still done largely without machines, backs stooping under the weight of newly-gathered kindling. While Guizhou is poor compared to neighboring Hunan and Sichuan, poor regions often produce some of the world’s best companies:  think of Wal-Mart and Tyson’s, both of which got started and are based in Arkansas, which is as close as the US has to a province like Guizhou.  

Guizhou, from what I’ve seen of it, is breath-takingly beautiful, with clean air and little of the ceaseless hubbub that marks the cadence in big cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai. This is China’s true hinterland, the part of this vast country that eminent outsiders have long said was impossibly backward and so beyond the reach of modern development.  

They are wrong, because what’s right here is the same thing that has already generated such stupendous growth in coastal China. It’s the nexus of vision and opportunity, of seeing how much money there is to be made and then doing something about it, to claim some of that opportunity and money as your own. Ning Zong has done so, on a scale that inspires awe in my otherwise Maotai-mangled mind. 

Come see for yourself.