EPS Review #132 - Mr. China

Mr. China by Tim Clissold, Constable & Robinson, 2002, 318pp.

I got this at Hong Kong airport, where there were loads and loads of books on doing business in China. Though I was there on vacation, the huge amount of economic progress since I had last visited over 20 years earlier had left me with the desire to invest, which I knew Mr. China would temper, given what I had read about it in The Economist.

In the early 1990s Mr Clissold and Pat (the web seems to indicate that Pat is really a Jack Perkowski at a company called Asimco) are some of the first people to dare to enter into joint ventures in China. They visit over 100 prospective companies, and raise $418 million to invest. They buy controlling stakes mostly in car-part factories and a few breweries. And then they have a nightmarish time controlling their purchases, mostly because the former company directors end up ignoring every command from their new managers, and some even embezzle, steal, and encourage riots among the workers.

The tales of disaster are riveting in a horrible way. Such sneakiness and confrontation. But Clissold is careful to blame it on the upheaval in Chinese society as communism was replaced, and fair enough. At one point he needs a break, and goes skiing in France, only to have something that looks like a heart attack ("great black veins on my arm stood out half an inch"), but turns out to be a virus. Then he heads back to China for more punishment.

What I'll remember most from the book, aside from the advice always to grab the chops (company seals) when firing the top guy, are some of the incidentals. Sixteen million workers hidden in remote mountain valleys because Mao thought it would make industry safe from the Soviets. A Chinese woman manager who accuses the author of "talking in dog farts" and creating "a mess like a stir-fry of pubic hair and garlic." And wily Old Shi and his tidy factories.

I found a few web sites saying that Clissold now works for Goldman Sachs, but it is hard to confirm. I did find a site that argues with him about pinyin though.

David wrote: No Clissold in [ Goldman Sachs ] Outlook or People Finder.

Jeff wrote: Very cool - I will buy the book. Incidentally, what was the virus that made his veins pop out?

I replied: Unknown! Although the vein-popping was probably the blood-thinning drugs they gave him for the suspected heart condition.

Joe wrote: Did I ever tell you the story my mother told me about her mother? Her mother, my grandmother, obviously, was half indian and believed in "spells." She decided that her husband was having an affair or interested in another woman. At any rate, to keep him at home and faithful, she sprinkled some pubic hair in some poatoes she planned to serve him. My mother, who was about 12 years old, either saw that or was told about it by her mother. So, she stayed up late waiting for her father to come home. When he sat down to eat dinner, my mother sneaked into the dining room and told him not to eat the potatoes. He asked why, and she ratted on her mother. He replied,Oh eating hair won't hurt you, and ate the potatoes anyway. My mother always thought he did that so that she would not believe in witchcraft.

I replied: Hmm, I wonder what potions grandma used to make grandchildren well-behaved!

Paul wrote: Have you read Fragrant Harbor, by john lancaster?

I replied: No, do you recommend it? I have to admit that I once read Noble House by Clavell, and still remember "golden pubics", to continue a theme.

Andy wrote: Funny you should pick this up. Jack Perkowski is a friend of mine. He has definitely had his share of ups and downs - but I think has stabilised the operation. He originally wanted to be in and out of the investment in 3 years, now 10+ years later. Asimco has a website if you're curious - haven't looked at it in awhile, but used to have a picture of Jack on there.