This story of business in China starts, alarmingly, with a hostage-taking over a commercial dispute. But rather than launching into a tale of business noir, the author admits that, well, the hostage-taker had a point: he had not in fact been paid.
The dispute was over broccoli, but the fresh-food business can, it seems, be just as bruising as any other. The Lettuce Diaries takes place during—excuse me—the salad days of Western investment in China’s retail market in the early ’00s. In 1997, the 27-year-old French financial manager Xavier Naville moved to Shanghai for what he thought would be a couple of career-building years for a multinational who had just acquired a stake in one of first Western-owned food processing firms in China. As happened many other times, this turned into a much longer sojourn of entrepreneurial ups and downs.
Naville follows up his introductory anecdote with the following summary:
My story is a patchwork of mistakes and chance encounters leading to success against great odds. I built a business from nothing into the largest fresh-food company in China. I struggled with near-bankruptcy and treacherous managers. I discovered that my Western education had to be blended with an entirely new set of principles guiding relationships between people. In the end, I sold Creative Food to a European company, along the way becoming one of the rare foreigners in China who built a business by buying crops grown by Chinese farmers and selling the resulting products to Chinese consumers.
While accurate, this could have been insufferable. Yet the book is anything but: Naville is honest about his missteps, self-deprecating almost to a fault, ready to credit associates and good fortune. When he started, he didn’t really know what he was getting himself into (drawing, I am sure, knowing nods from other entrepreneurs), learned as he went along, screwed up, cut corners—but pulled it together in the end. One suspects that Naville is smarter than he lets on.
While supplying chopped lettuce to the likes of KFC isn’t perhaps the sexiest of businesses, Naville makes an interesting story of it, not least because it actually is interesting. This, after all, is a real business, involving farmers (for whom the crops and farming methods were largely new), supply chains, trading, processing, multi-cultural human resource and financial management. Naville mucks in, and explains it all from a mostly worms-eye view; the reader turns over new ground as he does.
There are hints—in addition to the curious use of feet, acres and Fahrenheit rather than the metric system universal both in Asia and in Naville’s native France—that the book is not really for those who already have some experience in China, including references to “a translation system called ‘pinyin’” and noting that “Sun [Yat-sen] was the first president of the Republic of China.”
There are in addition some drawbacks to The Lettuce Diaries as a China business case study. The action takes place around 20 years ago—Naville stepped down as CEO in 2011, by which time he was several years into the story’s epilogue—and even a single decade is a lifetime in China’s business development.
More serious, perhaps, is the degree of “othering” of China and Chinese, including facile statements like “from a Chinese point of view, the ruler distributes power and authority” and “at heart the average Chinese person will always be reluctant to speak out.” There are references to Confucianism and Daoism. China of course is different: the forces and conditions (political, economic, legal, commercial) acting on business people are different and they therefore make different decisions. In discussing the melamine milk powder scandal (which Naville had nothing to do with) as an example of food safety issues in China, Naville portrays the incident as showing something fundamental about China, yet Western multinationals have also sold products they knew to be dangerous or on which corners were cut (cigarettes, opioids and airplanes, for example). Naville freely admits cutting corners on food safety in his own company. Attributing differences in the Chinese business landscape to the Chinese being “different” is circular and not particularly analytical.
But utility is perhaps not, and probably should not be, the primary metric for judging a book. Naville is, contrary to some expectations one might have had going in, not a bad writer at all. The Lettuce Diaries may not quite be Tim Clissold’s Mr China (the classic China business memoir which Naville has evidently read: he recommends it to an associate), but it can sit on the same shelf. Naville is now a business consultant focusing on Asia; the book features prominently on his professional website but it’s immeasurably better than the 300-odd page brochure it so easily could have been.
This is not in fact a rags-to-riches story. Naville starts off in an “impeccably-tailored suit” in 1997 when he arrives; he seems to have ended up with something on the order of a couple million US$. The Hong Kong property market might have offered similar returns with less angst.
But money isn’t of course always the main objective in life:
Back in 2001, I had on one occasion laid down on my office floor, fearful and overwhelmed by responsibilities while still full of dreams for my fledgling start-up. Five years later, I sold a stake in a business with six factories, a thousand employees, and $30 million in revenue …
That’s a fair accomplishment. Yet given the way Naville writes about journalist Jane Lanhee Lee, whom he met in China and married, one suspects that the real life lesson of the book is something else.