Uber and Crystal Balls

No Uber, lah.

Back in June, Salon published a listicle detailing “5 Major Threats to Further Hasten Uber’s Decline.” Listing the sexual harassment lawsuits, the mishandling of a driver rape case, improper driver classification, the Waymo issue, and Greyball, it was better clickbait than it was journalism, doing little more than offering a summary of recent headlines. Thanks for the update, Salon.

While each of these represents a serious crisis, and while the company is being tested in its ability to deal with one, much less all of them, arguably each of these are, separately and collectively, crises that the company can survive.

Rather more ominous is the insight offered by RadioFreeMobile on the accelerating erosion of Uber’s global markets. “First Uber lost China, then Russia, and now it looks as if South East Asia may go the same way.”

He then goes on to detail the strategic investments made by Softbank and Didi into Grab, the dominant ride-hailing platform in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines, with a 97% share in those markets. A dominant market leader fortified with loads of cash means that Uber is essentially locked out of markets with over 560 million people, in addition to the 1.5 billion Chinese and 300 million Russians who will not be using an Uber service soon.

The big question now is where India and Brazil will go.

Uber is on its back foot in international markets. You can argue, as does RadioFreeMobile, that the distractions listed by Salon are not helping, and you’d be right. But those issues are not the cause of Uber’s missteps outside the US: the strategic flaws that have undermined Uber’s global expansion predate Salon’s list and are rooted in the nature of the company.

As I said recently on Twitter, when historians ultimately close the book on Uber, they will agree that the fall began with Uber’s failure in China. Not that Uber’s China missteps will be seen as the cause of the company’s demise, mind you, but as the first clear indication that its strategic miscalculations and flawed leadership left the rest of the world beyond Uber’s reach.

A Reset Across the Straits

Map of the Taiwan Strait
Map of the Taiwan Strait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following up on my post last week about it being time for a US reset on China, it appears that the time has come for Beijing reset on Taiwan.

Without challenging the maxim that Taiwan and the mainland provinces all remain an inseparable part of China, and leaving aside the issue of of independence, let us step back and look at the situation without the filters of nationalist emotion.

Instead, let us assume that at some point, Taiwan will decide that its prospects would be brightest as a part of a single political entity with the mainland. It may seem hard to imagine, but given the great changes taking place in the world, it is certainly not outside of the realm of possibility.

If that is in fact Beijing’s desired end game, the leaders of the CCP need to ask themselves a practical question: given the choice, how would they like re-unification to unfold?

Does the Party‘s leadership want Taiwan to come crawling back, craven and broken, into the embrace of the Motherland? Does the Party want Taiwan resentful and permanently troublesome because of a loss of face in slinking back?

Or do Beijing’s leaders prefer that Taiwan should return proudly, willingly, and with face and good feelings, so that “reunification” does not simply paper over deep, abiding wounds that will fester )and eventually erupt?)

It would seem that a willing return would be the preferred endgame. And if it is, Xi Jinping has an historic opportunity over the next five years of his term in office to reset the tone and direction of cross-straits relations. Given the variety of powder-kegs that surround and suffuse China, this might well be a good time to place China on track for a win-win.

Time for a Sino-US Reset

English: President and Mrs. Ford, Vice Premier...
English: President and Mrs. Ford, Vice Premier Deng Xiao Ping, and Deng’s interpreter have a cordial chat during an informal meeting in Beijing, China. ID #A7598-20A. Français : Gerald Ford, sa femme, Deng Xiaoping et une traductrice lors d’une réunion à Pékin en Chine (1975). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Watching the Sino-US relationship evolve, and then not evolve, since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I have to confess some disappointment. Let me qualify what follows by noting that I am not a fan of POTUS 45. I not only crossed party lines to vote against him, I left the GOP outright and joined a tiny third party when he was selected as the Republican nominee.

So all of that said, we have reached a point in the relationship between the US and China such that a reset is in order. It has been 44 years since Nixon went to China, and nearly 40 years since Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping recalibrated the US-China relationship.

