I was interviewed last night by a reporter writing a story on foreign companies doing business in China.  At one point, she asked me what I saw as the best business opportunities for foreign business in China.  And I referred her to this post, China’s Five Best Business Opportunities, in which I list out education, healthcare, food, clean-tech/green-tech, and software. In that post, I noted that I have been pushing these same five industries for years.

Now I am just not so sure.

Let’s look at each of them.

  1. Education.  Everyone knows China is big on education and everyone knows China is particularly big about its best and its brightest (well, its richest anyway) getting a foreign or a foreign-like education.  So even though some aspects of China’s education business are shut off to foreigners, this does remain a prime area for foreign business. More anecdotally, our education clients, spanning a massive range of businesses, are almost universally thriving by doing business in China or with China.
  2. Healthcare.  Everyone knows China is aging, getting wealthier, and seeking to improve its healthcare. All of this is almost a perfect storm for those in the healthcare field.  But healthcare is a big field and much of it is a minefield of regulation, corruption and/or other assorted difficulties. Though no doubt this is overall a great field, it certainly has its issues.
  3. Food.  Everyone knows China wants better and safer food and I am an unabashed optimist about the role of foreign food in China. Without exception, every one of our clients that has fought through the requirements to be able to get their food product (of all kinds) into China, be that on their own or through a distributer, is thriving in China.
  4. Clean-tech/green-tech.  Everyone knows China has nearly limitless pollution problems and everyone knows that the Chinese government is concerned about that.  But this is a tough field for foreigners because it is one in which government connections are too often critical.  We have clients that have succeeded spectacularly and we also have clients with top tier products and management who just cannot (and will not) buy a break in China.
  5. Software.  Everyone knows China (like everyone else) wants better software.  The biggest hurdle I see for software companies in China is pricing.  A number of our software clients have told me that Chinese consumers and businesses are “not accustomed” to paying high prices for software and their Chinese competitors are accustomed to selling software at rock bottom prices. On the other hand, our clients that sell highly specialized industrial/commercial software seem to be doing just fine.

I can tell you one business of which I would be wary of starting in China: Corporate sleuths on edge after China detains foreign consultants.

But what about China for foreign business overall?

To that I turn to a “ChinaFile Conversation” from just yesterday, entitled, Is Business in China Getting Riskier, Or Are Multinationals Taking More Risks? The conversation is between the following China luminaries:

Krober starts the discussion by essentially saying things are still quite good for foreign companies doing business in China or seeking to do business in China and the numbers bear this out:

But the headlines are deceiving. Data and company surveys both show that China continues to be a magnet for foreign firms. Greenfield foreign direct investment, according to the Ministry of Commerce, has held steady at US$105-115 billion a year since 2010, well above the pre-crisis level. Inflows in June exceeded $14 billion, the highest monthly total since 1997. Broader data from the central bank, which include reinvested earnings, show that foreign companies committed a quarter of a trillion dollars to China in 2012.

Member surveys by foreign chambers of commerce consistently reveal that despite their discontent, foreign companies in China are still quite profitable and generally want to increase their investments. A walk down any Chinese high street will quickly confirm these numbers: foreign brands occupy a far larger and more visible slice of the market in China than in most other Asian countries, including Japan, Korea and India. And big cities are filled with tens of thousands of young foreign entrepreneurs who find it easier to start a new business in China than in their home countries.

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On the whole, though, the evidence shows that foreign companies win quite a bit more than they lose.

Schlesinger says that despite recent headlines, China is still the place to be for foreign businesses and dalliances with countries like Myanmar will only reinforce that:

The current onslaught of bad news about China—much of it real, some of it the pendulum-swing of pundits piling on—certainly makes China business seem like risky business. A slowing economy, growing social pressures, looming crackdowns or public relations campaigns against foreign companies—none of these are good signs for companies hoping to swiftly reap the fruits of their labors.

Some executives are scurrying to look for the next best opportunity in Myanmar or the Philippines or Indonesia. But for those who stay, and for their boards, this may be a necessary reset in expectations that actually leads to healthier and more sustainable investments.

 Schlesinger goes on to say that the downturn in media perceptions of China creates opportunities for smart companies that go to China and do things right:
Now that China bears are having their day, smart companies will go back and ensure the basics are right. That’s hard, slow, unglamorous work. But it sure beats having your executives jailed, your reputation sullied or your cut-corners exposed.
Ma sees China getting tougher mostly because it is getting more “normal”
But the terrain for MNCs in China has surely gotten more complex—and at times contentious—but those are relative terms. And most of the changes in the operating environment owe to what Arthur described as China becoming a more “normal” country in which to do business. Normal, of course, being filtered through the detritus of “Chinese characteristics”—uneven regulatory enforcement, opaque decision-making, relationships, and so on. It is worth reiterating the point that China has transformed rapidly from a capital-starved country to a capital-abundant one, and it has learned the rules of the game at the WTO and can play by them effectively. In combination, these developments make for an attitudinal shift in how China may be approaching foreign MNCs—if they no longer really need the capital, then what do they need now?
Dickinson notes how the old days of foreign companies getting away with ignoring Chinese law is over and that succeeding in China today requires abiding by Chinese law:

It is true that over the past 15 years, China has adopted a formal legal system that at least on its surface resembles that of a developed country and is, in that sense, “normal.” The paradox is, this normality has led to greater risk for foreign companies rather than reduced risk. The environment in China in general has not become more risky. However, the risk of violating Chinese law has increased substantially.

