The Ruhr Valley was the heart of Germany’s industrial might. For more than 200 years, the smokestacks in this northwest corner of Germany pounded out the steel and iron that would form the backbone of the nation’s industry. And when the war drums rumbled, these factories supplied imperial Germany with its field guns, armored tanks and shells.
Prosperous communities grew up around these old blast furnaces and mills. People took pride in the stuff they could make with their hands. Tens of thousands found work in the factories of the Ruhr. Generations passed with the knowledge that their sons and daughters could make a life here and carry on the legacy of such a place. For a long time, that was the way it went.
But the winds of change patiently grind away at even the most impressive of advantages. In the early 1990s, the industrious workers of Asia powered the mortar and pestle that would crush the Ruhr’s traditional way of life.
It was a slow process, but the endgame was not hard to see. While the South Koreans became the most efficient producers of steel in the world, German workers were agitating for a 35-hour workweek. While the Chinese worked all day in their mills and new factories sprouted up like spring peepers all through China, Germany increased taxes and expanded its bloated government programs.
By the turn of the millennium, no one could ignore the stark reality any longer. The mills and factories of the Ruhr started to close – forever. In his terrific book China Shakes the World, James Kynge tells the story of ThyssenKrupp’s steel mill in Dortmund, one of the largest in Germany. The Germans called it the Phoenix, inspired by its rise from the ashes of bombing raids in World War II.
Within a month of ThyssenKrupp closing the mill, a Chinese company bought it with the idea of disassembling the entire mill and taking it to China, near the mouth of the Yangtze River. Soon after this Chinese company bought the mill, 1,000 Chinese workers arrived in Germany to begin the process of taking the plant apart and bringing it to China.
The Germans got an up-close lesson in why they could not compete. The Chinese worked seven days a week for 12 hours a day. The Germans started to complain. So the Chinese, in deference to local law, took one day off.
In the end, the Chinese dismantled the mill in less than one year – a full two years ahead of the time ThyssenKrupp initially thought it would take.
When the Chinese departed, they left the makeshift dormitories and kitchens they occupied for a year neat and clean. There was, however, a single pair of black boots left in one of the dormitories. The boots carried the brand name Phoenix, which was the same name of the plant the Chinese just took apart. The boots also carried the label “Made in China.” Kynge writes, “Nobody could tell, however, whether the single pair of forgotten boots was an oversight or an intentional pun.”
Over 5,000 miles away, the Chinese rebuilt the steel mill exactly as it was in Germany. As Kynge writes: “Altogether, 275,000 tons of equipment had been shipped, along with 44 tons of documents that explained the intricacies of the reassembly process.” Doing all of this was still cheaper – by about 60% – than building a new mill. Plus, in China, the demand for steel was such that the mill could start producing steel immediately at full capacity.
As recently as 1975, China’s entire output of steel could not match this one mill in Dortmund. Now, the Dortmund plant itself stands in China. And in Germany, you have a dying industrial city, unemployed steelworkers and the scarred earth where the mill once stood. Germany is thinking of turning the site into parkland and perhaps creating a lake and marina. But as one burly steelworker says in Kynge’s book: “Do we look like yachtsmen to you?”
This remarkable vignette captures, on many levels, how the game has changed. Comfortable workers in the factories and mills of America and Western Europe have no idea what they are up against. Even so, the nature of global competition keeps shifting.
We tend to think of emerging markets, such as China, as occupying a place down on the food chain of the global economy. We tend to think of these places as sources for cheap labor and natural resources. But more and more, these emerging markets are home to world-class companies in all kinds of industries.
This is the thesis of Antoine van Agtmael, author of a new book called The Emerging Markets Century. Agtmael is the man who coined the phrase “emerging markets” to describe growing, but less-developed economies such as China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Thailand and other places. Before him, we called these markets “third-world” – which brings to mind many negative associations. To sell the idea, Agtmael came up with “emerging markets.”
I saw Agtmael give a presentation in Washington, D.C., one evening. I’ve also since read the book. Agtmael spent 30 years in these kinds of markets. “I have helped IranAir lease airplanes and hire crews in Ethiopia, was involved in financing Ghana’s cocoa exports,” he writes, “and grew wise to the ways – many of them laughably one-sided – that developed nations interacted with what were in many cases recent European colonies.”
Agtmael selected 25 companies to profile in his book. All of them exemplify best practices and are widely recognized as leaders in their industries. All of them call an emerging market home.
Agtmael writes about spending time in High Tech Computer Corp.’s research lab in Taiwan in 2005 and how “Suddenly, my BlackBerry looked like a Model T.” He writes about how the regional jets we fly are made in Brazil (by Embraer). How computers are now not just made in China, but designed there. How Indian and Slovenian labs produce proprietary new drugs. And on and on it goes.
The world has changed in a profound way, but the typical investor probably doesn’t appreciate this fully. One more nugget from Agtmael: In 1988, when he started his fund, there were only 20 emerging market companies with sales of more than $1 billion. Most of these were banks or commodity companies. (Overwhelmingly, they were located in Taiwan.) Today, there are over 270 companies with over $1 billion in sales, and 38 with more than $10 billion.
Many of them are high-tech companies or provide consumer products and services. This bolsters Agtmael’s point that many of today’s emerging market stars do not rely on cheap labor, abundant natural resources or protective government policies. Instead, they have developed competitive advantages in technology, design, logistics and other areas.
Agtmael also gives his tips for investing in emerging markets. The most important of these may simply be this: “Don’t be afraid to invest in them.”
for The Daily Reckoning Australia