That relationship was formed when the United States was entering the fourth decade of its Cold War with the Soviet Union and the Sino-US tie-up promised to subtly but importantly shift the balance of power in favor of the West. It was formed when China was crawling out the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution, and out from under the long shadow of Mao Zedong.

That relationship was framed between a large and slightly desperate third-world country that constituted absolutely zero threat the world order and a developed nation that boasted the most prosperous economy in history, the most powerful military on Earth, and leadership of an international system that it had forged with its allies a mere three decades before.

Four decades hence, China has changed, the United States has changed, and the world has changed. Yet we have been conducting this bi-lateral relationship on terms that are increasingly irrelevant and unrealistic. Let me put that another way: the US continues to conduct its side of the relationship on that basis. China has made clear to us for a long time – without ever actually saying it – that it will conduct its relationship with us on terms dictated at least as much by immediate expediency as decades-old agreements.

So it is time for a strategic reset in our relationship that accurately reflects what China is and wishes to become, who we are and what we wish to become, and the fluid state of the global order.

The call that Trump placed to President Tsai of Taiwan, representing as it did a break from diplomatic tradition if not international accords, once appeared to be Trump’s opening gambit in his version of that reset in the Sino-US relationship, and a possible change in the rules that govern that relationship.

That no longer seems the case, and one can hope that the change in tone from the White House reflects a practical desire to compel a resolution to the North Korea question rather than acquiescence to a Chinese view of international affairs. Putting off a reset in Sino-US relations for too long will only make the necessary changes all the more disruptive.

Happy July 4th!

Mi Home

IMG_0240

Back in the Hutong
Thinking Geek
1427 hrs.

Visiting Xiaomi’s Mi Home store near company headquarters in Beijing.

At first glance, the store’s appearance bears a passing resemblance to the retail outlets of a famous Cupertino fruit company. As with many Xiaomi’s products, though, what is surprising and delightful about the Mi Home store lies beneath the surface.

If I can sum up the difference simply, it is this: Apple stores are a celebration of the devices. Mi Home stores are an on-ramp into a what can best be seen as a modern lifestyle enhanced and simplified at a hundred points by digital devices.

Apple talks about the digital home, but it is mostly smoke and mirrors. Xiaomi is actually delivering in a relevant and affordable way, and the Mi Home stores make that plain.

A growth-focused Apple would be advised to take notes – for their product development teams, not their lawyers.

When Lux and Tech Collide

However, the cost of providing customers with devices and gadgets to gain access to new tech and maintaining them is not a small expenditure for most luxury fashion businesses. What’s more, when a customer is enthusiastic about testing a hi-tech headset in a store, it does not necessarily guarantee that he or she has the desire to purchase a $1,500 handbag.

Source: Village: How to Combine Tech and Luxury Fashion in China the Smart Way | Jing Daily

I confess that when I began my career thirty-odd years ago, I saw the luxury fashion industry as an easy target for ridicule: alien rituals and strange affectations aside, I found it hard to give credence to a group so focused on the capricious whims of the planet’s most pampered posteriors. That perception was both short-sighted and immature.

The opportunity I had to watch China’s luxury market sprout and blossom has given me a different perspective. Luxury consumers are an informal yet exacting standards body. I have found that the more that we can conduct any consumer-oriented business or marketing activity in accordance with the standards of this rarified niche, the better we can serve all consumers.

That’s why I was fascinated by this London panel talking about the use of technology (specifically augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)) to sell more luxury fashion.

One truism I’ve never forgotten about luxury customers: they all want the most fulfilling possible experience delivered with the least possible friction. The gratuitous application of kludgy technology (and, let’s face it, while AR and VR are getting better, neither are ready to fulfill their promise) seems to be a guaranteed way to chase luxury buyers out of your store.

Which leads to a second truism: The well-to-do are not early adopters. They’re the demanding knife-edge of the mainstream user, the guardians of the far side of the chasm twixt “niche product” and “widespread adoption” into which so many promising inventions fall.

If you can tweak a technology or product to the point wherein you can match the exacting standards of the luxury consumer, the big-time awaits. Smartphones went mainstream when the iPhone passed the lux test; satellite radio went wide after Damlier, Toyota, Nissan and BMW were able to make them accessible to finicky upscale buyers; and electronic cars went mainstream when Tesla introduced its luxury roadster and Toyota made the Prius hip with the well-to-do.

