Dec 06, 2016 12:26 PM

Multinationals Rethink China Strategy in Changing Market

(Beijing) — Labor unrest at Danone, Coca-Cola and Sony factories in China has cast a spotlight on a quiet pullback by some multinationals struggling with rising costs, a slowing economy and growing competition from homegrown rivals.

At the same time, others like fast food giants KFC and McDonald’s are also retooling their China strategies in a bid to strengthen their market position after several years of weak growth.

While the pullback has been especially poignant in the manufacturing sector, the receding tide is increasingly affecting the consumer space and some of China's oldest multinational citizens.

Decades-old China divisions of the world's largest beverage maker, Coca-Cola Co., French foods giant Danone SA, and the Japanese electronics company Sony Corp. have or soon will have Chinese owners. The Chinese fast-food operations of McDonald's Corp. and Yum Brands Inc.'s KFC are making major overhauls that involve partial or complete spinoffs. And foreign retailers leaving China in recent years include U.S. electronics giant Best Buy Co. Inc., British grocer Tesco PLC, and clothing chain Marks & Spencer Group PLC.

Industry observers have cited a number of reasons for the pullback, which has gained momentum over the last five years in the face of rising labor costs and China's economic slowdown after two decades of breakneck growth. Competition from Chinese rivals has also taken a toll, observers note, while the nation's exploding e-commerce sector has hit all traditional retailers, Chinese and foreign alike.

"The China market is evolving very quickly," said Edward Tse, a corporate strategy consultant and founder of Gao Feng Consultancy. "It's becoming more sophisticated and diverse."

"The way to go to market is changing, especially with social media," Tse said. "In many cases, Chinese competition is becoming very, very strong. With these forces at work, many multinationals are feeling a lot of pressure."

For some, the pressure was apparently too much to bear.

U.S.-based Coca-Cola recently announced a plan to sell its Chinese bottling operation to local partners. The company called the move part of a broader global strategy of going "asset light" while focusing on sales and brand development.

Around the same time, Sony sold a factory making smartphone-camera parts in the southern city of Guangzhou to a local partner. And Danone sold its bottled water maker, Robust Co. Ltd., to a local partner, as part of a shift from promoting domestic brands to catering to a Chinese taste for imported food products seen as safer by many consumers.

Unhappy Employees

Factories slated to be closed following the three latest selloffs were targeted for protests by employees worrying that their new owners will be less generous and more demanding than the multinationals, said Liu Songbo, a labor-affairs professor at Renmin University. The protests included work stoppages and noisy rallies around factory gates.

Worker demonstrations are not unusual at companies undergoing ownership changes in China, especially if a domestic owner is taking control from a foreigner.

"People worry that the new owner may make job and salary cuts," Liu said. "In addition, the corporate culture of foreign companies is often more accepted by their employees. So a change in that may upset everyone for a period of time.

"People may resist as they worry about uncertainties in the future," he explained. "You see this kind of reaction in many acquisitions."

McDonald's is in the process of selling its China restaurants to a local partner for about $2 billion, although the chain plans to continue running its broader, country-based operation. Yum Brands spun off its China operation as a separately managed and listed company in a deal that also included bringing in local equity partners for what's now an independent Yum China.

The recent landscape of withdrawals and labor strife contrasts sharply with the huge attraction China held out for multinationals for many years.

Starting in the 1980s, when the country first started welcoming foreign investment, multinationals were willing to tolerate China's huge bureaucracy and to partner with big government-controlled enterprises for a chance to profit from a market with more than 1 billion consumers.

The golden era saw most of the world's top retailers and manufacturers entering China, with big names such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Carrefour SA, Coca-Cola and Nike Inc. all piling in with major retail and manufacturing operations. At the height of the boom, China provided about half of all profits for KFC parent Yum. Even highbrow Apple Inc. was earning more than a quarter of its revenue in the country as recently as last year.

End of an Era

One of the first signals of a waning era for multinationals in China was a prolonged decline for KFC's same-store sales that started about five years ago. Apple started feeling the pinch this year, when its Greater China sales started to fall sharply. In the latest quarter, the company reported a 33 percent sales decline, pushing the China market's share of its global revenues down to just over 20%.

Competition from domestic rivals has been cited as a key reason for sliding sales at Apple and KFC.

The homegrown smartphone maker Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., as well as China's newest high-flyers, Oppo Electronics Corp. and Vivo, have challenged Apple. Meanwhile, KFC is facing competition not only from domestic fast-food chains that cater to local tastes, but also from more expensive restaurants that serve China's growing, nutrition-aware yuppie class.

A wide range of textile, electronics and consumer products multinationals with Chinese factories have also been pulling out of China and relocating in countries where labor costs are lower.

"There is some evidence that manufacturing companies are consolidating their operations in China or moving some manufacturing to lower-cost locations like Vietnam," said Kenneth Jarrett, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

"This is in response to China's slower (gross domestic product) growth and the increasing costs of operating in China," Jarrett said. "Strengthened local competition, particularly in areas like fast food, has also seen some companies begin to divest or sell stakes to private equity firms."

But not every multinational is pulling back. Industry watchers are quick to note that many companies targeting demographically sensitive market segments are still in the game — and growing.

One noteworthy example is the U.S. coffee shop chain Starbucks Corp., which opened 400 stores in China last year and hopes to open another 500 this year. By 2019, Starbucks plans have 3,400 stores across China.

"To say all the multinationals are feeling pressure is not quite true," said Tse, who cited Starbucks and Nike as among the foreign companies in China that "are doing well."

"It's not a completely bleak picture," he said. "But many multinationals need to understand the reality of China."

The headline and lead in this story have been rewritten to better represent the situation, which includes both pullbacks and also restructuring of existing operations.

Contact reporter Doug Young (; editor Eric Johnson (

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