Xavier Naville of Vision Management Consultants: “Geopolitical tensions can cause delays, tariffs or shutting down of the border at any time”

For American exporters, the highest risk is market access. Geopolitical tensions can cause delays, tariffs or shutting down of the border at any time. I’ve been talking to US food exporters who are now looking at manufacturing some of their food ingredients in geographies that are less sensitive to the US-China political relationship like New […]

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For American exporters, the highest risk is market access. Geopolitical tensions can cause delays, tariffs or shutting down of the border at any time. I’ve been talking to US food exporters who are now looking at manufacturing some of their food ingredients in geographies that are less sensitive to the US-China political relationship like New Zealand or Canada. For investors in the China market, the risk is similar to any venture capital investment in the US. You want to pick the technology and the company that is most likely to win in a very competitive market. But I don’t see a specific risk associated with being a foreign investor in China apart from regulatory changes that would ban certain sectors to foreign investment.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Xavier Naville, a quadrilingual, international business leader, is an innovator in the consumer, food & beverage, and agriculture supply chain industries, with a specific expertise in the China market. Currently, as Partner at Vision Management Consultants, Xavier advises management teams and Boards on business strategy, and collaborates with Fortune 1000 companies to assist with supply chain or distribution, new product launches, and business development opportunities. As a business coach, he also helps small and mid-size business leaders to scale their business faster with measurable growth and results.

You can connect with Xavier at vision-consultants.org, xavier-naville.com, or on Twitter and LinkedIn. His new book, The Lettuce Diaries: How a Frenchman Found Gold Growing Vegetables in China, is available on Amazon and through other fine booksellers.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Some Westerners come to China in the hope of creating a new identity. Others get smitten by the culture when growing up, either after reading a book or watching a movie. Moving to China for me was a calculated choice, one that involved no dreams or passions. I didn’t have an urge to start a business, either, but I had always felt an urgency to see the world. My decision, in 1997, to move to China as a finance director for a company in which the multinational I worked for had invested, was pragmatic. As a young Finance executive in Paris, I was given a choice for my next job between Mumbai in India and Shanghai in China. The Chinese economy was growing by more than eight percent every year, attracting the attention of businesspeople everywhere. Newspapers claimed that one-third of the world’s construction cranes were stationed there. Shanghai’s infrastructure looked decades ahead of Mumbai. If I succeeded in this job, I could write my ticket to the next one, I thought. So, I signed a two-year contract, packed my things, and left Paris for good. When two years later I saw an opportunity to spin off my company’s small vegetable-cutting operation into a separate company, I started Creative Food and became an entrepreneur without having planned it. I embarked on a journey that turned my two-year contract into an 18-year stay in China!

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

I am currently advising multinationals on their strategy in China and Asia through my company Vision Management, and I work with mid-size business CEOs as a business coach. I love both activities. As a consultant, I help larger companies build successful strategies to grow in China, and as a coach I work with CEOs and their teams to execute these strategies. It’s very rewarding to identify patterns of behaviors quickly and help teams grow without going through the trials and errors I had to go through.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Many people played a key role in my life. But when it comes to Creative Food, the company I built and scaled in China, the person who comes to mind is an investor named Roger Marshall. Roger was the head of ABN Amro Private Equity in Asia. ABN Amro was a large Dutch bank. I was about to receive a major investment from this prestigious fund, and Roger had negotiated exclusivity of negotiation, which prevented me from seeking other investors. When at the last minute before documents got signed the Chairman of the bank decided not to proceed because he felt the investment wasn’t in line with the Bank’s new strategy, Roger had to call me and break the bad news. In my book “The Lettuce Diaries,” I retell the story of how desperate I was when that happened. I had no other investor, but worse, I was worried that nobody else would want to invest because such a high-profile name had decided to walk away. The investment community is very small, and people tend to invest behind other trusted investors. So, when one of them walks away after months of negotiations, every other investor’s assumption is that something isn’t right with the company. Roger knew that, and instead of apologizing and walking away, he had the courage to invest his own money, and he actively engaged with interested investors to explain how he personally trusted the company. That did it. Roger eventually became Chairman of the board, and I remain incredibly grateful for his integrity and commitment. He saved the company singlehandedly.

What do you think are the new markets in China that may become the next “big thing”?