China is no exception to this rule. The Chinese luxury consumer often shares as much of her psychographic profile with her counterparts in Europe and North America as she does with her home-girls in Shanghai or Bengbu. Until you can offer her a great experience with the minimum of friction, forget about being first-to-market: go back to the lab.

Flavor Fail

It's the picture of Italian ice-cream in a sho...
It’s the picture of Italian ice-cream in a shop of Rome, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lobby of my hotel in Beijing had a happy hour ice cream special: a scoop of Movenpick ice cream for RMB 25 ($4). Intrigued, my family ordered a few scoops.

I ordered Cappucino, and watched the server mark from the bin clearly marked as such. It was with great surprise, then that when I put the first dainty taste of ice cream into my mouth I tasted not the expected creamy espresso, but the cloying super-sweetness of butterscotch.

The staff could not figure out the problem, but to someone who has managed companies in China, the issue seems as clear as day: somebody got it mixed up in the kitchen, and figured “hey, what the hell, who is going to notice?”

Ending “Marketing gratia Marketing”

Aggressive marketing campaigns are common, thi...
Aggressive marketing campaigns are common, this one features Coco Lee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Source: From Mini Apps to KOLs: 6 Effective Luxury Marketing Campaigns on WeChat | Jing Daily

Jing Daily, the leading publication covering the business of luxury in China, does regular features spotlighting social media campaigns using WeChat to engage luxury buyers.

One recent example:

4. WeChat x Online to Offline (O2O): Chanel

From April 12 to 24, French luxury powerhouse Chanel opened Coco Café, a pop-up café-themed beauty store, in Shanghai. Visitors to the store could order a cup of coffee and some snacks provided by the brand while browsing beauty products and enjoying customized make-up services. Coco Café has been a huge hit, attracting thousands of visits to the site every day. Chinese social media was filled with photos taken by consumers in the store, who seemed undeterred by the long line snaking around the block. VIP customers could avoid the long lines by reserving a spot on Chanel’s official WeChat account ahead of time.

The campaigns are clever, and the coverage is thought-provoking. What is unclear, and what the article never probes, is whether any of these campaigns do anything to increase market share, drive more sales, increase brand awareness, or drive business goals. And that highlights a larger problem.

There is nothing wrong with using technology to deliver clever campaigns in marketing. But when the technology is being used on tactics and campaigns with vague objectives like “increase engagement with the brand,” “deepen affinity,” or “increase visibility,” something is broken. Each of these phrases is euphemistic shorthand for “conduct activity in order to be seen conducting an activity.” In short, marketing for its own sake. Or worse, marketing for the sake of marketers.

The true promise of technology in marketing is the ability to reduce the size of a target market down to the single individual. I call this “sniper marketing,” the ability to market to each targeted individual personally, using the right pitch, the right channel, at the right time, and in the right place, and do so in a way that makes the entire experience fun and meaningful.

What so much of marketing – even good marketing – remains, especially in China, is spray-and-pray: get in front of a whole lot of people in the hopes that, somewhere in that mass, is a subset of people who want to buy your product. All of the people reached who are not in that subset represent money wasted by the company, time wasted by the consumer inconvenienced with superfluous messages, and credibility wasted by marketers for touting campaigns that deliver anemic returns on the time and money invested.

We should applaud the creativity behind the campaigns on Jing Daily. But we should withhold our cheers, recognizing that these efforts were but a temporary stage in our efforts to do much better. Because companies are not going to put up with this type of activity for much longer.

It is time we evolve past this interim phase in marketing technology set about using the tools we have been given to downscale marketing so that we can conduct a million individually-targeted campaigns for the same money (or less) than it would cost us to conduct a mass campaign aimed at a million people. The result will be orders of magnitude greater effectiveness, measured in the only currency that matters: additional sales and deeper customer loyalty.

Anything less, and we are betraying the trust given us, and marketing will follow farriers and feather merchants into premature obsolescence.

