Mainland managers must mend their ways

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 10:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 6:14pm

China is an economic powerhouse – of sorts.

The ripples from the mainland’s arrival in global manufacturing and trade may well have been felt, but it has yet to make a lasting impact on global capitalism. It probably won’t be until a new crop of leaders have been given the keys to the executive office.

Mainland business organisations right now are primarily poorly run behemoths – whether we are talking about uncompetitive Chinese banks, fumbling infrastructure groups, or technology companies groping for international relevance.

A few firms, such as Lenovo, do stand out and appear to be building momentum. But the average mainland company is far from the leadership circle.

When it comes to understanding capital, many mainland company managements just don’t get it

Blow-ups like those involving Chaoda Agriculture and Real Gold Mining – which listed to applause – have been a dime a dozen in an environment where sharp practice and unscrupulous behaviour pass for business as usual.

The big problem is that when it comes to understanding capital, many mainland company managements just don’t get it.

My first experience with mayhem and mainland capital was while working at BNP in 1993 during the days of the Denway Motors initial public offering (IPO).

Those with long memories will recall that was a deal in which Denway’s foreign partner in an automaking joint venture – France’s Peugeot – only discovered the operation was the main asset to be injected into an IPO vehicle when executives read about it in the newspapers.

The doomed legacy of Mao Zedong means many mainland managers over the age of 40 – who largely run the show nationwide – are part of a generation with large gaps in education and training in the practice of capitalism.

This in turn undermines the legacy of Deng Xiaoping – mainland managers took Deng’s line that “to get rich is glorious” and zealously embraced the profit motive. Not so the accompanying theory of competition.

A willingness to do anything to make a buck is to blame for blatant daily corporate governance oversights.

I am not saying that all western managers execute well in a capitalist environment. Clearly they don’t. Yet I have found far greater concentrations of Chinese managers not trained to run companies – and many more companies with loose corporate governance practices.

It’s not that senior managers don’t go off the reservation at major western companies, it’s the sheer proportion of Chinese managers that do. And once off, mainland companies appear to have few checks and balances to get managers and companies back on track.

The shipping sector provides plenty of examples.

State-owned China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) has been run by people who are more politicians than managers pursuing ill-timed expansions to achieve status with a general disregard for the corporate world in which the business operates.

It is not alone. Recall the corporate governance nightmare when China Shipping Development shareholders saw their 25 per cent stake in China Shipping Container Lines (CSCL) sold in October 2002 for one yuan – after costing some 450 million yuan (HK$567 million) – when an IPO had likely been decided. By mainstream accounting metrics its value was negative 200 million yuan and was generating a small loss.

But all this was peanuts. By June 2004, following restructuring in 2003, CSCL raised nearly US$1 billion in a Hong Kong IPO and by end 2007 it was raising about another US$1.6 billion in Shanghai.

So what was sold by shareholders for 1 yuan was worth US$250 million little more than a year later.

The IPO was sold on the back of a story that the company had cheap ships. True. But it had forgotten about the containers atop the ships. And these were above industry cost. And, of course, it had no port or other strategic operations.

In early this year, China Shipping issued a “credit enhanced” bond without batting an eyelid days before CSCL issued an earnings warning for last year.

That kind of corporate behaviour does not make for a positive, lasting contribution to the development of capitalism. That contribution will come, but only from a younger generation. They must gain more influence at all levels – and they are just not there yet.

Charles de Trenck has worked for Taiwanese, Malaysian and mainland Chinese entrepreneurs while also working for various international banks