Sage Brennan says China is a land where true entrepreneurs can thrive. And Brennan (MBA ’05) should know – he has made a career out of studying how China does business and how to succeed there.
“There’s just so much energy and activity,” said Brennan, director of research at Hong Kong-based Pacific Sun Investment Management and chief representative of the firm’s China operations, based in Shanghai. “Even sitting still, Chinese people have so much energy. When you get used to the pace of things, you definitely get sucked into it. You’re inspired as an entrepreneur.”
Brennan, a native of Boston who also holds an undergraduate degree from UNC, has a pretty good handle on China and how the country does business. He has been general manager of Pacific Epoch, a boutique telecom, media and technology research company, and he contributed the “This Week in China” column to Dow Jones’ MarketWatch from 2005 to 2007. He has called China his home since 2000.
Brennan finds keeping abreast of the fast-moving, fast-paced business environment in China a challenge. And the hyper-competitive environment of the nation of 1.5 billion people can be very intense – as well as inspiring.
“You’re inspired as an entrepreneur,” he said. “China is a super, hyper-competitive environment. It’s the most naturally commercial, capitalist place you’ve ever seen, everywhere from the local street market up to high-level negotiations for media contracts.”
Brennan’s “This Week in China” column covered China-based technology and media companies and provided insights for investors. He spent several years at the technology research firm BDA in Beijing offering advice on strategic approaches to investing in China. Brennan knows it can be difficult to keep track of China’s companies, which is where Pacific Sun steps in.
“We’re out there talking to the companies we invest in every two weeks just to keep a baseline knowledge of what’s going on and maintain that personal relationship with management,” he said. “It takes a long time to develop that, and you don’t want to throw it away. Personal relationships still drive everything. That really is important in China.”
Brennan said he wakes up each morning to the possibility that his job will be completely different from the day before. And he likes that.
“I live in a city of 20 million people,” he said. “People are constantly bumping into people, taxis are crazy, traffic is insane, and people are always jostling and pushing. You don’t have the personal space that you would have back in the West. You have to get used to that and roll with it. It makes it more fun.”
Brennan’s studies at Kenan-Flagler prepared him well for work in the Far East. “Fundamentally, I’m an entrepreneur, and I really appreciated that aspect of the Kenan-Flagler program,” he said. “Even the finance classes I took were tuned to entrepreneurship and venture law. That was really helpful when I came back to China. Kenan-Flagler helped prepare me for life in a city that is as diverse as Shanghai.”
Brennan has been fascinated by China since he visited the country during the summer of 1987 as part of a high school Mandarin program, when the country was just beginning to open up, and continued studying Chinese while he was a student at UNC in the early 1990s. Brennan saw the Beijing Olympics as a further opening up of China, giving the world much-needed exposure to the rapidly evolving country.
“The Today Show and other NBC programs broadcasting every day in Beijing for two weeks provided a new perspective on China and also hinted at the way China thinks about itself. We will learn in the next six months to a year how much of the Olympics atmosphere was real and how much was a façade, but the Games were unquestionably a huge success for China.”
He has advice for anyone who might do business in China.
“Don’t ever bet against the Chinese people,” he said. “They embrace hard work, and they’ve increased their net worth substantially in the last 20 years. I can't wait to see how they evolve and how much they accomplish in the next 20 years.”