 

Concept of the Week: Bio-luddite

Bio-luddite (n.) a person opposed to the introduction of new biological technologies, usually without regard to the scientific evidence regarding their safety.

Bio-luddism is nothing particularly new, but it is becoming more important as the rate of spread of biological innovations increases, as the rate of innovation increases, and as this becomes a matter of concern not just for a small number of markets, but for the globe.

China, which was one of the major beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, understands the value of genetic modification. What it has yet to do with any kind of credibility, though, is make a public case for the safety of genetically modified organisms separate from hand-wringing about the abuses of a small number of very large ag-tech companies. If the failure continues, bio-luddism in policy-making circles may eventually serve to slow or throttle competitiveness China’s biotech industry.

The Greenpeace China Coal Fail

Coming out of a long winter and into the pre-summer months (I daren’t call it “Spring,”), the season offers constant reminders to those of us living on the North China Plain* that China is far from solving its most serious air pollution problems. There are those, however, who live far outside of the Ring Roads who believe that things are a lot better and continue to improve.

Last year, ThinkProgress published an article under the breathless title “It Only Took Four Months for China to Achieve a Jaw-dropping Reduction in Carbon Emissions.” The article detailed a recent study by Greenpeace which noted that China reduced its coal use by 8% in the first four months of 2015 over 2014, resulting in a 5% drop in CO2 emissions. A Greenpeace analyst suggested that this shows that industrial output and thermal generation are decreasing, while use of renewables like hydro, wind, and solar are growing.

There are prima facie reasons to question Greenpeace’s excitement.

  1. Any reduction in coal use comes off of a very high base. China burned over 4.2 billion metric tons of coal last year, enough for two tons of coal for every living man, woman, and child in China, PLUS enough for three tons each for every man, woman, and child in the United States. While any reduction in the overall number is a good thing, China has a very long way to go.

  2. Greenpeace is using government data to support its narrative. Leave aside any general reservations about the Chinese government as a source of data: in this case alone, the government has an abiding interest in telling its people a positive story, and thus in massaging or falsifying the data. Greenpeace’s defense of the government statistics – that that the government gains nothing by revealing a drop in industrial output – is at worst inadequate and at best debatable, especially as the other side of those figures is the shift to the service sector. Further, I’d argue that the government is actually under quite heavy pressure to be seen to be doing something about pollution, and that it has much to gain by gaming the figures on coal use. When the source of your data has both motive and opportunity to play fast and loose with the truth, it behooves one to seek less intrinsically biased sources. †

  3. Similarly, there is no transparency as to methodology in collecting and analyzing these statistics, so we have no way of knowing if this came from a change in the way use is measured. Changing the way the game is scored is not an uncommon hammer in the Chinese statistics toolkit.

  4. There is no way to confirm or gainsay these statistics because there is no credible, disinterested third party with access to the information on which these statistics are based, or that can provide data from other sources against which to balance the conclusions.

  5. Even if we take these statistics as correct, there is little clarity as to what forces are driving the decline in coal use, so we are uncertain what caused them, and whether that cause is a one-off occurrence, a short-term phenomenon, or the harbinger of a genuine trend. If we do not look at wide range of factors, we cannot tell whether this was caused by uncommonly warm weather, a fall in the price of other energy sources, or a temporary decline in the economy caused by the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a services-based one.

If this is not sufficiently convincing that China’s coal use statistics may be unreliable, at about the same time the Greenpeace report, New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley published a damning report of revised Chinese government figures that raised estimates of Chinese coal use every year since 2000 by as much as 17%. The culprit: “gaps in data collection, especially from small companies and factories.”

Greenpeace did not have to rely on government data. Researchers who dug deeper into the economy to come up with estimates, like Akaya Jones at the United States Energy Information Administration in Washington, came up with estimates that were apparently much more reliable than the government’s original figures, and far more so than Greenpeace’s.

We often criticize the Chinese government for getting statistics wrong. Playing fast and loose with critical measurements is wrong, but we expect no less from a political system for whom the truth is whatever serves the nation’s rulers. Greenpeace, however, does not get a pas.

