A former Forbes India correspondent, I worked for nearly 10 years as a business journalist in India before heading to the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley, as a Visiting Scholar in 2010. It was a step towards getting a first-hand experience of the US economic and business climate, as well as a great opportunity to get an insight into Africa with a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded reporting project of my choosing in the continent. Post-Berkeley, one thing led to another, and in early 2012, I found myself braving sub-zero temperatures in Beijing, exploring the nuances of China's evolving business and economic landscape as Editor of CKGSB Knowledge (http://knowledge.ckgsb.edu.cn/), the research publication of Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. China is an exciting place to be and despite my constant struggles with Mandarin and unfamiliar food, each day opens my eyes to something new. Some of the things I find fascinating are MNC strategy in China and the evolution of Chinese companies into global powerhouses. Interestingly, several Chinese companies that haven't ventured beyond the Mainland are, in many ways, spearheading innovation in ways we cannot imagine. Another interesting trend that I am witnessing firsthand is the evolution of 'Made in China'. This blog is about my experiences and discoveries in the world's second-largest economy. Apart from China, I have an abiding interest in Africa, where I spent the early years of my childhood. More recently, I have researched and edited two books, one of which was on Africa: Culture of the Sepulchre by former diplomat and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh (Penguin India, 2012), and Leading with Conviction: The Nine Principles of Integrated Leadership by Shalom Saada Saar and Michael J. Hargrove (Jossey-Bass, forthcoming). The views expressed in this blog are my own, and do not represent those of the organization I work for.
Zhongguancun in Beijing’s Haidian District is a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity. It has been described by many as China’s Silicon Valley – it has just the right convergence of universities, venture capital, startup infrastructure and enough of the restless entrepreneurial energy that we otherwise get to see in the Bay Area. Many famous companies – such as Lenovo – grew out of Zhongguancun.
Feng Jun also started out in Zhongguancun.
Feng, the 40-something Chairman and CEO of aigo Digital Technology Company, is a self-made man. He started aigo (then called Beijing Huaqi Information Digital Technology Company) in 1993 with RMB 220 borrowed from his mother. Unlike many entrepreneurs who would wrinkle their nose at the thought of this, Feng bought a tricycle – the kind used by vegetable and fruit vendors in China – and on this tricycle, he would zip across town delivering keyboards to clients. “My keyboards were very strong – I would show them that they didn’t break even after falling,” Feng told me, using animated gestures to drive the point home. Among Feng’s early clients was Lenovo – before it became the giant that it is today.
Twenty years on, Feng’s company, aigo, has become the largest electronics brand in China. Its portfolio includes digital cameras, media players (MP3, MP4, MP5 and even MP6), USB storage cards, mobile phones, etc. It has filed a plethora of patents and seems to be getting into new product categories every day.
Feng sees himself as the salesman for his company. During an interview, it is hard to get a straight answer out of him: He cleverly deflects almost every question to say what he wants to say, and not what you want to know. He peppers almost every answer with the words “win-win” and “learn from the Olympics” (Feng Jun, by the way, carried the Olympic Torch in Athens in 2008). Ask him about revenues and market share and the answer once again, involves no numbers, and has the words “win-win” and “Olympics”.
After wrestling with him during a 30-minute interview with “win win” and “Olympics” repeated ad nauseum (and later painstakingly edited out of the video wherever possible), it’s hard to take him seriously. But you better do. Feng Jun has spunk, and lots of it – and if all goes as per his plan, aigo will soon be flexing its muscles in other countries.
Feng is an extremely clever businessman. He is quick to spot opportunities (“You are from India – aigo can sell in India!”) and even faster to act on them. If there is one thing that Feng has a lot of, it’s guts – in 2010 he dragged the Big Boys of the trade, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba, to court over patent infringement allegations.
Recently, Feng Jun has become a self-styled crusader for the globalisation of Chinese companies – not just his own. Feng believes that there is power in numbers. So he formed something called the aigo Entrepreneurs Alliance that is helping a varied assortment of Chinese companies (50-odd companies, including Haier for refrigerators, Gree for air-conditioners, TCL for TVs and Huiyuan for bottled water) collectively develop a global footprint.
The idea is simple, as Feng told China Daily: “The Chinese government gives help to state-owned enterprises when they expand overseas, but little help is given to private-sector companies, so we have to help each other.” Together, the 50 companies will lobby with governments, set up offices, and do business across the world.
Feng has often remarked that he wants aigo to be the Sony or Samsung of China. He is nowhere near his ambitious – and even audacious – goal, but I won’t be surprised when he gets there.
What did surprise me, however, was that aigo sponsored the McLaren Formula 1 team, which meant that Lewis Hamilton’s fire-suit sported the aigo logo along with that of other sponsors such as Mercedes and Vodafone. If that wasn’t enough, Feng went ahead and sponsored Manchester United (I am tempted to say, “to create win-win”). For Feng, it’s like a badge of honour – a testament of the fact that aigo has ‘arrived’.
And so that’s Feng Jun.
And then there’s the other Feng – real estate entrepreneur Feng Lun. Compared to aigo’s Feng Jun, Feng Lun, the suave chairman of Vantone Holdings, is more measured in his approach. He has a serious aura about him – like that of a deep thinker (he also has a PhD by the way). He has tasted success – Vantone is one of China’s biggest real estate developers – but he has an aura of humility around him. He has authored two books, both of which are bestsellers in China. Not surprisingly, Feng is a role model for many Chinese youngsters.
We met Feng Lun some months ago to understand how he is overhauling his business model and also pioneering the idea of a new kind of ‘integrated city’ in China. Business model aside, my biggest takeaway from that meeting was the level of Feng Lun’s ambition.
Like many Chinese entrepreneurs, Feng Lun has global ambitions. Any other person (read: from another country) would have gone and scouted for, perhaps, the cheapest piece of real estate he could find elsewhere in the world, before going all-out. Not Feng Lun. He went to New York and leased five-and-a-half floors in the new World Trade Center tower for his maiden US venture.
This set me thinking. The two Fengs are like chalk and cheese – one is gregarious and animated; the other is humble and reserved. But they have something in common (apart from their name): Their ambition is humongous. Both Feng Jun and Feng Lun want to make it big globally.
And the best way of telling the world that they have arrived is by creating a splash, whether it is by sponsoring McLaren or by acquiring a perch in One World Trade Center.
The story of both the Fengs, in more ways than one, represents the growing level of ambition in Chinese companies. Whether it is Lenovo’s rise to the top of the global personal computing market, Chairman Robin Li’s intention to make Baidu a household name in 50 percent of the world’s markets, or Bright Food’s somewhat surprising acquisition of the iconic Weetabix brand, Chinese companies are out to conquer the world.
The Chinese market is huge, no doubt, and still growing. And all these companies have more than enough room to grow within the country and achieve a scale that is not possible elsewhere. But that’s clearly not enough for them.