I’ll focus on Food & Agriculture, which are the areas where I have expertise. For exporters from the US to China, opportunities really lay with from fast-changing consumer habits and the infrastructure being built to reach them. First, with disposable income increasing, Chinese consumers have been willing to pay premium prices for higher-quality, more natural and healthier food products. The meat sector illustrates this. Not only are the Chinese eating more meat, but they want it to be of higher quality, raised in a safe way. Beef imports were already worth 10b dollars in 2020 and are up 20% compared to that now. And this is up from nearly nothing a few years ago because Chinese historically consume more pork. In fact, American beef exports to China have increased 13-fold in the first months of 2021. Second, it’s getting easier to reach consumers in China. A few years ago, exporters had to go through layers of distributors to do so, but traditional routes to market have changed. Large importers are being dis-intermediated by smaller, specialized firms who want to buy directly and receive better services for their customers. And with cross-border digital platforms now totaling 260b dollars in trade and growing at rates of 30%, one can export directly to Chinese consumers without a significant presence in China and tap into fast-emerging e-grocery companies that are replacing old distributors.

For investors with an interest in China’s Food & Agriculture sector, there are very interesting developments in technologies that can help remediate soils that have been polluted by decades of fertilizer overuse. New companies offer solutions that leverage biotech to help farmers use fewer chemicals and ensure better environmental sustainability. Because enforcement of environmentally-friendly regulations has increased, compliance costs for large agricultural chemical suppliers have surged and made new technologies like cellular agriculture and Ag Biotech more attractive. As Chinese farms modernize, you also see an increased use of farm management software on the SAAS model that we know here in the US, especially in animal husbandry where big players in pig, poultry and dairy have already massively improved thanks to large amount of capital and technology investment. They are now looking for precision management solutions to increase productivity.

What challenges does that new market face? How would you address it?

For American exporters, the highest risk is market access. Geopolitical tensions can cause delays, tariffs or shutting down of the border at any time. I’ve been talking to US food exporters who are now looking at manufacturing some of their food ingredients in geographies that are less sensitive to the US-China political relationship like New Zealand or Canada. For investors in the China market, the risk is similar to any venture capital investment in the US. You want to pick the technology and the company that is most likely to win in a very competitive market. But I don’t see a specific risk associated with being a foreign investor in China apart from regulatory changes that would ban certain sectors to foreign investment.

Can you share the top challenges of doing business in China and how you overcame them?

I think that foreign companies often make the mistake of assuming that what worked elsewhere will work in China. But because a marketing strategy worked in another Asian market like Thailand or Indonesia doesn’t mean that it will work in China. The Chinese operating environment is unique and it’s also much larger. Think of the American market and multiply it by four. I succeeded because I quickly accepted that I didn’t “know better,” that I needed to surround myself with Chinese colleagues and advisors who understood the dynamics better than I did, and more important than anything I listened to their suggestions, even when they sounded counter-intuitive! Too often, I see my multinational clients pay lip service to the fact that China is a unique market and that they need a talented local team. But the reality is that many decisions still get made in headquarters overseas. The result is that they lose Chinese talents who go and work for Chinese firms where they don’t have to constantly educate their bosses about China and its intricacies.

We keep hearing about the Trade War between the US and China. What are your thoughts about it? Given the unknowns, how do you plan to pivot?

The US beef import surge in 2021 compared to 2020 perfectly illustrates the US-China trade relationship. The Phase 1 agreement negotiated by the Trump administration called for higher exports of agricultural commodities to China. The result? China is now the #1 export destination for US Agriculture products. It’s a market worth 26b dollars and it has increased 40% compared to 10 years ago. What it means is that the two nations are interdependent in many ways, and headlines in the papers may not reflect reality on the ground. The driver for this interdependence — in food terms at least — is the fact that China needs to feed 22% of the world population with 9% of the world’s arable land and only 6% of its water resources. China needs to import foods. A path to an improved relationship is for us to better understand how China has modernized, the challenges that it faces to feed its population and how the West can contribute to a solution. Understanding this will help develop specific strategies that can benefit both sides. One of the main reasons I wrote “The Lettuce Diaries” is to help western readers understand this background.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was at University, a professor said to me: “The best decision isn’t the optimum one, It’s the decision that come at the right time!” As a perfectionist this quote has hovered in my mind as a reminder of what matters. Every time my perfectionist’s little voice tells me that I need more information to decide something, I recall that quote. In today’s fast-changing world, it’s better to move quickly and adjust along the way than to be completely ready but miss the boat.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ninety-five percent of the food we eat — and a large part of the solution to climate change — comes from soils. So, I probably would want to focus on soil health. People don’t know that even if we stop emitting carbon with clean cars and factories, we still will have an excess of carbon in the atmosphere that we will need to capture. Regenerative agriculture advocates for rotating a variety of plants through the year, and low tillage can help capture a much larger quantity of carbon than what is currently practiced in industrialized farming. This may not sound practical on a large scale, but even when it comes to industrial crops like wheat or corn, new ventures now innovate to make soils healthier, using microbes that can fix the nitrogen that nourishes the plant rather than bring it from outside in the form of chemical fertilizers. I would want to spread this knowledge and help farmers develop new practices that will allow them to adopt these new technologies.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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