Concept of the Week: SinoSkeptic

SinoSkeptic (or Sino-skeptic), noun. A person who harbors honest concerns – based on China’s stated policy goals and behavior – about whether China is willing or able to be a positive participant in a global community of nations, (as framed by the system of international institutions that has evolved in the wake of World War II,) or whether its very participation is by accident or design inimical to the intent of those institutions. Different from a “China-basher” or “Panda-puncher,” a person who paints China as an implacable foe based at least in part on that person’s ulterior motives. 

Concept of the Week: Conglomeration Mystique

Conglomeration Mystique – concept – a business ethos with two components.

First, the conviction on the part of a successful entrepreneur or company that a) because it is successful in one field it can be successful in any field to which it applies its brand or capital, and b) that to be a truly great company a firm must be in a diverse range of businesses rather than focus on a single field, all regardless of actual market conditions. Entrepreneurs with this ethos frequently cite examples like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Steve Jobs as proof of the concept.

The second component is the compulsion, usually the result of the above, to build a conglomerate business, either via acquisition or startups, and usually accompanied by rapid geographic expansion.

Related condition: gigantism

If you believe the writings of Tom Peters – whose thinking informed a lot of my early business career – the conglomerate is a really dumb idea. Peters was not necessarily wrong. During the economic boom following World War II, Corporate America decided that the best, easiest path to growth was acquiring profitable companies with stock, excess cash, and cheap debt.

The decade 1973-1983 threw a sequence of challenges at US businesses that exposed the weaknesses of these companies. The end of cheap energy, the conclusion of the Vietnam War, the end of the Gold Standard, the rise of Japanese and German companies, the emergence of corporate raiders, and the growing disruption of technology all landed on US companies in rapid succession. The conglomerates were the largest and most unwieldy of America’s corporate dinosaurs, and they crumbled: Fansteel, ITT, LTV, Olin, Teledyne, Esmark, Litton, Continental Group, and Sperry were all conglomerates in the Fortune 100 in 1970, and are today either gone or are leftovers of their former selves.

The verdict – and now the accepted wisdom, at least outside of China – is that specialization and focus pay. While a degree of strategic diversification might be good, lumping radically disparate businesses together under a single roof creates more management problems than it solves.

Donning my historian’s hat, I think the verdict is more qualified. During times of rapid economic growth and boom, using cash-cow businesses to fund expansion and acquisition into other promising markets is a viable strategy. And there are exceptions.  GE has used a long sequence of acquisitions and spinoffs to keep it a going concern, swinging from industry-to-industry like Tarzan swinging on vines through a jungle. And call it what you will, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire-Hathaway is aught more than a very well managed conglomerate, drawing free cash-flow from insurance operations to fund its growth elsewhere.

So conglomerates can work under some very specific circumstances. Where Peters’ research still stands, though, is that corporate conglomeration is not a viable default strategy, especially when it is used as a substitute for an imaginative strategy.

When any company in China – whether a large state-owned enterprise or an entrepreneurial operation like LeEco – appears to be turning itself into a diversified holding company, the burden of proof rests on the company to demonstrate that there is some really smart thinking behind the activity, and that it is not simply hiding strategic failure.

 

Concept of the Week: Leftover Students

Leftover students – concept – that group of high school graduates in China who aspire to higher education – and who appear to have the ability to complete a degree – but who are denied that education and the attendant social mobility by China’s limited university seats and the caprice of the gaokao.

Leta Hong Fincher has done an incredible job framing and documenting the phenomenon of “leftover women” in China, explaining the roots of the phenomenon and the challenges facing women who have, for all the best of reasons, passed what serves as a marriageable age, or who have careers that make finding a suitable spouse all but impossible. If you have not picked up her book, by all means do so. As you would expect, the work does more than simply describe a unique demographic: it also offers an insight into an underlying dynamic of China’s winner-take-all culture: the leftovers.

Indeed, riffing on Leta’s research, it is not hard to discern that unmarried women of a certain age are not the only leftovers in China. Last week saw this year’s administration of the gaokao, China’s national university entrance examination. Nine million students sat for the three-day exam this year, but there are seats in China’s universities for no more than three million. While some of those who fail to gain entrance in university will try again next year, we can count on over five million young people facing a future without a university education.

These “leftover students” are a challenge for China’s leaders and an opportunity for international educators. For the Communist Party, it is no small thing to say to six million families a year that the promise of a better life for their children through education is out of reach: every four years that tallies a population equal to the membership of the Party that has often invested its hopes and treasure into the promise of education, only to have it tossed back to them.

For tertiary educators around the world, many of whom are suffering from secular population and economic trends that are pushing enrollments downwards, leftover students represent an massive pool of potential enrollees, many from prosperous families, that could save and sustain many of the world’s less popular colleges and universities, and that could potentially fuel the creation of the world’s largest market for continuing education.

Concept of the Week: Urbanizing In Place

Urbanizing in placeconcept – the idea that China’s urbanization is not being driven entirely by migration from the countryside to the cities, but that large areas that Beijing’s statisticians might once have considered “rural” are now considered “urban.”

In-place urbanization could occur in one of three scenarios.

The physical area of a municipality has been expanded to include what was once surrounding countryside.

In the second scenario, a village that was once considered part of the countryside has now grown into a town that a demographer or statistician would now classify as urban.

In the third scenario, a group of villages in a given area are considered to be conglomerated as a single administrative entity and reclassified as a single town.

In these cases, China’s urbanization is taking place without migration, and presents a different set of policy, marketing, and personal challenges and opportunities than classical migration-based urbanization.

Concept of the Week: The China Entrepreneur Reality Distortion Field

China Entrepreneur Reality Distortion Fieldnoun – the special power granted to successful Chinese entrepreneurs that allows them to take advantage of selective disclosure, a lack of third-party oversight, a global fascination with the rise of China, and a modest cult of personality to establish an exaggerated perception of their company’s value. See LeTV, Xiaomi, etc.

Concept of the Week: WaterTech

WaterTechnoun – the discipline combining elements of of biology, agronomy, engineering, environmental science, and electronics to find ways to make more efficient and effective use of limited water resources.

In an upcoming post in The Golden West Review, I suggest that the California drought is really a great big hint from the universe at one of the greatest business opportunities facing both China and the United States. The companies and countries that are able to develop the products, technologies, skills, techniques and services that significantly reduce per-capita water usage will be the winners in the 21st century.

As the steam slowly leaks from the microelectronics and telecommunications revolutions that created Silicon Valley, we need to start looking for the next revolution. WaterTech will no doubt be a major part of that, and Sand Hill Road would be stupid to leave the opportunities to foundations and foreign firms.