Roar of the East being heard

PHOTO: Roar of the East being heard

When Chinese automaker Geely paid $1.8 billion (S$2.26 billion) for Swedish automobile giant Volvo in 2010, it represented another successful step-up by an Asian company onto the global corporate stage.

Geely's move helped it bypass one of those essential stages in corporate expansion, namely brand building and market recognition, by simply buying an established global company.

It is not an isolated case but a developing trend. It has been estimated that by 2025 around 45 per cent of the Fortune Global 500 companies will be Asian - many of them from China.

The corporate landscape worldwide is changing and businesses from developing countries including China are showing they too can play at the game of mergers and acquisitions.

Not mere vanity but cold calculations are at work in this process.

"It makes sense," Ying Zhu, director of the Australian Centre for Asian Business at the University of South Australia, says. "No one outside China had ever heard of the automaker Geely before it took over Volvo."

The Hangzhou-based carmaker was acquiring not only a brand, but also Volvo's technology and skilled workforce. The Swedish firm too had a lot to gain.

"For Volvo, the door opened to a massive domestic market in China," Zhu says. "So for both sides it was win-win. It gave Geely a recognised global brand and a luxury-end brand it could take to its domestic market. For Volvo, it meant survival."

French carmaker Renault and the Dongfeng Motor Group are already in talks about forming a joint venture which Zhu says is likely to have a similar effect on both companies as the Geely deal.

According to the Fortune Global 500 estimates, between now and 2025, the number of global companies with annual revenues exceeding $1 billion will rise from 8,000 to 15,000.

Most of the new companies will be from emerging markets, a lot of them Chinese.

"The rise of emerging economies has presented multinational corporations with unprecedented market opportunities and the ability to tap into an increasingly skilled labour force," says a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute entitled Urban World: The Shifting Global Business Landscape.

"But a related shift is just beginning to gather force that it has the potential to redraw the world's business map and rewrite the rule book on global corporate competition.

"Emerging regions are not just a collection of new markets or a source of cheap - and increasingly skilled - labour. They are also giving rise to thousands of new companies that are quickly reaching significant scale - and changing competitive business dynamics around the world."

The report warns that business leaders need to have a better understanding of this evolution so that they can prepare for the new wave of emerging competitors.

Roland Hinterkoerner, head of corporate advisory for RBS Asia, says the 7,000 new global corporations suggested by the McKinsey report is a lot, but he is not sure if they will dominate.

"I expect a lot of them will be from Asia … mostly Chinese. Even so, the numbers are an eye-opener to the future corporate landscape," he says.

"We have seen similar (reports) in the past but from different perspectives. However, if you look at what is happening in the corporate world today, it comes as no surprise that companies, especially from China, will become a significant force globally."

McKinsey describes the changing roster of the Fortune Global 500 as a "vivid illustration" of the growing trend.

"Between 1980 and 2000, the share of companies on the list based outside developed regions stayed relatively flat, at 5 per cent. By 2010, this share was up to 17 per cent of the total. It has climbed further to reach 26 per cent in 2013," McKinsey said in its report.

"Based on projected growth by region, we expect the emerging world to account for more than 45 per cent of the Fortune Global 500 by 2025. We also anticipate that roughly 120 of the names on the 2025 list will be based in the China region."

Ganeshan Wignaraja, director of research with the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) in Tokyo, says the rise of corporate China will have a profound impact on the international business environment, similar to the rise of corporations in Japan and later South Korea.

"Although Japan had established corporations before World War II, everything had to be rebuilt from scratch after the war. So the capacity was already there and it just had to be rebuilt and a new generation trained," he says.

"Fifty years ago, Japanese products had a reputation for being unreliable and inferior to those in North America and Europe. Today, that is no longer the case. Brands such as Sony Corp, Toyota Motor Corp, Canon Inc, Nikon Corp, Toshiba Corp, Fujitsu Ltd and Sharp Corp are household names, not only in Asia but throughout the world."

A number of South Korean brands have followed a similar trajectory, with Samsung Group, LG Electronics and Hyundai Motor Corp becoming household names with a reputation for quality products.

Now, Wignaraja says, the same thing is happening with Chinese companies, although he admits that there has been a time lag in these firms acquiring the technical and managerial competence to penetrate world markets.

"But you do have Chinese companies making their mark," he says.

Hinterkoerner from RBS believes the Chinese auto industry will be on a par with the Japanese and South Koreans within 10 to 20 years, if not sooner.

"China has all the ingredients for becoming a very successful automaker. For a start it has a very big home market that is expanding, a skilled workforce and is acquiring the R&D (research and development) needed to go to the next level," he says.

"It won't be long before you see Chinese cars being sold in the European market, for example, much the same way as cars from South Korea. It is only a question of time."

But it is not just the auto sector that Chinese firms are buying into. Last year, the State-owned Bright Food Group bought a majority stake in the British food company Weetabix Ltd.

Then, in May this year, China's largest meat processor Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd agreed to buy Smithfield Foods Inc in the United States in a deal worth $4.7 billion. This was the biggest Chinese takeover of an American company to date, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Zhu adds that "for the Chinese it is not a question of money, just price".

As the global financial crisis has left many European and North American companies facing difficulties, Chinese companies with deep pockets are in a strong position.

Does this mean the beginning of a decline of the Western-dominated corporate world?

"That is one doom and gloom scenario I don't subscribe to," ADBI's Wignaraja says. "Will this mean the collapse of existing global giants and their replacement with new multinationals, many of them Chinese? I don't think so."

Some large Western companies may disappear, he says, but that is just in the nature of business.

"Some traditionally large industries such as oil and gas I think will still be dominated by Western companies, for the simple reason that the cost of getting (involved) is simply too high," Wignaraja says.

While China also has large oil and gas companies, Wignaraja predicts that they are more likely to work together on joint exploration or development with leading players such as Royal Dutch Shell Plc or BP Plc, rather than supplanting them or buying them out.

Aviation and the chemical industry are another two sectors where he believes that Western corporations will continue to dominate the global market.

But in less complex industries it is more likely that Asian companies will catch up quickly, he says.