Jack Ma, the sprightly executive chairman of Alibaba, the Chinese online retail giant, has just made that crystal clear. Ma released a Wall Street Journal op-ed in conjunction with a visit to American businesses this week some nine months after Alibaba went public in a $25 billion offering, the biggest IPO in history.
"We want to connect small business in the West with the largest, fastest-growing market in the East," he wrote. The strategy, according to Ma, is "simple and clear."
"Chinese consumers will get to buy the American products they want," and this, in turn, he said, "will help create American jobs and increase U.S. exports."
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That's right: Now, it's China's middle class looking to America as a workshop.
And it's a message Americans should be eager to hear. Already, a backlash against the outsourcing of domestic manufacturing over the years has spurred a renewed emphasis on goods "Made in America" and on locally sourced, artisanal products.
There's an added benefit for U.S. companies intrigued by what Ma is saying: The Chinese aren't drawn to American goods because of their low cost, as was the main attraction for U.S. shoppers in the '90s; they simply want American products. And often, they're actually willing to pay a premium to access them.
Sales from Pacific Northwest farmers to Chinese shoppers took off as soon as the fruit was offered on Alibaba's platform in December 2012, more than tripling to 600 tons last year, noted Ma, versus 180 tons in 2013.
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Consider the knock-on effects: The International Airport of Seattle-Tacoma added weekly Asian cargo flights, dubbed "cherry charters," to handle demand. Farmers and regional cherry packers have clearly benefited. And even container lines, whose West Coast import business has shrunk over the years, are now getting a lift from refitting their ships to refrigerate fruit and haul the goods the other way, to China.
"This success can be replicated for other everyday purchases," said Ma, mentioning "seafood from Alaska, pork from Iowa, children's toys from Rhode Island and sports gear from Oregon and Maryland."
Sure, those are thinly veiled references to major U.S. brands such as Hasbro Inc., Nike Inc., and Under Armour, Inc. But U.S. small businesses and start-ups shouldn't overlook the opportunity.