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《福布斯》专访华平总裁刘晓露

日期:2014-02-18       来源:2014年1月刊《福布斯》杂志        阅读量:4629

China's Avcon Bridges Videoconferencing and Surveillance

By Jane Ho  2014-01-08


        China’s nationwide outbreak of SARS in 2003 may have caused trouble for many businesses but it jump-started Avcon Information Technology, a provider of videoconference and surveillance systems. (And, yes, the two are close cousins.)


      “We caught a glance from Lady Luck,” says Liu Xiaolu, 43-year-old cofounder and general manager of Avcon in Shanghai. Basically there are two methods to set up a videoconference system: using PC-based software or using special equipment with embedded software. At that time the China market for such capability was divided up by international giants like Cisco and Polycom of the U.S., which focused on the more profitable equipment business. Avcon, as a new player trying to find a way in, was engaged in less capital-consuming software development.
      “The outbreak increased the demand for videoconference but also made it hard to find intercity logistics for equipment shipping,” Liu recalls, “while we only need to remotely install our software on our clients’ computers. Actually we didn’t even meet our first batch of clients until a couple years later.” Avcon collected $1.4 million in sales within a year of its founding in 2003. Last year it made $13 million net profit on $33 million revenue and qualified for FORBES ASIA’s Best Under A Billion (BUB) companies list.
       Avcon has been the leader in Internet-based (versus -intranet) videoconference systems in China for seven years, with a current 19% market share. It has since expanded into the hardware-oriented intranet as well, though Polycom still dominates that space. Avcon went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in 2010 and today has a nosebleed $727 million market capitalization, even after a recent share-price drop.
     “Videoconferencing is a high-tech sector for which high prices are not unusual,” says Shen Jianyong, senior analyst in China for IDC, a U.S. research firm specializing in information technology. “Policy changes, including the loosening of control over the communications industry, also bring out a promising market prospect.”
       Liu grew up in Jiangxi Province, where his mother worked with a military aviation group. He got a job there as a technician after graduating with a degree in automation from a local college but left in a few years. “The pay there was far from enough, and no girl would go out with a poor guy like me,” says he.
       Avcon’s predecessor was set up in 2000 in Shenzhen by five cofounders, including Liu’s mother and chairman, Liu Yan; his sister, Liu Xiaodan, who came from a finance job; and two of his former colleagues. Liu’s family now has a 21% ownership stake. (And he found a wife.)
       Shanghai, with its more favorable policies for tech startups, attracted the company to relocate, plus Liu had a run-in with Shenzhen’s tax office. “One month I made a lot of networking calls and filed for a large amount of cellphone reimbursement, but a local tax officer accused me of fraud,” Liu says. “That was really hurtful.”
       After finding its new home, Avcon released its first hit product, Network Video Conference System 4.0, in 2004 after the early versions during SARS. Launch events were held in eight metropolises, including London and Tokyo, and the software was acclaimed.
      “But I’d only give it a ‘C,’ as we were just lucky enough to benefit from a concurrent revolutionary development of PC hardware,” Liu says. This advance, including a major boost in graphics card performance, made mature videoconferencing software possible, and Avcon, again with its PC focus, was able to seize on this more quickly than its overseas competitors.
       Liu’s modesty doesn’t change the fact that Avcon is one of only three companies in the world–with Russia’s Spirit DSP and Sweden’s GIPS, which was acquired by Google GOOG -0.38% in 2010–to attain cross-platform voice-engine technology. Voice engine is a software system that processes audio data, with functions such as removing the echo from a telephone conversation, while cross-platform means the algorithm is applicable for different types of devices covering PC, iPhone or specialized equipment.
      “We considered purchasing such technology and talked with GIPS in 2005, but their offer was too much for us,” Liu remembers. “Without our own technology, each time we run our software on a new device type we’ll have to pay again. Developing voice engine sure wasn’t easy, but it saved us a fortune in license fees.” The company’s R&D expenditure in 2012 totals 17% of its revenue, and 55% of its 850 employees across China are technical staff. Today it holds 89 patents and 47 software copyrights.
       With a head start in software, Avcon made a bold move in 2006–it spent $1 million to add specialized videoconference equipment to its product line, exhausting most of its previous profit. “People didn’t value intangible products enough in China, and they still don’t,” Liu complains. Another reason is, he points out, that there are still limitations in PC hardware holding back software design in terms of performance and customization.
       Since 2010 the company has launched several industry-specific remote communication systems, which in large part are customized videoconference for sectors like health care, education, construction and insurance. Last calendar year industry-specific systems brought in 50% of company sales.
       Now, for instance, with Avcon’s remote damage assessment system an insurance assessor can save a field trip when a car accident happens, using a multimedia terminal installed in the auto repair shop, thus reducing the claim period to as short as one hour. This requires the terminal to be portable, applicable for wireless transmission and able to record while transmitting.
       The company provides that technology to People’s Insurance Co. of China and hopes to bring it to top conferencing client China Life Insurance LFC -0.97%, which also covers property-casualty. China Life contributed 6% of Avcon’s 2012 revenue, and its top five customers together account for 28%. “We have over 8,000 clients across the board, but in each sector we’d like to start with a major player to showcase,” Liu says. “Also, for a large-scale company like China Life, we can barely finish covering all their outlets when a new round of technology innovation starts, and this gives us endless business opportunities.”
       Avcon expanded into surveillance in 2012 when it signed a $23 million contract with the Tongren police force in Guizhou Province to supply monitoring systems. Those will constitute part of the SkyNet program, China’s nationwide electronic monitoring network, and Avcon followed with a dozen townships in southeast Guizhou.
      “It’s easy to expand from videoconference to surveillance, as the former involves multidirectional data flow and basically contains all the technology needed in the latter, which usually involves one direction,” Liu says. “We are relatively new in this arena, but we have a strong suit.” Bigger surveillance rival Dahua Technology of Zhejiang, a former BUB listee, relies greatly on hardware, while Avcon claims an advantage in software design.
       Under the so-called Smart City initiative, the Ministry of Housing & Urban-Rural Development has selected 200 cities since 2012 to set
up such systems, and the total projects–said to advance social services, efficient resource use and “livability”–could reach $70 billion.
       Liu has always sought collaboration with the government. Shanghai’s Yangpu Technology Innovation Center helped incubate Avcon. The company has also received several state subsidies, but Liu is wary of those with ambiguous terms on intellectual property. He says, “Avcon prefers subsidies for, say, being the top taxpayer in the district. There’s no strings attached there.”
       Despite fears in the West that China is on a state-sponsored technology crusade, Liu thinks Beijing is not doing enough for domestic high-tech ventures. “In some government projects they would choose foreign suppliers like Cisco, even if domestic companies like us have similar or better offers. The reasons are, well, complicated,” he says.
      “Domestic high-tech ventures are a driving force for China’s development. What would the government do if none of us survive? Where would it find the technology to build aircraft carriers and contend with the U.S.?”
       The company is also a vendor for the Chinese military, but Liu can’t say more. He grew up collecting magazines and blueprints of combat aircraft because he couldn’t afford the models. “Designing aircraft is still my dream job,” he says, “and it always will be.”
       In the meantime his software is making some connections easier than taking a flight.

