The three stages of China consultants

This weekend, a friend asked me to tell him all I knew about consultants in China — but to tell it quickly, since he didn’t have much time.
My initial thought was to list all the consultants I knew. Management consultants. Business strategy consultants. Market entry consultants. Sourcing consultants. Quality consultants. Engineering consultants. Financial consultants. Human resources consultants. Marketing consultants. If there’s a question you have about China, there’s a whole consulting industry dedicated to helping you.
Then I suggested that he first check to see how long a particular consultant’s been around. In general, a good rule of thumb is that the longer a company has been in business, the more likely it is to be offering something of value.
But then I thought about some of the oldest China hands I know, and I rethought my position.
The thing about China that makes it different from other places — and what makes it more exciting — is the rapid pace of growth here.
But as a result, some of the normal rules of business don’t apply.
The people who were here doing business twenty years ago are not necessarily the people you need today.


I know a few guys who were among the first people to come to China. Some adapted with the times, and became very successful, running profitable businesses. Many did not, and are still trapped in the “Wild West” mindset. They see themselves as explorers, risk-takers and rule-breakers. They often go native, marrying Chinese women – or men, learning the language, studying the history and culture. They make much of their personal contacts and connections.

In the big cities, they’ve become mostly marginalized, hanging out in expat bars and telling stories of the old days. But in smaller cities, where foreign investors are just starting to come in, they may still be influential.

One such consultant even recommends in a book he wrote that foreign businessmen looking to find good local contacts should check out the expat bars.

I have to admit, I love these guys. They tell the best stories. But rather than going to the bars to find a consultant, foreign businesses are probably better off checking with their Chamber of Commerce representative or the city’s economic development officials.


Unlike the Wild West consultant, who prides himself or herself on deep local knowledge and connections, the Gold Rush consultants think they’re going to strike it rich just by showing up. They learn just enough Chinese to get by, and if they marry a Chinese spouse, it’s more often than not a trophy marriage, with English the predominant language spoken at home.

The Gold Rush consultant is likely to have better business skills than the Wild West consultant, but the get-rich-quick mind set isn’t very conducive to long-term success. This consultant may also be found in bars, but he or she is wheeling and dealing, not telling long stories of the good old days. Like the Internet dot-commers of a decade ago, these guys are looking for the big score, and often have no patience for the slow daily grind of real business.

In my experience, the Wild West and the Gold Rush guys have little to do with one another. The Wild West guys have no respect for the newcomers, who they think are here just to make a quick buck and have no real interest in China. The Gold Rush guys think the old-timers are crazy old coots. Both might well be right.


At some point, even the successful Internet start-ups had to hire grownups to actually run the companies. The Internet was no longer uncharted territory, or a gold mine — it was just business.

Today, so is China. Just business. In business relationships what counts more and more is the ability to deliver. A friendship might get you in the door, and a good sales pitch might get you that first deal, but in long term what counts is execution. And to do execution right takes serious business skill. For today’s new breed of consultants, China might as well be any other country. Meg Whitman came to run eBay after a successful career in traditional retail companies. People used to say that the Internet changed everything — and then they realized that it didn’t.

China has followed a similar path as many other countries and industries and has now become just another global player. A significant global player, yes, but operating under the same rules as everyone else. It’s the grown-ups turn now.