I will never be an expert on China. It is just too big, too complex and too old with layers of history and meaning that would take several lifetimes to unravel. As I said to my hosts, China, driven by it huge population builds big – Big airports, Big train terminals. Big road systems. Big apartment blocks. And yet you drink tea from cups the size of thimbles.
Because of the gigantic size of their market, many companies can specialise. I drove down 15 miles of road entirely devoted to furniture stores. We crossed over to the shoe district and then to the leather district. We visited a factory producing water based ink on his 10 acre site and a factory devoted only to embossing paper. On my last day, I found myself in a square mile of narrow alleyways devoted to wedding dresses and tuxedos in a quest for that right little number for my wife. In driving around, however, I was most shocked by the sight of a small shop of perhaps 500 sq. feet that sold only electric drills. In our micro market, where everyone has to be everything, all the time, it was refreshing to see a different and profitable business approach.
It reminded me of research on the US I did years ago where I found an obscure town in Nevada, I think, that produced most of the rubber pipe used in the US. The United States has a gigantic market and efficient distribution system (read road, rail and air) whereby it is possible to dominate a market and yet not be at the centre of it. Think of what we could do better with NAFTA which is in explicably underexploited by us.
How could we emulate the success of China? We have cheap power, high labour costs and some cheap raw materials. We are shipping raw goods to China. The successful Chinese manufacturers in turn buy German and Japanese equipment to operate lights out facilities and then ship back to us. Is there a model there? Do we need ore entrepreneurs and highly skilled labour?
But China has entered a sluggish period and that is forcing a change that will have long term benefits. The old style entrepreneurs sold on price alone. Many have not found a way to break that mould. But a few have gone to the quality end of the spectrum. This is especially valuable in meeting the demands from BC over the next 10 years for the rapid development of the energy and minerals sector. I visited 2 vocational schools there that churn out 3000 CNC machine operators a year, that train 300 baristas a year – for the skyrocketing coffee culture in China. And the emphasis was on a quality product, customer service and cleanliness that would put to shame huge swathes of business in British Columbia.
China has lessons and opportunities for us. We need just to listen and pay attention – then act.