On March 15th, 2018, Gao Feng Advisory Company’s CEO Edward Tse was invited by Asia Society Switzerland to discuss China’s innovations in business. We would like to express our gratitude to Mr. Ernst Bärtschi, chairman of the Board of Directors of Conzzeta AG, for initializing the concept of this event and for orchestrating its organization. We would also like to thank the event’s host, Ms. Eunice Zehnder-Lai, member of the Board of Directors, Asia Society Switzerland, for leading the conversation.
Ms. Eunice Zehnder-Lai (EZL): Thank you, Mr. Bärtschi. Innovation is a very timely topic for all of us. Technology seems to be influencing all parts of our lives. China, as a topic, is also very relevant. Having said that, innovation in China may not come as the most intuitive topic. To many, the image of China is that of a socialist, planned economy and as a copycat nation. Not long ago, a lot of people were afraid of forming joint ventures with China, that they will steal your intellectual property, that they’re very good at making imitation and fake products, selling them at a fraction of the price and ruining your market. Suddenly, China has become a global leader in innovation. They’re one of the leaders in cashless payments, in drones, in many areas of e-commerce, and in facial recognition. How did that happen so quickly? If you count the number of unicorns in China, it is catching up with the US very quickly. If we look into history, at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping took over and inherited a big mess. His job was to turn the country around and he made certain decisions that really set the backdrop for this mass entrepreneurialism and grassroots innovation. Could you give us a little bit of color on the backdrop?
Edward Tse (ET): First of all, thank you. Thanks to Asia Society Switzerland for the invitation and to Mr. Bärtschi for your arrangement which is really wonderful, and Eunice for your being our host this afternoon.
I’m very privileged and I hope I can share with you some of my views and experiences. Having worked in China for over 25 years by now at some of the top and biggest consulting firms, first with the Boston Consulting Group, and later with Booz Allen Hamilton (later known as Booz & Company), I was fortunate to have helped a large number of companies, foreign and Chinese – including SOEs and private sector companies — over the years to help them develop their business and strategies.
Developing the right kind of strategy for China needs consideration of the China context. Without that consideration, the strategy would mostly fail. You cannot just copy and paste the strategy approaches that you take in Europe or in America or wherever and expect that to work in China. Sometimes it works but most often, it doesn’t because the context is very different.
Eunice, your question is very good. Many people are surprised by the speed and intensity of the changes in China. However, all of these happened for a reason.
The biggest near-term game-changer in Chinese history is the Cultural Revolution which left the Chinese disillusioned. When that was over, Deng Xiaoping returned to power. He decided to be pragmatic and tried something different: allowing entrepreneurship to come back to China.
Back at that time, the Chinese people were clueless about business because they had no exposure to the notion of business under a planned economy. However, we Chinese were innately very entrepreneurial in history. For centuries, the Chinese were trading with the Europeans, Indians and Arabs over the Silk Road. And we traded with our neighbors. It was just totally and artificially stopped by that aberration in the first 30 years of the PRC. However, after Deng lifted the ceiling, entrepreneurship started growing fast.
EZL: When we think about Chinese companies’ entrepreneurship, there are three companies that always come to mind: the “BAT” – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. And every time we see them, they seem to be going into a new business. And they seem to be growing horizontally in their ecosystems. Whereas in the West, the managers are taught to focus, to find out what your strengths are and what your core competency is. Do not deviate from what you’re good at, because the market will penalize you for it. It doesn’t seem to be the same in China. Why is that?
ET: You’re right. It is about management science. When I first joined consulting 30 years ago, I was in the US and was taught there were only two ways to think about business strategy. One is to form conglomerates, meaning collections of different kinds of businesses but on a random basis. The other way is to focus based on a company’s core competencies, i.e., what you are good at.
In fact, since around the 80’s, conglomeration was not considered as a good thing by the western capital market. The notion of “focusing on what you are good at” as an outgrowth of the “core competence” concept became the mainstream strategy thinking in the West till even now.