Perhaps the organization just wanted to turn out a report on China, was pressed for time, and threw this together. I can only hope this is the case, because there is another, less flattering explanation: that Greenpeace did this in order to curry favor with the Chinese government, to show that it could go along to get along. If this is the case, it would not only be inexcusable, it would also represent a betrayal of the organizations mission, a betrayal of its stakeholders, and an abdication from its role as an environmental watchdog.


 

*- Or even those of us who USED to live there, return frequently, and have family there.

† Greenpeace itself has no lack of detractors who question the organization’s data on other issues. Whether those criticisms are valid or not is moot: by using a questionable source of data in a high-profile research paper without even flagging the potential problems, Greenpeace opens its methodologies and conclusions on a range of issues to re-examination.

 

Huawei’s PR Struggles

And so within the space of half an hour the Financial Review was shown the new and old face of corporate China.There’s paranoid Huawei that will not answer questions and refuses to explain itself in any detail to its stake holders around the world. Then there’s the likes of Green Valley, which represent a new, more open face to corporate China.

Source: Huawei’s epic PR fail | afr.com

This is an oldy but a goody, and I do not mean to pick on poor old Huawei: the organization is led by people for whom transparency and engagement are just not a part of the plan. This is not an especially Chinese failing: I have watched American, European, and Japanese companies build public relations organizations that were little more than beautiful stone walls.

I agree with reporter Angus Grigg completely: let us hope we see more openness from Chinese companies, rather than less.

What concerns me, though, is that for every wise, open, and transparent company that I encounter, I still come across a dozen more who believe that that the “new” face of corporate China is not private, independent, or entrepreneurial, but government-owned, government-subsidized, and expert at blowing smoke up the hindquarters of foreign journalists.

And of course, that’s not new: that’s a giant leap backwards in China’s evolution into a nimble, innovative, and commercial economy.

Which is why I talk so  much about public relations in China here. The degree to which a nation, and organization, or a company is prepared to institutionalize an ongoing, open, and wide-ranging conversation with its stakeholders has great predictive value about its success, and the degree to which we should feel comfortable dealing with it.

Did Apple and Uber make the right call on Didi?

Late last year I noted that life after Uber would not necessarily be a picnic for Chinese ride-sharing giant Didi. While an 85% market share looks unassailable, it will need a lot more money to secure its position.

I was prepping a post on why that is the case, but Dr. Richard Windsor at Radio Free Mobile beat me to it. Read the whole post. His bottom line:

Rising prices and lower reliability is likely to drive many users back into the arms of the taxi industry thereby achieving exactly the result for which the rules were created.

Windsor believes that the only logical response for Didi is a change in strategy, but finds it hard to see how any strategic choices open to Didi justify its $34 billion valuation. Fair enough.

Now, second-order effects time. Uber and Apple are Didi investors. As I mentioned in December:

Didi is a rapidly-growing company with a need for a huge war chest in order to secure its market position. Payback to investors will be some time down the line, and others will decide when and if Uber [or Apple] will ever see a dividend. Even if it does, the question will remain as to whether that dividend was a fair compensation for the price and a fair return to investors on the risk.

If you are an investor in either Uber or Apple, and you count the company’s holdings in Didi as a part of the firm’s underlying value or future earnings, have a look at Windsor’s post. You may want to re-run your numbers.

The rule for disruptive companies in China, regardless of provenance, is this: your future depends on more than just being able to make a handsome profit off of disruption. You have to convince a host of powerful individuals and groups that China is better off with the industry disrupted than with the status quo.

 

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. 

State of the Union: American Business and The China Challenge

In the wake of the inauguration of Donald Trump, I have been getting calls from clients, from past clients, and from perspective clients all asking what this is going to mean to them. I expected to get the calls from US and European companies. What surprised me – and probably should not have – was the number of calls coming from Chinese companies. On the surface, one is tempted to ascribe this preoccupation to Trump’s acerbic anti-trade rhetoric.

