Book Review: One Billion Customers by James McGregor

What people are saying about Mulberry Fields
” A very interesting blog. – a company in France

In 1987 James McGregor and his wife sold just about everything they owned and moved to Taiwan to learn Chinese. Two years later the couple was in Beijing where McGregor had accepted the job as Bureau Chief for the Wall St. Journal. And he is still there 23 years later. 25 years in Chinese speaking Asia and 23 years in China. If you want to learn about China James McGregor is someone you want to listen to.

In One Billion Customers you can see the change in China from 1990 to today. The Beijing of 1990 as McGregor describes is the Beijing that I discovered when I lived there in the summer of 1990, drab, gray, a mass of humanity on bicycles, pool tables and piles of $0.10 watermelons on seemingly every corner, an absence of any foreign brands expect for Tang, Nescafe and the globally ubiquitous Coca Cola. Today in Beijing cars probably outnumber bicycles, there are about 100 McDonalds outlets and probably three times as many KFC restaurants and foreign luxury brands are household names and affordable to many Chinese citizens.

McGregor captures this unparalleled growth and very appropriately refers to China as a “start up” which it really is when you consider China was one of the poorest countries in the world a mere thirty years ago. But McGregor rightfully notes that beneath the start up mentality is a “deeply ingrained culture” that always prevails and which is why it is so difficult to do business there. Overseas business people that enter China and fail to acknowledge this always fail and McGregor has plenty of examples of failure for his reader.

One Billion Customers, is meant to serve as a guide for people doing business in China as McGregor himself writes: “This book is intended to show rather than tell what it is like to do business in China.” This is a bit of a cryptic remark and I am not sure what he means but at the end of each chapter he does end up “telling” people how to do business in China with a list of tips, what he calls somewhat banally “The Little Red Book of Business.” This detour at the end of each chapter detracts from the narrative of McGregor’s story, and the tips sound like sweeping generalizations about the Chinese and how they do business, not to mention that sometimes the tip itself just contradicts what McGregor has written elsewhere in the book. For example, McGregor writes, and correctly so, that “people should not succumb to the notion that all Chinese people are corrupt and that the system requires corrupt behavior.” Yet, among the tips at the end of Chapter 3 is this “Assume your procurement dept is corrupt unless proven innocent.” One Billion Customers would have been a better book had McGregor just left out “The Little Red Book of Business” altogether.

McGregor also seems to fall into the trap of using examples of how big companies or US Govt officials achieved success in China and implying that small companies can duplicate the success if they follow the same example. Charlene Barshefsky’s stormy negotiations with Chinese officials over China’s entry to the WTO in 2001 takes up all of one chapter and McGregor implies that her style – she had her bags packed and was ready to leave Beijing unless the Chinese negotiations team gave concessions – is suited to small companies or executives in China. It is, of course, not. And McGregor admits as much later in the book by drawing the line between multinationals and smaller companies. In fact, he describes the process of doing business in China for non-multinationals as a ‘swamp”

Still even with the inconsistencies and an overall tone towards the Chinese that might best be described as suspicious, One Billion Customers is a book that is worth reading. It is not the best book I have read on China. But it is far from the worst and it does leave one with a sense that although China is not an easy place to do business some things are definitely getting better. I think anyone who has been doing business in China for awhile would agree with this.

Here are some other book reviews:

Poorly Made in China
The China Price
China Shakes the World
The End of Cheap China


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