They're big, they're rich, and they want to give you money. Are Chinese banks the lenders you've always dreamed of?
For generations the Jonathan Club, in downtown Los Angeles, has been a symbol of old-line WASP power, counting among its members such prominent figures as railroad magnate Henry Huntington, one of the founding capitalist powers of the Pacific metropolis, and William Mulholland, the engineer who brought down the Sierra water critical to the region's growth.
For most of the club's century-long existence, someone like Christopher Leu would have been lucky to get a job scrubbing dishes there. Until fairly recently, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, African Americans, and women were largely excluded from the club's elite membership, which remained overwhelmingly white, Christian, and male. Yet today Leu is greeted in the club's wood-paneled dining room like the ultimate insider.
"The Chinese economy is becoming integrated into the whole economy," explains the Hong Kong-born Leu, president of Los Angeles-based United Pacific Bank. "It's dim sum on weekends but pasta and hamburgers during the week."
The integration of Chinese such as Leu into the wider economy may be a watershed event for small, capital-hungry companies. The Chinese banking community--part of a global diaspora with vast financial reserves--has opened its vaults to non-Chinese entrepreneurs and promises to become a valuable new source of funding. What's more, early evidence suggests that the quality, not just the quantity, of Chinese lending is uniquely suited to serve small-business borrowers.
All of which explains in part why Leu is eating at the Jonathan Club and not at one of the hundreds of Chinese restaurants downtown and in the neighboring San Gabriel Valley. Like his WASP forebears at the Jonathan, Leu is looking for contacts and prospects--lawyers, accountants, financiers, and company owners. Once largely oriented toward Chinese borrowers, Leu has shifted his emphasis to serving small-business customers throughout Southern California.
The current move of Chinese-owned banks into mainstream U.S. markets reflects several critical trends in the global economy. One is financial: Chinese entrepreneurs in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and throughout Southeast Asia have accumulated huge stores of capital--much of it in U.S. dollars. Today Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taipei, the principal homes of Chinese who live overseas, have more foreign-currency reserves than any nation in the world, including Japan. For most of the past two decades, the bulk of that capital has been reinvested in east Asia, where returns on investment have historically been higher than in the United States. But that's changing, say Chinese financiers, because of trends that are political--and, they believe, lasting. The past few years have brought growing governmental instability in the region--the aftershocks of China's takeover of Hong Kong and its occasionally threatening posture toward Taiwan--which has badly damaged return rates, the potential for long-term economic growth, and currency security. "America is the safe haven," says Henry Hwang, whose Los Angeles-based Far East National Bank was recently purchased by Taipei's Bank Sinopac. "America is seen as still number one, the most prosperous and stable place. The opportunities are still here."
California is the epicenter of this activity: in Los Angeles alone, for instance, prior to 1989 there was just one Taiwan-based bank, compared with 10 today. But Chinese lenders are fast becoming bigger players in the entrepreneurial economies of growing cities such as Seattle and Houston as well. Seattle's Washington First International Bank, under president Elizabeth Huang, has grown since its 1990 founding to nearly $200 million in assets, and it now conducts nearly half its business with non-Chinese. "I think there's a huge niche to be filled," says Huang. "A lot of smaller companies need international banking, and the bigger banks are not good at servicing them." Huang and her peers have discovered what they consider a gold mine in the vastly underserved market of small and midsize companies outside their own ethnic community.
Is banking with the Chinese different? James B. Davis thinks so. Davis, founder of Practice Management Information Corp., a publisher of medical books in Los Angeles, had grown his business while banking with City National Bank, now L.A.'s largest commercial bank. His company made the Inc. 500 in 1993 and 1994. But Davis had become increasingly frustrated by the diffident and distant posture of his bank.
His attempts to obtain a line of credit were rebuffed--unless he was willing to pledge his personal assets.
Through a money-manager friend, Davis was introduced to Christopher Leu. "After 30 minutes with Chris, without any paperwork, he agreed to a half-million-dollar line of credit," recalls Davis. "We shook hands, and that was it.
"The thing I like about Chris is that I can call him and say I need another $200,000 on my line of credit and I'll get it," adds Davis, whose revenues this year are expected to reach $15 million. "After 10 years at City National, I'd never met anyone higher than a branch manager. It's the kind of personal thing that would have happened here 75 years ago, but I guess it's still going on in Asia."
In general, as the experiences of Davis and other entrepreneurial borrowers suggest, business owners considering turning to the Chinese should be prepared to work with someone who really wants to know the customer's business--an arrangement that's usually, but not always, appealing. An apparent by-product of the close ties that Chinese bankers cultivate with customers is the bankers' far-from-cookie-cutter approach to loan-risk analysis. When Dale Waters opened up his Rustic River Ltd. men's fashion line, in 1995, most conventional bankers judged his enterprise as a typical garment-industry business--highly risky and likely to fail. But Christopher Leu saw something else, a business run by an individual who during the 1980s had built BUM Equipment into one of L.A.'s hottest garment makers.
"Chris is not just a banker; he has an eye for a specific business," says Waters, whose company projects sales of $12 million for 1997, a figure that's expected to double this year.
There are drawbacks, too, to banking with Chinese-dominated institutions. Communication can be strained if the banker on the other end of the line doesn't speak English well. And the Anglo employees of Chinese banks aren't always in sync with their employer's entrepreneurial ways: often they're more conservative.
In a sense, the divergence between Chinese bankers' Asian roots and their attempts to Americanize may well represent the greatest long-term challenge they--and their U.S. customers--face. In a departure from the model of the large Japanese banks, such as Sanwa, which Leu claims have modeled themselves on Anglo institutions, Leu wants United Pacific to lure Anglo customers with the advantages of Chinese-style banking.
"The Japanese want to integrate. You go to their banks and it's like going to an Anglo one," Leu maintains. "We want to go into the Anglo market but retain an Asian flavor and Asian service, along with all the connections we have."
Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy, is a contributing writer at Inc.
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