In the old days, foreign companies just ignored Chinese law and relied on connections and the rest to operate for maximum profit. These profits were high enough that the time and effort of working in the chaos of China was justified. Over the past 10 years, the system in China has changed dramatically. This is the Wild West to Chinese law and regulation no longer works for foreigners.

This puts foreign companies operating in China in a difficult situation. The fact is that Chinese companies routinely ignore Chinese law. So, foreign companies operating in China are faced with a major decision that carries big risk. They can follow the law and struggle or fail in the Chinese market or they can act like their Chinese competitors and violate the law in order to compete on a level field.

The risk is: as China becomes increasingly stressed by the declining growth of the economy, the government has shown that it will seek foreign scapegoats. Drugs are too expensive: it is the fault of the foreign drug companies. Food is not safe: if is the fault of the foreign fast food companies. Mobile phones are defective: it is the fault of the foreign phone manufacturers. The China Dream has not been realized: the foreigners are holding us back. As a result, taking action against foreign violators of Chinese law is an obvious way for the Chinese government to deflect attention away from the deeper problems in the Chinese economy and society.

Dickinson goes on to say that foreign companies doing business in China or seeking to do so must ask themselves whether they can both follow the laws and be profitable, or not.

China opportunities for foreign business, what do you think? Better now than ever? Worse?  The same?  Mixed, depending on the industry?  And what are the best opportunities anyway?

BBC News just came out with a story entitled, How to win in China: Top brands share tips for success.  The article starts out ranking the most successful foreign brands in China, as based on a  massive Millward Brown survey on how “meaningful,” “different” or “salient” foreign brands were “and how easily they came into consumers’ minds.”  “Thirteen of the top 20 brands are from the US, two from Germany, two from France, one from Italy and one from the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever. South Korea’s Samsung is the only Asian brand on the list.”  No surprise, KFC comes out on top.

More interesting for me, however, was that eleven of the top twenty foreign brands in China (Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nike, L’Oreal, Apple, Samsung, Adidas, Armani, Omo/Unilever, VW and KFC) gave the lowdown on what it takes for building your brand in China.

The article starts out by noting the following fairly obvious facts about Chinese consumers:

  • “Chinese consumers once valued low prices above any other factor when making choices. But a mix of higher living standards and falling trust in local brands means people are looking to international brands more.”
  • Foreign brands are getting a boost from China’s growing middle class.
  • There are big opportunities in China “for international brands to make their move as consumers start to value quality and experience as much as price.”

It then looks at what it is going to take for foreign companies doing business in China to get their brand out, and again the points are fairly obvious, but helpful nonetheless:

1.  Get in early.  The article notes all of the top twenty brands have been in China since at least 2000.  In other words, it takes time to build your brand and the sooner you start doing so, the better.  There are definitely advantages to beating your competitors to the hearts and minds of the Chinese consumer.  The Chinese market is changing quickly and many of the companies are learning to keep up.

2.  Change as the China market changes.  The China consumer market is not static and you need to move with it, not against it. “Everyone is learning about how they need to work with changing social attitudes and continuous aspirational trade-ups, even the Chinese themselves, ” according to McDonalds.

3.  The China market is not the same as your home market.  “Never assume what works for your mature markets will work for China. Success comes for those who stay relevant to the needs of the Chinese consumer.”

4.  Know your market.  The article notes how Unilever went into China with its Omo detergent after having gained “a fully researched understanding of the behaviors of consumers.”  and how “Nike is developing products around Chinese habits and sports.”  Interestingly, it also discusses how when Georgio Armani first went into China, he painted the door of his Beijing store red “as he thought it would appeal more to his customers. Now Armani says he doesn’t really change his offering in China from other markets as the customers want the Western style he sells internationally.”  This is really one of the toughest issues a company can face.  Does it tout that it is foreign and stand by that without changes, or does it bend to the local market and provide China with a different product than elsewhere?  For more on this glocalization issue, check out the following:

5.  Go big or go home.  The article does not quite say this, but it implies that once you start doing business in China, you should not hesitate to build out your operations so as to extend your brand.  It sets out some “staggering” numbers regarding some of the leading brands, including the following:
  • KFC has 4,400 restaurants in 850 cities and will add another 700 this year
  • McDonald’s plans to open ten restaurants a week and will by 2015 have invested another $4bn expanding in China.
  • Apple is doubling the number of stores in China in the next two years.
  • China is Volkswagen’s biggest market with a third of its global business, and it has seven new production plants in the pipeline.
6.  There’s money to be made outside Shanghai and Beijing.  “Many of the brands … stressed the importance of looking beyond the coastal cities of Shanghai and Beijing to the staggering growth and new consumers in cities across the country.” Half of the 800 stores Adidas opened in China last year were so-called “lower-tier” cities.
7.  There is no “one China.”  China is large and varied and what works in Shanghai may not work in Qingdao.  The article notes how “Samsung and L’Oreal tailor their approach in China to different regions. Adidas “has found very different attitudes in the North and the South of the country but says even in inland cities, consumers are increasingly looking to buy aspirational foreign brands.”
8.  Have good boots on the ground.  “Running a business in China is difficult to do from outside the country, and many of these multinationals tell us that their success is built on finding the best Chinese talent and joint venture partners” and “hiring and then training the best local talent will help” you better understand your Chinese customers.
What do you think?  Anything else?