If you run a modest Japanese chain of ramen shops, how do you stand out from thousands of other noodle joints? Katsuaki Shigemitsu, who is in charge of the family-run Ajisen chain, headed for the fastest-growing market around: China. His franchisee, Ajisen (China) Holdings, is now operating 180 noodle shops in Hong Kong and the mainland. Shigemitsu figures that Ajisen (China) will have 300 outlets in mainland China and Hong Kong by 2010. "This could be a springboard for global growth," he says.
China is the big theme in BusinessWeek's annual Asia Hot Growth ranking of the region's top 100 small and midsize companies. Businesses from the mainland and Hong Kong make up 21 of the entries, compared with 12 in 2006. Throw in the Taiwanese companies that manufacture and market on the mainland and China takes up almost half the list.
But even that accounting underestimates the China effect. No. 2 Raffles Education of Singapore runs for-profit schools: In October it announced a deal to buy the operator of a 54,000-student university near Beijing. No. 15 Taewoong of South Korea forges heavy metal parts for ship engines. They power the Korean-built vessels that ply the China trade.
The rise of China is also producing a new class of entrepreneurs. For years after China opened its markets, the government directed capital and other assets to state-owned giants. Today, "if you have a good idea, you can get the opportunity to execute it," says venture capitalist Hsu Ta-lin of H&Q Asia-Pacific.
Entrepreneur Ming Dequan is the creator of Celestial NutriFoods, China's top seller of soy-protein powder beverages and No. 11 on the list. The company's sales and profits more than quintupled between 2002 and 2006, to $156 million and $49.3 million, respectively. Officials in the northeast province where Ming operates have showered Celestial and other soy companies with tax breaks and additional assistance, all to create a new industry for the region. Now, says Ming, "we're producing flat out, and we still can't meet demand."
By Bruce Einhorn, with Chi-Chu Tschang in Beijing and Hiroko Tashiro in Tokyo