Looking Beyond The Wall

Standing on the Great Wall of China 50 miles outside Beijing left me with a sense of awe. The world’s only man-made structure visible from space rises dramatically above the plains and continues west for 3,000+ miles across mountains and valleys. Under construction for more than 2,000 years and intended to keep out the Mongols to the north, the Great Wall is today more of an attraction than a deterrent. Tourists swarm, vendors peddle, cameras whirr and eyes widen.

When the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing conclude, few people with a TV will not have seen some part of the Great Wall. But beyond the awe and majesty, how will they think of it? As a triumph of architecture, massive use of forced labor, the genius of construction technology, failed attempt to keep the world out?

What does the Great Wall have to do with research perspectives? Our produce business is completely global; we need to understand what makes potential consumers buy and where new sources are emerging. Because the highest walls in our business today are those we build in our minds.

I was in Shanghai with PMA Chairman of the Board Janet Erickson to attend a meeting of our International Council, a standing group drawn from our membership worldwide. It drew retailers from Asia, Europe, Canada and South Africa and suppliers from Argentina, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand and the United States, among others. A focus of our meeting was the draft of a White Paper on China created by the research experts at Rabobank, the world’s leading agricultural lending bank.

Leading our conversation was Patrick Vizzone, the Australian-born head of the bank’s Strategic Advisory and Research food group based in Hong Kong. Our plan was for PMA’s council to dissect the draft and provide a reality check on the status and potential of China as both an importer and exporter of fruits and vegetables. PMA and Rabobank had already agreed to publish the finished product of this collaborative process later this spring. Patrick will discuss the findings in a special session during Fresh Summit in San Diego in October.

This summer, I’ll dig into the completed White Paper with you. We know there is great interest in the impact China has for the global produce industry. When you have a population of 1.3 billion hungry for better food and you already grow, for example, almost half the world’s apples, someone in our industry, somehow, sometime is going to feel the effect — and it’ll be in more than just apples.

I went to China for the first time not knowing what to expect. I’d recently read Thomas Friedman’s magnificent The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Friedman outlined how countries like China and India are benefiting from the global connectivity brought on by new technology, economic growth, and political change. On the plane, I also read James McGregor’s new One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China, which digs deeper into the guts of what makes Chinese business run. On arrival in China, I read the latest reports on GDP growth in 2005: officially at 9.9 percent after 9.5 percent in 2004.

China is a collection of many contrasts. It is labor rich and resource poor. Some people see great opportunity for produce shipments into a country with such pent-up buying power. Others see the abundance and low cost of labor as a harbinger of Chinese produce exports biting into their share of the global market.

Want to see complete supply chain integration? Visit City Shop, a five-store high-end retailer in Shanghai whose produce selection, mostly organic, comes directly from its own greenhouse farm called City Farm on the outskirts of the city. PMA’s group visited both ends of this “supply chain” and marveled at the freshness of the products.

At the other end of the spectrum, wouldn’t you salivate if, like a Wal-Mart Supercenter we visited in Shanghai, you had 15,000 shoppers passing through in one day? What about a fleet of your own buses bringing shoppers to and from the store? Don’t forget the swarms who descended on the pear display when its price was suddenly dropped more than 50 percent, a sight that would bring joy to shippers everywhere.

In Beijing, I ate lunch at Baijia Dazhaimen where two waitresses in Ming Dynasty costumes took our order directly on handheld computers that relayed the information wirelessly to the kitchen. Old World, meet the New World.

Venture into the heart of what was once called the Forbidden City after passing under the picture of Chairman Mao. In an inner sanctum populated in centuries past only by the emperor, his family and their eunuchs, you’ll find…a Starbucks.

Then there was the bowl of Sunkist oranges placed in front of the massive white Buddha in Shanghai’s Jade Buddha Temple by the resident monks. Imagine the brand visibility one gets in a holy shrine where thousands come to kneel down daily, reflect and leave their coin donations.

The Chinese seem intent on creating in two decades the growth that bypassed them in the 200 years prior to the 1990s. Once a trading giant, technologically ahead of the West, they want to return to that glory. For them, the Great Wall is a symbol of past accomplishment, not a barrier to growth.

I tasted the powerful flavor of a country in which lessons are learned quickly and resulting action happens as if by reflex. The willingness to absorb ideas and the work ethic to implement them is incredible. Do you want a product in a different package that shape and size? No problem, here it is.

Our 26-year-old Chinese guide from Beijing e-mailed me her view of Shanghai. “It is a city without memory: they can accept a new thing in 10 minutes and forget it in another 10.” Perhaps that captures the essence of the new China: looking ahead, not tied to the past, voracious, adapting, wanting to show the world that economic power can be restored if enough people are willing to really work for it. What an appetite, what a lesson.