作者：Steve Ellis, Orit Gadiesh
Opinions regarding China's economic rise often hinge on two hard-to-ignore numbers: One is China's current labor cost advantage, which is as much as 95% over multinationals in the US, Europe, Japan and South Korea; the other entails the prediction that in 30 years China will become the world's largest economy.
Chinese policymakers have numbers in mind, too. Today home to 20 of the world's top 500 companies, the country is aiming for as many as 50 by 2010. How do they intend to get there?
"Bain & Company's analysis shows that, where it took Japanese and Korean firms 25 years on average to reach global leadership, Chinese firms will achieve it in 10 to 15 years."
History indicates they'll follow a path blazed by Japanese and South Korean companies, one with three distinct phases: To become global leaders, China's predecessors built local manufacturing, often to provide low-cost sourcing to multinationals; they borrowed capabilities through technology licensing and joint ventures, to improve quality and processes and begin exporting; and, finally, they bought assets and brands abroad to secure their global positions. Chinese companies are taking the same route but moving along it at almost twice the speed, according to our research. But we also found ways for multinationals that understand China's economic growth engine to stay out in front of it by focusing on capabilities where the Chinese are still climbing the learning curve: understanding customer needs, developing world-class management talent, and innovation.
China's fast lane to growth
China's share of world exports grew from 2% in 1990 to 7% in 2004. It's now the world's leading exporter of toys, games and clothing, as well as the number one supplier in telecom equipment. In 2003, it bypassed Japan to become the world's third-largest exporter after America and Germany.
How is it fueling such outsized economic achievements? By harnessing a combination of start-up innovation and energy and turnaround disciplines, guided by strong central planning, to help key established players overcome weaknesses and adapt to market changes. This "start-around" pattern appeared first in Japan, which combined MITI policies with free-market trade, and then in Asia's "Four Tigers." But China is probably the standout example of a country simultaneously unleashing entrepreneurship while centrally managing the economy to ensure that its largest companies flourish.
China is also traveling the path to expansion at a much faster rate. Bain & Company's analysis shows that, where it took Japanese and Korean firms 25 years on average to reach global leadership, Chinese firms will achieve it in 10 to 15 years. In Japan and Korea, companies largely completed one of the three build, borrow and buy phases before making a clear transition to the next. But in many cases China's companies are compressing the three stages into one simultaneous push.
Consider state-run Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. Begun in 1984 as a manufacturer of farm tractors, it has already grown into a global player. As it built up its auto manufacturing at home, it gained know-how via government-negotiated agreements with Volkswagen and GM. To blunt challenges from regional rivals, it has purchased a stake in South Korea's Ssangyong Motor. And in a bold bid at growth, in 2004 it attempted to buy Britain's Rover Group, eventually purchasing two Rover models to sell under its own brand. To gain scale and knowledge, Shanghai Automotive plans to exploit its burgeoning home market. According to chairman Hu Maoyuan, the company hopes to manufacture 2 million vehicles by 2010, including 1.5 million cars for Chinese buyers. Its leaders aim to expand production fourfold and turn it into one of the world's six largest automakers by 2020.
Lenovo has also cut years from the process of building, borrowing and buying. Founded in 1984, the company then known as Legend began as a distributor of foreign-brand PCs, including IBM and HP. It started building its own PCs for the Chinese market in 1990, and throughout the decade borrowed innovations through more than a dozen joint ventures with the likes of AOL and Microsoft. But its export drive didn't begin in earnest until 2003 with the launch of Lenovo. Since then, the company has been in hyperdrive, leaping ahead of the competition by acquiring IBM's PC unit, launching a marketing blitz that included sponsoring the Olympics, and becoming the world's third-largest PC manufacturer.
Ways to stay out in front
As Chinese firms like Lenovo continue to push into markets around the world, their growth tempo will pick up, and Beijing is doing its part to quicken the pace. It recently signaled that it would abolish the requirement that Chinese companies seeking to invest offshore get special approval, which is likely to trigger a buying spree among Chinese firms.
As China speeds up, multinationals must adjust their strategies and learn to play to their own strengths. It's important, of course, to dramatically drive down costs to remain competitive. But the best way for global firms to defend their core markets is to focus on the areas where Chinese firms still have a lot to learn.
The first is building customer loyalty. This entails addressing the needs of both the end consumer and intermediate distributors. Although Chinese companies have historically dealt with fewer distributors-relying instead on mega-retail channels-even here Chinese firms are closing the gap, in part through the acquisition of non-Chinese firms. But customer insight takes time to develop, and global firms have many more years of experience to draw upon.
Second, the battlefield for talent will be critical and will require people with global experience. Chinese companies are behind in training skilled managers. Although as many as 700,000 engineers graduate each year, China only recently began investing in business degree programs. Multinationals must ensure that they develop strong leadership at every level of the organization. To maintain their edge, they will need to have best-in-class programs for recruiting, developing and deploying management talent in every country where they compete.
Finally, there is the all-important area of innovation. In the past, industry leaders tended to become lazy with customers and innovation, opening opportunities for emerging players in Japan and Korea. Corporations today should not repeat this mistake with the Chinese. Constant innovation and faster product cycles will make it harder for Chinese companies to fashion knockoffs.
Innovations do not have to come as breakthroughs in engineering but can arise from new methods of production or sales. Multinationals must empower their front lines and factory floors to generate ideas and their business units to set high standards for innovative products, and develop faster product cycles. They should encourage customer, supplier and even competitor collaboration on R&D, looking outside-even beyond their own industry-for innovation.
In the end, however, it's important to keep in mind that the race will be won by those that endure the longest. Here, China has another advantage: The centuries have taught its people to be patient. With their emphasis on quarterly earnings, today's multinationals may have yet another lesson to learn from fast-approaching Chinese rivals: the idea of thinking forward in decades.
Steve Ellis is worldwide managing director of Bain & Company. Orit Gadiesh is chairman of Bain & Company.
For a fuller account of how Chinese companies are leaping ahead-and what global firms can do to keep pace with them-read "Outsmarting China's Start-Arounds," by Steve Ellis and Orit Gadiesh, published in Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2006.