I have difficulty enough ordering food in a Chinese restaurant, let alone actually going to China and trying to do business.
I know I'm not alone. Many business people I know are too busy trying to make ends meet in our own hometowns - and let's not even talk about being brave enough to venture overseas. Particularly China. But the guys who have the mojo to do this can make bank.
Tom McCormick's company, EBL International, is still in its early stages. But if things go the right way, Tom could be one of those guys making bank ... in China.
Of course, like any business venture, things didn't go as planned. Because Tom never expected to be doing business in China. He was trying to sell his idea right here in the U.S. He wanted to connect banks with companies so that the banks could make loans to people and be paid back through payroll deductions. This way, people who have lower credit scores would have easier access to financing and the bankers' risk would be significantly reduced. But Tom didn't figure on the banking crisis in 2008. No bank was interested in doing anything other than running for cover.
But Tom was determined to make bank. And he learned from his research that there was at least one huge market that might be open to his company's idea: China.
"China has the opposite problem from us," he explained to me. "Our crisis came about from too much (and bad) lending. They don't have enough lending. Most of their financing is commercial. There is very little consumer credit unless you're among the very rich."
Tom wants to open up credit for the massively expanding Chinese middle class, through the same method that he planned in this country: Banks would lend to the consumer, and payments would be guaranteed through their company payroll deductions.
For the Chinese banking industry, consumer credit is a new concept. Issuing credit cards is a new concept. Managing millions of consumer balances, collecting interest, and checking credit-worthiness are all new concepts. But he knew the banks would be interested. And so would the government. It's a great idea. But he would need some help pulling it off. Because doing business in China isn't exactly like opening up an office in Milwaukee.
MAKING THE RIGHT CONNECTIONS
Tom and his partners didn't know anyone in China. He had no Chinese friends. In fact, Tom had never even been to China. For him to succeed there, he was going to need help. He was going to need someone to connect him with business people in China. Someone who could open doors so he could get himself established. So Tom and his partners called friends and e-mailed acquaintances. They searched the Internet and asked anyone they knew if they knew anyone who could help them do business in China. They went to Jackie Chan movies.
Which led to a meeting with Jack Perkowsky. In New Jersey, of all places.
Jack Perkowsky is known by many as "Mr. China." He's the author of a best-selling book called Managing the Dragon which is a self-help book that teaches husbands how to stay successfully married. Just kidding - it's about doing business in China. A former investment banker, Jack founded ASIMCO Technologies in 1994, which became a major industrial enterprise based in China. He writes and speaks frequently about doing business in China.
And after meeting with Tom and his partners for 10 minutes at his horse farm in New Jersey, Perkowsky admitted he didn't know much about banking in China. "But I know someone who does," he said, munching on an egg roll. "And that's Jeff Williams."
I made up the egg roll part. But not the Jeff Williams part.
Jeff Williams isn't known as "Mr. China." But he should be. According to Tom, Williams has lived in China since 1979, working his way through various U.S. and Chinese banks, where he ultimately became the only foreigner to head a Chinese bank. He's like the American Jet Li of the Chinese banking industry. And today, Jeff Williams is known as the co-founder and chairman of the board of EBL International. That's because, after meeting with Tom in Beijing, Williams leapt at their idea.
PATIENCE AS A VIRTUE
The company officially organized itself in July 2010 as EBL International Inc. Today, four of its five people operate out of a shared office in Bethlehem, Pa. Angel investors were brought in and money was raised. The jury's still out on EBL. Over a year into this adventure, the company is still working on its first major deal. So, other than finding out where to buy a truckload of cheaply made electronics, what has Tom learned so far?
For starters, it really is who you know. If you're looking to do business in a foreign place like China, you better know Kevin Bacon. Or his Chinese equivalent. Because you're going to need someone to help you. "Mr. China" connected Tom to Williams and it was Williams who was the key contact for getting EBL International off the ground. "I'm not a Chinese speaker," said Tom. "But Jeff is so good he's oftentimes mistaken for being a native Chinese on the phone."
Williams introduced Tom to his network of banking associates, many of whom were educated in Western schools and speak English better than the Queen. Williams' credibility opened up doors for EBL. Without these introductions in a foreign place, you can very easily feel like a stranger. Finding the people who can help you make these connections isn't as tough as one might think. They're out there. Getting them to feel passionate about your idea is the real challenge.
Secondly, according to Tom, you have to be prepared to give up something. People will not help you for free. Like any complex business transaction, expertise will be needed. Starting a business in China. Introducing a new idea. Connecting Chinese bankers with employers. Working your way through the red tape. Learning how to play checkers. One person can't do all this. Which is why Williams owns a piece of EBL. It's only fair. Penny-pinchers: To get the help you'll need, you need to be prepared to pay experts. And many experts want more than just a check. They want ownership. One could argue that this is the kind of partner you really want: someone who wants to own a piece of the pie and share in the risk.
NO RED TAPE?
Next, consider the government as a friend. Tom has yet to encounter any significant bureaucratic problems in China. In fact, he's been made to feel at home. "Getting a meeting in China is easier than getting a meeting in New York," he said. The country is open to business. And in China, business is done at the grass-roots level. There are local groups of business and government leaders who are managing growth. Cities are planned in advance. Companies that fit into these plans are helped. Certain provinces tend to focus on growth industries, like solar, banking and world domination. These are the places that Tom has approached. But be careful: "I've learned that officials in China aren't that interested in helping a start-up," he warned. "Unless that start-up has the potential to create a lot of jobs."
Surprisingly, at least to me, Tom has received assistance from none other than the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Apparently, there's a Pennsylvania trade representative stationed in Shanghai. Who knew? And no, it's not the governor hiding from the teachers unions. And the rep is actually not a state employee, but rather an outside consultant. But he's provided Tom with introductions, helped him set up meetings with banks, and contributed critical background research on the Chinese financial services industry using data that's not available to the public. And the state pitched in too, with grant money that helped cover some of EBL's travel costs. Jim found out about all this through a Small Business Development Center. SBDCs are a great place to start if you're thinking of doing business overseas. And their services are free.
Finally, to do business overseas, Tom learned that you need money and you need a lot of patience. It's been over two years since he started this journey and there's still no revenue coming in. All of the partners have contributed their own money and time to this venture. And angel investors have been instrumental. But every dollar counts. Keeping overhead lower than low is the only way to survive as the clock continues to tick away.
Will Tom succeed? We'll wait and see. If he does, he'll definitely be one guy making bank ... in more ways than one.
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