China is awash, as nowhere else in the world is, in private equity capital. New funds are launched weekly, and older successful ones top up their bank balance. Just this week, CDH, generally considered the leading China-focused PE firm in the world, closed its fourth fund with $1.46 billion of new capital. Over $50 billion has been raised over the last four years for PE investment in China.
In other words, money is not in short supply. Equity investment experience, know-how and savvy are. There’s a saying in the US venture capital industry, “all money spends the same”. The implication is that for a company, investment capital is of equal value regardless of the source. In the US, there may be some truth to this. In China, most definitely not.
In Chinese business, there is no more perilous transition than the one from a fully-private, entrepreneur-founded and led company to one that can IPO successfully, either on China’s stock markets, or abroad. The reason: many private companies, especially the most successful ones, are growing explosively, often doubling in size every year.
They can barely catch their breath, let alone put in place the management and financial systems needed to manage a larger, more complex business. This is inevitable consequence of operating in a market growing as fast as China’s, and generating so many new opportunities for expansion.
A basic management principle, also for many good private companies, is: “grab the money today, and worry about the consequences tomorrow”. This means that running a company in China often requires more improvising than long-term planning. I know this, personally, from running a small but fast-growing company. Improvisation can be great. It means a business can respond quickly to new opportunities, with a minimum of bureaucracy.
But, as a business grows, and particularly once it brings in outside investors, the improvisation, and the success it creates, can cause problems. Is company cash being managed properly and most efficiently? Are customers receiving the same degree of attention and follow-up they did when the business was smaller? Does the production department know what the sales department is doing and promising customers? What steps are competitors taking to try to steal business away?
These are, of course, the best kind of problems any company can have. They are the problems caused by success, rather than impending bankruptcy.
These problems are a core aspect of the private equity process in China. It’s good companies that get PE finance, not failed ones. Once the PE capital enters a company, the PE firm is going to take steps to protect its investment. This inevitably means making sure systems are put in place that can improve the daily management and long-term planning at the company.
It’s often a monumental adjustment for an entrepreneur-led company. Accountability supplants improvisation. Up to the moment PE finance arrives, the boss has never had to answer to anyone, or to justify and defend his decisions to any outsider. PE firms, at a minimum, will create a Board of Directors and insist, contractually, that the Board then meet at least four times a year to review quarterly financials, discuss strategy and approve any significant investments.
Whether this change helps or hurts the company will depend, often, on the experience and knowledge of the PE firm involved. The good PE firms will offer real help wherever the entrepreneur needs it – strengthening marketing, financial team, international expansion and strategic alliances. They are, in the jargon of our industry, “value-add investors”.
Lesser quality PE firms will transfer the money, attend a quarterly banquet and wait for word that the company is staging an IPO. This is dumb money that too often becomes lost money, as the entrepreneur loses discipline, focus and even an interest in his business once he has a big pile of someone else’s money in his bank account.
At their best, PE firms can serve as indispensible partners for a great entrepreneur. At their worst, they do far more harm than good by lavishing money without lavishing attention.
(My company just published a Chinese-language research report on this topic. You can download a copy by clicking here. The report is illustrated with details from imperial blue-and-white porcelains from the time of the Xuande Emperor, in the Ming Dynasty.)