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The China Effect: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

China’s meteoric growth has destroyed local industries – but it has also opened new markets.

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There’s no doubt about it – China has changed the way the world does business. And with its increasingly massive clout and the state’s growing closeness to the South African government the Asian giant is likely to play an even greater role in the lives of business owners here in future years.

In just over two decades China has catapulted from its spot as the 10th biggest economy, to become the second biggest economy in the world. It’s now also the globe’s biggest exporter and its hunger for resources has made it the third biggest importer in the world, after the US and Germany. Estimates are that it will overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy in the next seven to 15 years.

In the meantime, China will continue growing at  breakneck speed, albeit at a lower forecast average of 7,5% over the next four years. This is more than double South Africa’s expected growth over the next three years, but down on the 11,2% a year China recorded between 2006 and 2010.

Local manufacturers suffer

In the last decade cheap Chinese imports have wiped out large swathes of local industries. There is already evidence that fewer South Africans are setting up factories. Figures from Business Partners reveal that between March 2004 and March 2007 (the year before the recession), the SME financier’s investments in manufacturing grew from just 107 a year to 119, bottoming out to 105 the following year.

During this time the manufacturing sector, as a percentage of the financier’s total number of deals, shrunk from 20,9% to 17,9% of its portfolio, before falling to 15,7% in 2008. This was at a time when the local economy was pumping, but these figures suggest that not many South Africans were rushing out to set up factories.

On top of this, vacancy levels for Business Partners’ industrial properties had moved from 5% five years ago to 10%, says managing director Nazeem Martin. He adds that many of the properties which were once filled by small factories are now filled by businesses with repair shops or suppliers of goods to the services sector.

In the furniture sector where manufacturers have been hard hit by cheap imports, Michael Reddy, chief executive of Seda furniture incubator Furntech, says the only way for furniture manufacturers to stay in business is by supplying fewer goods at higher prices.

In Brazil, the South American country is ratcheting up support for small firms. But cheap Chinese imports only make up 3% of consumption in the Brazilian market, according to Lawrence Edwards, associate professor in the School of Economics at UCT.

Edwards, who is studying the effect of Chinese imports on South African businesses, believes that Chinese imports make up a much greater percentage of the market here – easily 5% or more. The penetration of Chinese imports into South Africa will be higher because the country has a small economy with a small scope for manufacturing, he says.

Yet, it’s only in recent months that the government has appeared ready to step in to assist local firms hit by the China effect, with the Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan’s announcement in the 2012 Budget Speech that billions would be given in incentives to improve the competitiveness of local businesses.

Edwards believes that despite SA’s more defensive trade policy approach, following the stalling of the Doha round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks, South Africa won’t be bringing down tariffs, which are as high as 40% to 45% on clothing.

This might be good for some local factories, if it continues this way, but it won’t stop Chinese entrepreneurs from coming to South Africa. More local companies are being approached by Chinese companies that want to sell them raw materials.

Colin Mkhonta, the chief executive of Seda’s chemical sector incubator, Chemin, says he receives “almost weekly” requests from Chinese firms to sell raw materials for cleaning products to incubatees.

Now, as they have done in other parts of Africa, Chinese firms are steadily moving into South Africa to take shares in mines and manufacturing companies. Chinese investors are also likely to keep an eye on infrastructure projects announced by President Jacob Zuma in his State of the Nation address in February.

Already three Chinese automotive manufacturers are set to move into the country soon, according to Martyn Davies, emerging markets analyst and chief executive of Frontier Advisory. But Davies, who is helping the South African government to bring Chinese investors to the country, says local businesses won’t necessarily score big, as many Chinese firms will bring their own suppliers with them when they set up here.

Peter Draper, a trade analyst and senior fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIA), believes China’s demand for commodities will be key. He argues that China’s enormous economic might presents certain opportunities for local entrepreneurs, including a quest for land, as the Chinese are looking for land from which to export goods or foodstuffs to China.