The rise of China and the prevalence of technology, in particular the creation of smart devices, have provided the context for the rapid emergence of companies like BAT. The Chinese really embrace the Internet, particularly wireless internet and its associated features like social media.
In China, while there are some companies that are conglomerates and there are some that are core competence focused, the fastest-growing companies grow by “multiple-jumping”: jump when they see new opportunities, even though they may not have all the capabilities needed to operate in the new opportunities space. They will make up for the capability gaps along the way either by themselves or through collaborations with other companies, or both. These companies may focus on their existing core competencies at first, but when they see the opportunities showing up in what we call the S-curve manner, they will try to catch these new opportunities even if they don’t have all the capabilities needed to run the new business. Managers in Western multinational companies don’t necessarily see these new upcoming opportunities in China. Even if their local managers tell them there are opportunities, most of them will revert back to a core competence focus, thinking, “if I try to stretch, I will be accused of being not focused.”
On the opposite, the Chinese entrepreneurs are highly driven to grab these new opportunities. If they lack the capabilities to do so, they would collaborate with partners thereby building ecosystems. Companies like BAT have developed into not just one but multiple ecosystems, turning into mega ecosystems. Today Alibaba and Tencent are already in the world’s top five by market capitalization.
By the way, leading U.S. tech companies like Google and Amazon have also grown through “multiple jumping”.
EZL: In all these mobility companies, they don’t really see themselves as transportation companies. They see themselves as data gatherers. The value is really in the data they have from having twenty million rides a day.
ET: That’s exactly right. The Chinese entrepreneurs have discovered this without knowing it actually. With the command of large user databases, they feel they can crisscross over industry boundaries. They can go into industries that they were not in before. So they can do multiple jumping.
Meituan-Dianping, the popular food delivery app, has 400 million active users in China and offers fast and convenient service. With that database, they look at mobility services as a good business to enter into. The leading mobility services company in China is a company called Didi Chuxing. Didi competed with Uber for a while until Uber pulled out from China. Didi didn’t look at the auto OEMs as competitors because they lived in different spaces – mobility solution and car manufacturing respectively. But this is not the case with Meituan-Dianping, who as a food delivery provider, has a large active user database. When Meituan announced that they would go into mobility service solutions, Didi was concerned that real competition and a real war would start. This is how competition is being defined in China’s digital space.
EZL: What other advantages do the Chinese have if you look at the very successful companies in China that are truly innovative? Do you see a common thread that goes through all of them? What are the typical characteristics of these companies compared to what you see in the West?
ET: It all started with the mindset and the leadership. In the West, companies tend to focus based on their core competencies. That is the response to a general slowdown of the economy in the 80’s and the early 90’s after the “go go years” of the conglomerates in the previous decades. So the academics and the consulting firms came up with a theory to try to explain that, which became the mainstream thinking in the West and it still is nowadays.
The Chinese came from a very different context. In the 80’s, coming out of the Cultural Revolution, they were experimenting with businesses, but had little clue because the notion of “business” didn’t even exist in China’s planned economy. Thereafter China has grown in a very different era and much faster. When opportunities came with the prevalence of technology, Chinese entrepreneurs began to develop a new and different mindset. This mindset is epitomized by the willingness to take risks and to capture new opportunities before the opportunities fully manifest themselves. Technology is a key enabler for developing new business models and new capabilities. Examples of this include not only BAT but also many others such as Ping An, Xiaomi, Geely, etc. Ping An, for example, has evolved from an insurance company into a major horizontal ecosystem. Peter Ma, its chairman, is now trying to benchmark the company against Google and Amazon.
EZL: What insight and learning would you have for our audience here? Not everybody here is involved in business in China. And even if they’re in business in China, it’s not a hundred percent in China. One could say, “Okay, all these great things are happening in China. How is it going to affect me?” How should we think about the threats and challenges of these new business models in China to the West? That’s number one. Number two are these context questions that you said about why these entrepreneurs are so successful in China, having a fast-growing market, having government support, having a lot of data, having hungry people because of their pain points that we don’t have in Switzerland. It’s a good life here and there is little competition. So what can we learn from innovation in general that is transferable to Europe?