But concerns about China are nothing new to American elections. The role of China in business and the US economy has been on the national docket since Bill Clinton ran for his first term. What is more, the concerns coming from the people I was speaking to were both immediate and urgent. They weren’t worried about some abstract degree of market access in the coming years: they wanted to know what would happen to their plans over the next twelve months. All of this stands as circumstantial evidence that, more than at any other similar juncture in the past, Chinese companies appear poised to leap into the American sea, and right soon.

Challenged but Determined

Perhaps the most urgent challenge facing China’s enterprises today is learning how to reach successfully beyond the home market and build viable international, if not global, businesses. China’s more thoughtfully-led companies are figuring out that in order to “go out” they need to learn how to operate in environments where local government and consumers are at best indifferent, and at worst hostile. They are learning that they will need to figure out how to innovate consistently and meaningfully; and that creating, building, and defend their own brands against local and global competitors overseas (and especially in the US) is going to require a new thinking, a lot of money, and outside help.

Of course, understanding this intellectually and actually doing it are two different things,  and considerable cultural obstacles lie ahead of China, Inc. But leaders of US, European, and Japanese companies would be foolish to assume that China’s companies will all fail in that effort. Some, possibly many, will succeed. The challenge for which we should all be preparing, then, is how to compete with – and beat – China’s emerging global companies.†

We’re From the Government, and We’re Not Here to Help

For the moment, let’s leave aside the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration. Belligerent bombast aside, there is not much that the White House can do to halt the slow but inexorable globalization of Chinese brands. Raising barriers to protect domestic enterprises against a Chinese onslaught requires more than the election of a populist president with anti-trade chops. Without a broad national consensus against trade, Congress and economists remain too haunted by the ghost of the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930* to raise significant barriers to a global trading giant like China, and the number of US jobs that depend on exports to China is significant and continues to rise.

Even if legislators found the resolve to act, the speed of business and the nature of lawmaking limit the ability of legislation to respond to specific commercial threats. Ditto the creaking machinery of the World Trade Organization: even when a government can be persuaded to lodge a formal protest against China, such cases require years to work their way through the process and evoke an outcome.

And all of this ignores the expanding influence of Chinese investment in US and European business. High-profile investors like the Dalian Wanda Group and Anbang Securities are just the visible apex a vast and varied group of companies and cash-rich entrepreneurs setting down commercial roots in America. Except in matters of national security, legislating against such inflows would be political suicide, especially as Chinese investments reach ever deeper into the rusting industrial hinterlands of the developed west.

We Are On Our Own

In short, the Chinese competition is coming to America and Europe, and companies need to rely on themselves to address this new threat.

Doing so will mean approaching the China challenge with the same resolve and flexibility with which American enterprise addressed the Japanese challenge, but doing it sooner and with greater alacrity. Japan’s economic expansion in the 1970s and 1980s wrought unprecedented disruption to US business in no small part because most executives didn’t see it coming. They were too late to realize that the iron triangle of government, enterprise, and organized crime in Japan left many US industries facing an existential threat.

The US business community cannot afford to be as slow on the uptake with China. Forget wait-and-see: a nimble and aggressive Chinese company with a deep home market in China is an existential threat even before you find out they’re looking in your patch. Assume they’re coming, and will hire the local expertise to disrupt your markets, undermine your customer relationships, and beat you to innovations.

Winning demands insight. Executives have to understand how Chinese companies work, how they make use of relationships and government support, and the strategy they will use to take markets away from global competitors. Then they need to drill into their specific competitors, learning the strengths of a Chinese challenger so as to use those strengths against them.

(Such strengths vary from firm to firm, but you won’t go far wrong to assume that they come with a) a deeply supportive government at home; b) the world’s largest home market, able to provide global economies of scale before they make their first sale overseas; c) a readiness to play fast-and-loose with intellectual property; and d) momentum.)

The discussion America’s business leaders should be having about China, then, must go beyond “how do we make money in China?” If that question isn’t academic by now, it soon will be. It must also be “how do we meet – and crush – our Chinese competition both at home and around the world?”

 

 

† The use of “we” here is not an affectation. China, Inc. it is no less a challenge in business services than it is with manufacturing. Sometime in the next five years, the leaders of the marketing and PR business in the US are going to face severe disruption from China. 

