Some foreign companies do well in China, others fail. And some have a more rollerskating experience like Tesco, recalls retail analyst Paul French in the Telegraph. The UK retailer set off on a wrong foot with Taiwanese management, but took a good turn when Mr. Towle, a real grocer from the UK moved over.
Mr Towle has been in China for five years, and has no plans to leave. Under his leadership, the operation is clearly gaining momentum. Tesco did not make the best start in China, paying £140m (a rather steep price-earnings multiple of 51 times) in 2004 for a 50pc stake in Hymall, a Taiwanese supermarket chain with 25 stores.
“So many weird things happened at those stores,” said Paul French, a retail analyst at Access Asia. “It probably would have ended in a labour dispute these days. The staff hated the Taiwanese management and they used to talk about sabotaging the products and so on.
“The UK management sent over some people to try to tell the Taiwanese what to do and in the end they just got rid of them all. Since then, it has all been running well.”
A year after his arrival in China, Mr Towle took 90pc control of the venture for a further £180m and last year Tesco finally clinched the remainder.
Inside his stores, Mr Towle, who has been with Tesco for 25 years, working up from the bakery section, can reel off the prices of any of his products and will happily discuss catchment areas, layout and volumes.
“He’s a good old-fashioned grocer,” said Mr French. “Basically, to understand the Chinese consumer, you have to be a barrow boy grocer. They get it immediately. What was needed was a good deal of ruthlessness. In a business where you have a 2pc margin, you need to be ruthless.”