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New opportunities

Yet it’s not all bad. The China effect, as some have termed it, has helped spawn new businesses, such as suppliers and importers, and opened up a large new market in the Asian giant itself.

The Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) has set up a matchmaking programme with chambers in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Shanghai, China; and Delhi, India, to allow local entrepreneurs to interact with one another over the Internet.

“We are going to work with the new BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) thing, instead of fighting it,” concedes JCCI chief executive Keith Brebnor. “China is not going to go away, so we are embracing them. If you don’t embrace them these other countries outside Africa will go direct to African countries. So we should move in.”

China’s continued rise is likely to bring with it both threats and opportunities for South African entrepreneurs. Here are some predictions:

  • Chinese exports to move to high-tech

Chinese goods will continue to land on our shores in large numbers, but years ahead these are likely to include more sophisticated, high-tech products. Even if prices are expected to be a bit more expensive than before, local factory owners manufacturing high-end products will have to ensure they have cornered a niche market and can compete on price and delivery with Chinese products, by turning to just-in-time delivery or doing small runs.

Some say China is where Japan was in the 1960s – producing cheap goods which were often of dubious quality, before shifting to more technical electrical and computer products.

Under its current 12th five-year plan (2011-2015), China is looking to aid seven priority sectors as it moves to focus more on high-technology. These are: renewable energy, energy conservation, new materials (such as high-end semi-conductors), biotechnology, IT, high-end manufacturing in telecoms and aerospace equipment and clean-energy cars.

China is also making significant investments in the development of new products and between 1998 and 2007, the country along with Korea, showed the biggest increase in R&D spending, according to the Beijing Axis.

At the same time wages are set to rise. In February the Chinese government released a job market plan to set minimum wage levels at 40% of average local salaries within three years. Cheap labour, which up until now has been supplied by the country’s poorer interior, is also becoming more scarce.

Also, under the current plan the country is making a concerted effort to strengthen its domestic economy, or the share made up by private consumption, but Chinese exports won’t slack off. According to a KPMG report, exports will continue to grow – from ¥11,3 trillion last year to an expected ¥16 trillion in 2015. So expect more high-tech goods at higher prices to start streaming into South Africa in coming years.

  • Opportunities in Africa

Much has been made of Chinese businesses backed by easy finance, moving into Africa, particularly where infrastructure projects are rolled out in exchange for mineral resources. Some liken it to neo-colonialism, others say the Asian country’s projects are a godsend to a poor developing continent.

China’s growing presence on the continent may even create big opportunities for South African firms in financial and other services.

Barrie van Wyk of Beijing Axis points out in a September 2011 edition of Beijing Axis publication, China Analysis, that China’s increased business in Africa has also created demand for services, and thus opportunities for legal firms, banks and other service providers. These are areas of strength for South Africa, and more local companies should be exploring the African market.

Standard Bank economist, Jeremy Stevens says that while China’s focus is turning towards domestic matters, the Asian dragon is also eyeing Africa now more than ever – particularly with the uncertainty in traditional northern markets of Europe and the US.

Africa remains a key market for China, particularly when it comes to its demand for commodities,including minerals and oil. Last year China-Africa trade hit a high of $155 billion.

Africa is also growing fast, and has already been outlined by McKinsey and others as one of the most attractive markets over the next few years. Yet despite this, Africa is in need of an urgent infrastructure overhaul. Stevens estimates that the continent needs about $100 billion a year to build new roads, erect new powerlines and maintain and develop other key infrastructure.

And although it will mean stiffer competition for local firms operating on the continent as they struggle to compete against cheaper Chinese turnkey projects, Stevens, who has been based in Beijing for six months, believes it also means more opportunities for South African entrepreneurs.

He stresses that it makes “long-term structural sense” for China to partner with South Africa, the biggest manufacturing sector on the continent. Added to this, many larger South African firms have become household names across the continent. Stevens believes Chinese firms could also help with another South African problem – unemployment.

