Fredy Bush couldn't have known, but 1999 turned out to be a bad year for an American to start a business in China. Shortly after she founded Xinhua Finance, a financial news and information company similar to Reuters or Standard & Poor's, the dot-com bust began to mushroom, and venture capitalists suddenly snapped their wallets shut. Then Chinese fighter jets forced down a U.S. surveillance plane on Hainan Island, putting Washington and Beijing nose to nose. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a worldwide recession followed soon after, and then the SARS virus turned much of Asia into a quarantine zone. "I stayed awake at night wondering if we would go bankrupt," Bush, 47, recalls. "Every macroeconomic and geopolitical event seemed to be going against us."
Her company rode out the turbulence, however, and Xinhua Finance is now poised to play a key role in the surge of foreign investment in China--and benefit handsomely from it. The kind of data it publishes--market analysis, credit ratings on hundreds of companies, stock and bond indexes--is manna to investors desperate to understand one of the world's most exciting, yet abstruse, economies. In 2005, the company's revenue grew 84 percent, to $110 million. And the growth of Xinhua Finance itself—founded not by a deep-pocketed corporation but by a single mom without a college degree—serves as a parable for American entrepreneurs seeking their fortunes in tricky foreign markets. "She's not the usual brash American businessperson," says Clifford Ng, a lawyer with Preston, Gates & Ellis in Hong Kong, which helped take Xinhua Finance public in 2004. "She's very good at building the relationship first and making people comfortable with her. Then the deal gets easy."
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Few people begin their careers less likely than Bush to end up as a globetrotting deal maker. Bush was raised as a Mormon in Utah, where she was married with two kids by the time she was 19. During her first year of college, her husband died in a motorcycle accident. She migrated to California and ended up working for a woman from Taiwan, who told Bush she could make $3,000 a month working as an English-speaking assistant to a government official over there. So in 1985, she packed up her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter and moved to Taipei--unaware that, among other things, the island state was under martial law.
Quick study. The job paid off, though. She worked as a clerk to the secretary general of Taiwan, responsible for helping purchase commodities like corn, soybeans, and grain. In 1988, after martial law had been lifted, the government started to privatize state-owned businesses, and markets began to open up. Bush saw a chance to apply what she had learned, starting a commodities consulting business called the Bush Corp. Meanwhile, she started studying Mandarin Chinese and the global securities markets.
With China gradually opening up--much the way Taiwan had--Bush moved to Hong Kong, then to Beijing, and finally to Shanghai. Along the way, she sent her kids to high school and college in the States, traveling to homes in San Francisco and Hawaii, where they were enrolled. She hired nannies to stay with them until they were older and "commuted" to be with them on weekends and holidays.
In the mid-1990s, Bush and her company started working with the Xinhua News Agency, the official news outlet of China's Communist government. With China eager to attract foreign money, party ministers knew they'd have to start demystifying their economy and providing more transparent financial data. Bush provided quotes and analysis to the agency much as she had to clients in Taiwan, and got to know key insiders. Business was good. She made enough money to ensure, for the first time, that she could finance good colleges for her kids.
By 1999, Bush believed strongly that China would become a member of the World Trade Organization, with a boom in foreign investment sure to follow. She approached contacts at Xinhua News Agency with a bigger plan than before, asking them to license its name and invest in a financial news service. Bush realized it was one of China's strongest brands and a powerful marketing device. "Xinhua has a name and authority and presence that's indisputable in China," she says. "If we had called the company China Finance, and it was being run by a foreign woman in China, with no partnering, I don't think it would have been successful."
The news agency ended up with a single-digit ownership stake in Xinhua Finance and control of two of nine board seats. A news agency executive, Wu Jiguang, became chairman of Xinhua Finance. Bush knew that a Chinese face atop the company would play well with her local audience. She became vice chairman and CEO. Then, to build credibility with the outside investment world, Bush recruited executives from firms such as Standard & Poor's, KPMG, Moody's, Credit Suisse, and Citigroup. She also knew it was critical that her company be perceived as independent of the Chinese government and the Communist Party. One step was forming partnerships with Lehman Bros. and the FTSE Group, publisher of London's FTSE100 index, and adopting their methodologies for measuring stocks and bonds. Bush says that not once has any Chinese authority tried to change or censor anything. "We've been watching them for two years, and we keep liking what we see," says Jared Carney of the Milken Institute, the Los Angeles-based economic research outfit, which plans to cosponsor a new set of Chinese economic indicators with Xinhua Finance.
Head start. Bush's strategy appears to be working. China's accession to the WTO in 2001 drew legions of multinational corporations to the Middle Kingdom. Yet even though it competes with big western companies like Dow Jones, Reuters, and Moody's, Xinhua Finance stands out. "We believe Xinhua's growth opportunity in China is unique," analyst Michael Gilmore of Nomura Securities wrote recently. The name is one advantage. So is the head start. With more than 1,000 employees who produce about 300 news stories and analyses each day, Xinhua Finance has a broader reach than any other company operating in China. It has an aggressive build-out plan, too. Instead of coasting on the Xinhua name, Bush is acquiring companies that specialize in related fields like investor relations and financial broadcasting--along with proprietary databases and methodologies that will enhance the company's reputation for hard data.
As for her lack of formal schooling, Bush has gathered the kind of business intelligence during two decades in Asia that grad schools and consultancies can't teach. One tip: Be nice. "In Asia, it's always about manners and politeness," she says. "In the U.S., it's more like, 'I'm doing business with you, but I'm going to say mean things about you anyway.'" Cultural insights matter too, she insists. In addition to wisdom, Bush has also found wealth in Asia. She owns more than 5 percent of Xinhua Finance, currently worth more than $40 million.
In China, of course, there are always risks, such as the threat of runaway inflation. And analysts like Gilmore point out that Xinhua Finance could become overstretched if it expands too quickly, in too many directions. But if Bush and her team put the pieces together right, they could be sitting atop an empire in a few years. There's still nowhere near enough data to satisfy investors pouring money into China, and Xinhua Finance's early lead could help form a new kind of financial powerhouse. "Think of a company with the combined power of CNBC and S&P," says Gilmore. "It would shoot competitors out of the water." Bush & Co. may soon be partying like it's 1999.
Person: Fredy Bush, 47
Position: Founder and CEO, Xinhua Finance, a Shanghai-based news and information company
Revenues: $110 million
Strategy: Partner with China's Xinhua News Agency, recruit western talent, buy other firms
Stake: Over $40 million