ET: Of course, to what extent China affects you depends on your individual conditions. Some of you may be doing business with China and so China has a lot of implications for you. Some are not doing anything with China but are looking. Some may have nothing to do with China. But the Chinese may knock on your door anytime and you should be prepared for it.
China is on the verge of a new generational rise that will last for some prolonged period. Entrepreneurship and innovation are an important underpinning for that. Entrepreneurship cuts across many parts of China, and young people are going after their own dreams and pursuits. They aspire to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates or Jack Ma. Though only a very small percentage will succeed, a small percentage of a big number is still a big number.
Some of these young people realize that if they can be successful in China, they have a good chance of being successful in other parts of the world. I cannot predict exactly who they may be, but I know the mentality: the first step is to become number one in China; the second step is to go out to the world. The world is becoming more and more connected through technology, and globalization will prevail more than isolation.
EZL: Thank you very much.
About the host and guest
Ms. Eunice Zehnder-Lai is CEO of IPM (Institut für Persönlichkeitsorientiertes Management). Previously, she was in the financial services industry for 20 years with LGT Capital Partners, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch in New York, London, Hong Kong and Switzerland. She also worked for Procter & Gamble in marketing and brand management as well as for Booz & Co. in strategy consulting. Eunice is also a member of the Board of Directors of DKSH (since March 2018), Geberit Group (since 2017) and Asia Society Switzerland (since 2016). She holds a Masters of Business Administration from Harvard Business School and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University.
Dr. Edward Tse is founder and CEO of Gao Feng Advisory Company. A pioneer in China’s management consulting industry, Dr. Tse built and ran the Greater China operations of two leading international management consulting firms for a period of 20 years. He has consulted to hundreds of companies – both headquartered in and outside of China – on all critical aspects of business in China and China for the world. He also consulted to the Chinese government on strategies, state-owned enterprise reform and Chinese companies going overseas. He is the author of over 200 articles and four books including both award-winning The China Strategy (2010) and China’s Disruptors (2015) (Chinese version «创业家精神»).
About Asia Society Switzerland
Asia Society Switzerland is an independent Swiss foundation, which is a member of the global Asia Society family. Founded in 1956 in New York, Asia Society has developed into a thought leader on Asian issues, and a vibrant community of decision makers around the world.
As the first Center in Europe, Asia Society Switzerland – founded in 2016 – provides a unique opportunity to become part of this global community, and to contribute to a meaningful dialogue that could shape our future. Asia Society Switzerland is committed to exploring Asia’s role in a multilateral world and to advancing the dialogue and strengthening partnerships among individuals and institutions in Switzerland and Asia.
About Gao Feng
Gao Feng Advisory Company (www.gaofengadv.com) is a pre-eminent strategy and management consulting firm with roots in China coupled with global vision, capabilities, and a broad resources network. We help our clients address and solve their toughest business and management issues — issues that arise in the current fast-changing, complicated and ambiguous operating environment. We commit to putting our clients’ interest first and foremost. We are objective and we view our client engagements as long-term relationships rather than one-off projects. We not only help our clients “formulate” the solutions but also assist in implementation, often hand-in-hand. We believe in teaming and working together to add value and contribute to problem solving for our clients, from the most junior to the most senior.
Our senior team is made up of seasoned consultants previously at leading management consulting firms and/or ex-top executives at large corporations. We believe this combination of management theory and operational experience would deliver the most benefit to our clients.
Our name Gao Feng is taken from the Song Dynasty Chinese proverb Gao Feng Liang Jie. Gao Feng denotes noble character while Liang Jie refers to a sharp sense of integrity. We believe that this principle lies at the core of management consulting – a truly trustworthy partner who will help clients tackle their toughest issues.