  • Prospects to enter the Chinese market look good

With over 1,3 billion people China has become a valuable market for entrepreneurs to tap into. Chinese consumers are on the rise and the country is already the biggest car manufacturer and second biggest energy consumer in the world, as incomes have tripled between 2000 and 2010, according to Beijing Axis.

China is set to become the largest market for luxury goods by 2015, when it will account for 29% of consumption of luxury goods, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

And China’s goal to increase technological capabilities in a range of sectors will mean that Chinese regulators will welcome advice and training from experienced foreign companies, according to public affairs global giant Apco.

South Africa is looking for a slice of the action and the Department of Trade and Industry last year presented the Chinese Ministry of Commerce with a list of ten key sectors that they would like to promote to Chinese consumers, including wine and vehicle manufacturing.

But, trade analyst Draper cautions that South African entrepreneurs who export food products to China will come up against health checks and have to compete with China’s heavily subsidised local agriculture sector.

For South African firms looking to invest in China, having expertise in a cutting edge technology or service is far more important than arriving with briefcases of cash, says emerging markets analyst Davies. China, with the world’s largest dollar reserves, isn’t short on funds.

Breaking into the market, he says, will also require good people skills, as doing business in China is a very human relations-dependent exercise. There is also the issue of language. Any meaningful transactions will require knowledge of Mandarin.

According to Davies, about a dozen or more South African companies have a presence in China. These include Kumba Iron Ore, Naspers, SAB Miller, Anglo American, Hollard, Old Mutual, earth compacting company Lanpac, Barloworld, FirstRand, Capespan (which invested 20% in a food distribution company in Shenzhen) and Discovery Health.

Despite this, Davies says the number of South African companies in China remains limited, particularly compared with Australian firms which have been there for some time.

“South African companies have been late to the party,” he says, adding that a small country like Switzerland already has 500 companies based in China.

This means that entrepreneurs will have to keep a watchful eye on China – be it exporters looking to expand into new markets or  business owners looking to roll out a new factory. The Asian giant offers both opportunities and threats, but, with careful planning, the opportunities can outweigh the threats.

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Stephen Timm is a freelance writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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Business Landscape

Customer Control For Entrepreneurs

How can small companies exert a degree of control over their customer base and help ‘guide’ them in such a way that they remain loyal and continue purchasing from them?

Gary Harwood

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No organisation, irrespective its size, industry, and geographic location, can succeed without customers. And given how the digital environment has made it easier for competitors across sectors to emerge, entrepreneurs are especially under pressure to balance customer needs and desires, with value propositions that still make them money.

There is clearly a fine balancing act to manage.

On the one hand, you have people who (thanks to technology) are aware of the power they have over product development and pricing. After all, if a competitor sells a product or service at a lower price, who is the customer going to go with? Add to this, the ability to customise solutions according to data analysis of specific end user needs, then you have a situation where many entrepreneurs feel they are facing a never-ending struggle.

On the other, small to medium businesses must be able to produce products and services in such a way that cash flow is maintained. As any entrepreneur can attest to, not having a reliable cash flow is tantamount to business failure. So, how can small companies exert a degree of control over their customer base and help ‘guide’ them in such a way that they remain loyal and continue purchasing from them?

Related: How English Language Skills Play An Essential Role In Building Trust With Your Customers

Managing expectations

One of the most important elements in this regard is managing customer expectations. The emergence of social media and the power it has to influence people’s buying decisions, cannot be overestimated. Today, more than ever before, the likes of word of mouth, marketing, and public relations as a direct result of social networking can often grow or sink a burgeoning business.

It has also created a dynamic where customers feel that if they leave a negative comment or ask a question, they expect a response almost immediately. For entrepreneurs already trying to do everything themselves while managing the business, this can often be a major cause of frustration. But it does not have to be the case.

By setting parameters up front with customers in terms of response times, queries, and even experiences, small businesses can start leveraging the power of social networking and other digital communication technologies for their benefit.