* Also known as The Tariff Act of 1930, The Smoot-Hawley Act was a protectionist measure passed by the US Congress that wound up inciting a trade war, one that arguably deepened the Great Depression and helped speed Europe into conflict a decade later.

 

Wanda Behind the Mask

Wanda’s Wang Jianlin has now made his fourth major acquisition in the US film industry. To his stable of the AMC and Carmike cinema chains and the Legendary Pictures production company he is now adding Dick Clark Productions. But it is rare indeed that something in China is as it seems, and that is why it is worth probing a bit into Wanda’s US acquisitions.

To their credit, US media are trying to do exactly that. Over the past several months, I’ve spoken to experienced reporters from the world’s leading financial news services, all of whom are trying to discern whether to take Wang Jianlin at face value, or whether there is something happening beneath the surface at Dalian Wanda Group that is at odds with its founder’s public positions.

What they’re getting is frustrated. It is always challenging to get information out of a firm unbound by the disclosure laws that govern public US companies. For what are probably very practical reasons related to its China business, Wanda apparently makes a fetish out of opacity.

When the world’s best investigative financial journalists start coming up empty, we are left with seeking answers based on clues rather than on answers. The best place to look is in the behavior of their partners and subsidiary companies. Some potential clues:

  • Check IMDB. Does Legendary look like it’s production slate is shrinking, or its production rate is slowing? Is Dick Clark increasing production, or is production on decline?
  • Check reviews of AMC and Carmike cinemas, especially their bigger, newer, flagship multiplexes in large US cities, on Yelp! and similar sites. Are reviews trending upward, or are they in decline? Are there complaints related to quality of service, of food, of cleanliness?
  • What is the status of partnerships with companies like Sony and IMAX? Are we seeing any action, or have things gone quiet after big announcements? Is Wanda living up to its commitments?
  • And, of course, watch for news on major moves in China’s real estate market, or from the government on restricting Chinese investments abroad.

Good reporters are already doing all of this. But journalistic standards won’t allow them to report on such circumstantial indicators. For the rest of us, they can help us gain a general hunch about where the company stands, how it is operating in the US, and where it is likely to go next.

Longer term, though, Wang will have to learn to operate in a part of the world where deep scrutiny of his operations are encouraged rather than prohibited, and where transparency is a necessary precondition for the trust he will need to sow in order to prosper.

Did Uber Win in China?

In all of the discussion lately about Uber in China, one topic that is not getting a lot of airplay is the way in which the outcome for Uber is being positioned. One person for whom I have a great deal of respect believes that Uber did great, that they wound up with exactly what they wanted in the first place, and that overall the outcome – as junior partner to Didi Chuxing in a combined business – is a victory for Uber.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, to me that seems a bit like spin. First, it is highly unlikely that this is the outcome Uber sought all along. Had it sought a minority stake in Didi, it could have (as Apple did recently) simply written a check, swapped stock, and agreed to work together globally. And it could have been done more quickly, easily, and with less of a drain on company attention and coffers.

Second, all that their efforts won them is a weak role in Didi, just another seat at the table with a group of powerful investors to whom Uber is a very small potato. Had they gone in with an offer early, they may well have saved everyone money and saved Didi from the need to turn to outside investors. Uber may well have ended up with a less diluted position.

Third, they sit with no better odds of a payoff now than before. Didi is a rapidly-growing company with a need for a huge war chest in order to secure its market position. Payback to investors will be some time down the line, and others will decide when and if Uber will ever see a dividend. Even if it does, the question will remain as to whether that dividend was a fair compensation for the price and a fair return to investors on the risk.

Finally, with its new A-List of global investors, Didi may well prove to be a more formidable rival outside of China in the long term than it might have been otherwise, especially if Uber had shown up at the beginning offering a strategic tie-up. Now Didi has international ambitions, and with an 85% market share at home in a much bigger market, will be in a better position to face Uber in other markets.

So did Uber win? Events will tell us, but probably not for some time. And that’s about the most you can say. From a removed perspective today, Uber is salvaging the most it can from a shipwreck, and pretending that it intended to be on the rocks all along won’t do much for the company’s credibility with the Street.