Ken Applegate from Fisher Funds on doing business with the Chinese

At Euroasia, we have the privelege of meeting talented New Zealanders who do amazing things in their day jobs. For today’s blog entry, we have Ken Applegate, who has been learning Mandarin with us since early last year to share his views on the Chinese economy, why he’s investing there, and his experience in working with the Chinese.

Ken is the Senior Portfolio Manager for the Fisher Funds International Fund, a specialist New Zealand-based fund manager with assets under management of NZ$1billion spread across more than 30,000 clients. Thanks Ken for sharing your story with the Euroasia community.

Fisher

As a global investor we have the ability to invest anywhere in the world and our allocation to Chinese companies has ranged from 20-40% of the fund. We have a long term structurally bullish view on the Chinese economy. This is not just our opinion; it is based on fact and history. China has been a global economic powerhouse more than once in history. Countries like the US and the UK have dominated the world economy once before and even Rome was ‘great’ once. Just a little more than 200 years ago China’s economy comprised approximately 1/3 of global GDP and it is on the rise again. To quote Warren Buffett, a legendary investor, “the 19th century belonged to England, the 20th century belonged to the U.S., and the 21st century belongs to China. Invest accordingly“. I firmly believe most people underestimate how important this shift is and the significance of its implications.

China dominated the world economy 200 years ago

China_gdp

I have worked as a global fund manager for more than 15 years with the majority of my experience gained while living in California. I first visited China in 2000, and I now travel to China 2-3 times per year. In addition, I speak with Chinese companies and local investors/analysts on a weekly basis and often meet with Chinese companies when I attend investment conferences throughout Asia, especially in Singapore and Hong Kong. I have described below two examples of investments made in China which highlight some of the many challenges I have encountered and learned from over the years.

I also believe in continued learning and my latest pursuit has been learning Mandarin. I began taking a weekly class at Euroasia language school in Auckland in early 2010. I have experienced first-hand the difference between speaking Chinese and thinking Chinese. While I have spent a good deal of the last 10 years trying to understand the Chinese way of doing business, I decided that learning the language could be another way to bridge the gap between cultures. Many Chinese attempt to learn English so out of respect why shouldn’t we attempt to learn the most widely spoken language in the world?

China’s future will be driven by urbanisation and the emerging middle class

China_urban

It is critical to understand that while China is one country there are significant regional differences. One way to gain a holistic picture is to travel to a variety of locations throughout China. While Shanghai and Beijing are the financial and political centres, they comprise less than 5% of the Chinese population. The real future of China, in my opinion, lies in the emerging middle class so I have made an effort to travel to tier 2 and tier 3 cities. In addition to Guangzhou in the south, I have been as far west as Chongqing and Chengdu and as far north as Changchun. I like to visit similar locations every few years to see how things are developing. The reason for my travel is to visit company management at their headquarters. I have found they are much more open to a dialogue and it forms a lasting impression if a fund manager from New Zealand makes an effort to come and spend a day with them on their home turf.

This is the welcome I received from Cao Zhao Hui, the CEO of Wasion Group, when I visited them at their headquarters outside of Changsha in 2009

Ken_applegate

The first example is an investment that didn’t work out. One way we generate our investment ideas is through quantitative screening of financial metrics. We discovered a company called Dapai, China’s leading branded backpack and luggage company. I was attracted to the company because of its leadership position in its industry and cheap valuation. The valuation of the company was low because the company had made some decisions that did not fit the mold of a ‘typical’ high quality publicly traded company.

After significant research on the company and numerous conference calls with company management I believed that this was an investment worth pursuing. We are strong believers in quality management so I travelled to Quanzhou, Fujian Province, to spend a day with the CEO and Chairman at their facility. I also conducted research by interviewing customers at shopping malls (including the competition) to gauge the perception of the company and brand.

As mentioned previously the cheap valuation was due to subpar decisions the company had made in regards to how the stock and company was perceived. I believed these decisions were made in naivety. During my meeting with the CEO I highlighted how to change their perception which could lead to significant wealth creation. I offered my assistance and facilitated a conversation with a public relations firm and numerous specialised brokers and made myself available for discussion on any decision-making if required. They responded positively and we celebrated a fruitful day and good relationship over dinner.

I had continued conference calls with management and while the company did make some positive steps forward they were only baby steps. Unfortunately the key decisions continued to be poor in spite of my advice. This was frustrating as there was no logical rationale for the decisions. The decisions were actually made for reasons other than purely financial reasons, which meant sacrificing

their own business in the short term to maintain relationships with distributors. I understand this is important, but it was still

frustrating as management had committed to change. While I do understand how Chinese think, I am ultimately a westerner, especially when it comes to business, and our way of decision-making does not always prevail.

Touring the Dapai factory with the CEO, Chen “Perry” Yong

Dapai

The second example involves a more positive outcome. The company is China Automation Group, a leading company in safety equipment for the petrochemical and rail equipment industries. It is similar in structure to the first example where my research and relationship was developed over a 6-month period. The major difference in this example is that I already had relationships with a number of players in the rail equipment industry. This added depth and meaning to my relationship with this company.

We first invested capital in China Automation Group in mid 2008 and while business for the company continued to be positive, the stock took a dive in 2008. This was frustrating for the company and for me. I remember meeting with Xuan Ruiguo, the Chairman of China Automation Group, in Hong Kong in October 2008 when the stock price was HK0.60/share.

To put this into context we bought our first shares at HK$2/share. The good news is that now the shares are trading at more than Hk$6/share. We showed our confidence and belief in the company by buying more shares and it was this day that defined our relationship. I had breakfast with the Chairman in March this year and he recalled my support during that challenging time and said that he always has time for me.

Summary

I have always believed in a long term approach to investing and this is a mindset that is critical when it comes to doing business in China. The best lessons I have learned have not come from reading books but from my own experiences on the ground. This will continue to be the focus for me in the future. We shouldn’t overestimate the ability to change others’ mindsets and this is not a sustainable outcome anyway. We need to adapt if we are to conduct business in their country, and both parties in a relationship must be satisfied. This requires a long term approach – it’s not just about trying to make a short term profit.

The best piece of advice I give people who want to try and understand China is to go there. I tell them to spend some time in one of the big cities and then travel inland to a smaller city. I have offered numerous times to provide assistance to those interested in an attempt to make the process seem less daunting. Seeing is believing. It takes time to develop an understanding and time to create relationships. Confucius said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”…and the long term rewards can be unlimited.

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About The Author

Kenneth is Director of Euroasia. He is passionate about languages and cultures.

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