Being pro-active and taking charge of these expectations puts the organisation in more control than if a hands-off approach is followed.

Being open

Openness and transparency might sound like luxuries no entrepreneur can afford, but these concepts build strongly from managing expectations. Having open discussions with customers on aspects of support, product requirements, and even their (the end user) own expectations can greatly assist a small company to provide a more bespoke approach to products and services.

Related: 5 Techniques To Leave Customers Grinning And Vowing To Return

In addition, by providing customers with various resources (think troubleshooting or ‘self-help’), the entrepreneur is empowering them to take control of their own experiences with the company. It also means they are not as reliant on company resources if they were to phone the organisation or email a complaint. The added benefit to this approach is the customer can manage their own experiences when they have the time to do so irrespective of whether it is 10:00 or 22:00.

Granted, the path to customer control (perceived or otherwise) is not an easy one to take. However, no entrepreneur can afford not to take notice of these requirements and put the customer at the forefront of their thinking.

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Business Landscape

What Can Businesses Expect From The Future Of Work?

While the future of work will always be a constant process of innovation and change, here are a few things that business today can expect in the near future.

Josh Althuser

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The phrase “future of work” is something professionals have been talking about since the birth of the traditional workplace in the late 19th century.

Once defined by cubicles that were arranged neatly side by side with meeting rooms and, of course, the head office with an amazing view of the skyline, today’s offices are strikingly different.

Over the last decade, there has been a surge in the development of open-plan offices, and more and more companies are moving their employees to co-working spaces and experimenting with remote work. For businesses that are still straddling the traditional office, but looking to embrace the future of work, it could be overwhelming at first. While the future of work will always be a constant process of innovation and change, here are a few things that business today can expect in the near future.

Expect flat hierarchies

In 2017, most companies have recognised that employees, especially younger ones are turned off by the conventional hierarchies that once dominated the world place.

Related: 5 Inexpensive Workspace Improvements That Boost Productivity

Start-ups and small businesses often pride themselves on their “flat” workplace culture, which aims to give both leaders and employees the chance to give input on an equal level. In theory, these structures aim to make room for more innovation and also to help workers feel more appreciated in their roles.

Yet, it doesn’t come without its issues. There have been various studies showing that egalitarian workplace structures can be disorienting and can potentially result in higher turnover rates, as employees feel lost in their roles. Thus, it will take time for the workplace to strike a balance between structure and equality, but so far it seems we are well on our way. 

The architecture of the office space is changing rapidly

Chances are you’ve heard of open-plan offices. With corporate giants like Facebook and Google companioning the flexible workspace, company around the world are breaking down literal walls to create airy and open offices that encourage collaboration.

Again, much like the flat workspace, open-plan offices need to be considerate of individual needs. While many workers appreciate the chance to work in a more informal setting, the open office has also faced criticism for introducing new distractions by not including enough private areas, which can lead to a downturn in productivity. As a result, more companies are turning to co-working spaces, which offer both workspace and community space.

Co-working spaces differ from open-offices in the way that they provide community management, structure, and flexibility, ensuring that workers have their needs met, whether that means a private office for the whole company or a hot desk for workers who just want to come in a couple of times during the week. 

Related: Workplace Evolution 2.0: Are You Ready For The New Era?

Remote work will be commonplace

Allowing employees to work remotely has proven to be successful. Companies have been introducing remote days over the last five years, and some even allow their staff to telecommute on a full-time basis. In the early days of the freelance ecosystem, remote work was considered to be unprofessional, but we have learned over the years the allowing employees to telecommute, even on a part-time basis can make them more productive and satisfied in their roles.

There’s no doubt that advancements in communication tools, such as Slack, have allowed workers more freedom, but there are also enormous benefits for businesses as well.

