China’s hi-tech emperors; From a global online ‘anything store’ to high-end smartphones challenging Apple, a generation of billionaire entrepreneurs is rising in the East

China’s hi-tech emperors

From a global online ‘anything store’ to high-end smartphones challenging Apple, a generation of billionaire entrepreneurs is rising in the East

Global e-commerce is booming and Shanghai and other huge Chinese cities are alight with new ideas as the country shifts gear from assembly line to powerhouse of the technology industry. Photo: Alamy

By Christopher Williams

5:55PM GMT 04 Jan 2014

A new generation is taking power in China. Not the grey graduates of Communist Party committees. But aggressive, entrepreneurial and often colourful internet billionaires. As well as influencing domestic politics, several plan to break out on to the world stage in 2014.They will be following a trail blazed by Huawei, the telecoms equipment maker. But with products and services that have much less to do with the critical infrastructure and ownership structures more familiar in the West, China’s internet giants are unlikely to hit similar trade and national security barriers.

Leading the charge is Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, an online bazaar that allows a business to sell almost any item to any other business.

On Alibaba you can buy a machine for converting used car tyres into fuel oil, a kilo of “good quality” toad venom extract, or a full-size Sponge Bob bouncy castle. Jeff Bezos wanted Amazon to be “the everything store”, but Ma built it first.

Most of the suppliers are, of course, Chinese, but Alibaba is increasingly used by exporters around the world and the company is in an enviable position to profit as trade becomes ever more global and online. The company predicts that Chinese e-commerce will be worth more than that of the United States and European Union combined by 2016.

“Increasingly we’re finding markets that were only buyers are increasingly suppliers too,” says James Hardy, head of Europe for Alibaba.com.

“Some decide on a strategy and then look for data to support it. Others, like Alibaba, look at data – both internal and external – and only then make strategic decisions about growth and market opportunity.

“The decision for us to enter the Russia and Brazil markets was the product of analysing external data and combining it with extensive internal data.”

Ma’s accomplishment makes him unique among China’s internet plutocracy. While other Chinese billionaires have built online empires that closely resemble Google or Twitter, Alibaba has no equivalent in the West. Amazon and eBay target consumers.

As such, Ma has been garlanded with awards by the Western business media in the last few years. Following the flotations of Facebook and Twitter, Wall Street is hungry for new technology stocks and would love to get its hands on Alibaba.

It is easy to see the attraction. Alibaba’s third-quarter revenues were up 60pc, to $1.73bn (£1bn). In the same period its profits more than doubled, to $717m, more than twice what Facebook makes on roughly the same sales. PrivCo, an investment research firm specialising in private companies, reckons Alibaba is “conservatively” worth $110bn, which would catapult Ma to the top of China’s rich list.

The NYSE, Nasdaq and the London Stock Exchange have been among the bourses courting Ma in the hope of securing a listing since his flotation talks with the Hong Kong stock exchange broke down in September.

Authorities on the island were concerned about Alibaba’s two-tier share structure, which gives Ma and other executives more voting power than ordinary shareholders. It is a common setup for Silicon Valley giants run by their founders, however, including Facebook and Google, as the New York exchanges were happy to point out.

The kowtowing to Ma can be seen as part of a bigger power shift for the technology industry to China, a country that has been mostly known as its assembly line.

The most striking example of the trend is Xiaomi, a three-year-old smartphone maker that counts the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner among its investors. It makes high-end devices that compete with the iPhone for the attention of wealthy young Chinese, and at the last count, was beating its Californian rival.

Though its smartphones are cheaper than Apple’s, they are not cheap to make. Xiaomi sees itself as an internet company striving to capture customers for its services, in the mould of Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet business. Xiaomi is ferociously ambitious and has unusually sophisticated marketing for a Chinese consumer electronics maker.

Only last week it began its international expansion push in Singapore and its founder, Lei Jun, confidently announced that he aims to more double sales this year to 40m handsets. No Western rival would dare create such a hostage to fortune.

The prediction was delivered on Lei’s Sina Weibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Sina, the company behind the service, is run by another of China’s technology elite, Charles Chao. Already listed on Nasdaq, Sina’s shares doubled last year on the growth of the service, which claims 600m users, not far short of Twitter.

Such is the influence of Sina Weibo in China that Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has predicted it will play a major role in a gradual democratisation of the country.

“You simply cannot imprison enough Chinese people when they all agree to something. You won’t be able to stop it even if you don’t like it,” he said.

Sina Weibo has become the most open forum in Chinese media, yet it filled a vacuum left when censors cut off access to Twitter by agreeing to restrict certain subjects.

It is not the only one of China’s native internet powers to have benefited from a more cooperative approach to government. Baidu, China’s search engine, was helped when Google was forced out of China by a government row in 2010, and has an iron grip on the web search market.

The same cannot be said for WeChat, another internet service that Schmidt identified as a liberalising force in China. It is among a small group of smartphone apps that provide what amounts to free text messaging and is already in a fight with WhatsApp, the Western leader, and Line, a Korean-Japanese effort.

Each boasts hundreds of millions of users and is seeking more away from their home territory in the knowledge that scale usually wins online.

That battle is the sign of things to come as the globalising effect of the internet goes mobile and truly global. China’s internet powers are rising.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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