Companies can save on overhead costs by moving teams into a co-working space, or take out a flexible lease in combination with allowing workers to work outside of the office, even if it’s just a few days a week. By saving on rent and utilities, leaders can make room in their budget to invest in employees, by offering educational workspaces or purchasing new equipment.

Overall, these changes have a long way to go before they become permanent fixtures in the workplace. In fact, many businesses are now experimenting with various workplaces trends to find what works best for them and their employees.

Yet, even if you are not ready to grant your staff remote days or turn your office into a single shared space, it’s vital that your business is aware of these trends so you can keep up with the rapidly changing future workplace.

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Business Landscape

How Investors Can Take Advantage Of The Rand’s Currency Trading Rates

Negative sentiment is likely to be pervasive with the SA economy, and it will take more than a new figurehead in government to right the wrongs of a mismanaged economy.

Harald Merckel

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The USD/ZAR currency pair is trading in the 13.65 range heading into mid-December 2017. Over the past year, the 52-week low was 12.3126, and the 52-week high was 14.5742. As one of the more volatile currencies in the trading spectrum, the ZAR is closely associated with the political shenanigans taking place in South Africa.

The year to date return for the currency pair is -0.50%, after having started 2017 at 13.7351. Much of the activity taking place with the ZAR is speculative. Futures contracts are largely responsible for the whipsaw movements in prices.

Wilkins Finance strategists stress the importance of credit ratings agencies on currencies:

‘Whenever credit ratings agencies such as Moody’s and Fitch downgrade their assessments of the South African economy, this has a negative impact on the ZAR. The impact is not always predictable however – towards the end of November 2017, the USD/ZAR had appreciated after the recent ratings downgrade of the economy.’

Moody’s Investors Service downgraded South Africa’s economy to a rating of Baa3. This is the lowest rating level for Moody’s. Further ratings will be announced in February next year. Fitch has already downgraded the foreign currency and local currency to BB +, but has offered a stable Outlook for the ZAR.

Related: The Business Of Anxiety In Business: Giving Heroes Permission To Feel Vulnerable

That S&P also downgraded the South African economy to sub-investment grade is an important decision, and one that will have negative ramifications for the South African bonds market. Now, the Barclays Global Bond Index will no longer feature South African bonds. That South Africa’s bond market will be excluded from the World Government Bond Index will also be a bugbear to any hopes of the ZAR appreciating.

Interest Rates in the South African Economy

The South African interest rate is highly attractive to foreign investors, given that the UK, US, Canada, Japan, and European bank rates are at historic lows. There is little to be gained by investing cash in fixed-interest-bearing securities in these economies. The current interest rate in South Africa is 6.75% (as at November 23, 2017). The interest rate has dropped to expand economic activity in the country.

Overall, South Africa’s inflation rate for the year is expected to remain at 5.3% dropping to 5.2% in 2018 and rising to 5.5% by 2019. Global investors remain concerned about the risk/reward environment in South Africa. The country has experienced significant capital outflows in recent years, driven in large part by uncertainty regarding future prospects. The USD/ZAR was trading at 14.60 in late November, and current ZAR strength is being attributed to USD weakness.

Related: Offshore Business Opportunities Abound For South African ‘Oldpreneurs’

Factors on Both Sides of the Atlantic

One of the major economic events affecting exchange rates will be the reconciliation of the House and Senate bills on US tax legislation. Any major overhaul of the US tax code will invariably result in a dramatically boosted USD, and a weakened ZAR. For traders, it appears to be short-term call options on the local currency and long-term call options on the USD.

It is evident that currency traders are hedging against the ZAR over the long-term. The fundamentals of the economy are structurally unstable. The power grid infrastructure, water supply problems, and political instability at the highest echelons are but a few of the many problems plaguing South African growth prospects.

However, the ZAR will draw strength from the election of a credible leader, and this will be particularly noteworthy with Cyril Ramaphosa’s appointment. Overall, negative sentiment is likely to be pervasive with the SA economy, and it will take more than a new figurehead in government to right the wrongs of a mismanaged economy.

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