       以下为《福布斯》专访译文:
       2003年非典在全国爆发使许多企业陷入了困境,但是视频会议和视频监控系统提供商华平股份却在当时异军突起。(是的,这两者有着紧密的联系)
     “我们得到了幸运女神的眷顾”,上海华平创始人及总裁刘晓露先生说到。建立一套视频会议系统通常有两种方式:基于PC的软件形式和装有软件的特殊硬件设备。在当时,中国视频会议市场被两大国际巨头思科和宝利通所瓜分,这两个企业都是专注于更有利润的硬件系统。而作为行业新兴企业的华平,选择了采用更低资本消耗的软件形式打入市场。
     “非典的爆发增加了视频会议的需求,不过在设备运输上却是一个难题。”刘总回忆到,“当时我们只要远程在客户的电脑上安装我们的软件就可实现视频会议,不需要与客户实际接触。实际上在很久以后做客户回访时我们才第一次见到了我们的客户。”在2003年,华平的营业收入是130万美元。2012年,华平的营业收入是3300万美元,净利润1300万美元,列入福布斯亚洲最佳十亿以下企业名单。
       华平连续七年在基于互联网的视频会议市场处于领先地位,拥有19%的市场占有率。华平现在也将销售领域扩大到基于专网的硬件视频会议,尽管宝利通仍旧在这一领域处于主导地位。华平2010年在深交所上市,经历过近期股市的下跌后,现在仍有7.27亿美元的市值。
     “作为高科技行业的视频会议价格如此高昂并不罕见,”美国专注于信息科技研究的机构IDC,中国高级分析师沈建勇说到。“政策在改变,包括对通信行业控制的松动给市场带来了广阔的前景。”
        刘总在江西成长,他母亲在一家军用航空集团工作。他在当地的一所大学毕业后找到了一份技术员的工作。“当时收入远远不够,没女生愿意和我这样的穷屌丝出去,”刘总说到。华平的前身2000年在深圳由五个创始人共同成立,包括刘总的母亲——董事长刘焱;她妹妹刘晓丹,以前从事金融工作;他先前的两个同事。刘家目前拥有21%的股份。
       上海,为高科技初创企业提供了更多优惠政策,吸引了很多公司的迁移,加上刘总与深圳税务机关有了些许的矛盾,后来就将公司搬到了上海,“一个月中我打了很多电话,申请了电话费用报销,但是当地的税务局的人却不信任我,要让我减少费用报销”,刘总说到,“这真的是太伤感情了。”
       之后,华平找到了新家,并在2004年发布了第一主打产品:网络视频会议系统 V4.0。市场活动在八个城市举行,包括伦敦和东京。刘总却表示,当时的产品也只能打60分。华平非常幸运从PC硬件改革上获利。这一改革包括了显卡的性能更强大,使视频会议软件市场更成熟,华平比海外的竞争者更快的抓住了这个机会。
       刘总非常谦虚,但不能改变的事实是:华平是除了俄罗斯的Spirit、瑞典的GIPS之外,全球三大拥有自己语音引擎技术公司之一,GIPS在2010年被谷歌收购。语音引擎是处理语音数据的软件系统,拥有消除电话交谈中回音等功能,华平的语音引擎支持跨平台,意味着引擎的适用于PC、iPhone或者其他专有设备。
     “在2005年的时候,我们也与GIPS接触过,考虑购买这样的技术,但是他们的价格对我们来说实在太高了,”刘总回忆到,“如果我们没有自己的技术,每次我们在一台新的设备上运行我们的软件就需要重新支付费用。开发语音引擎不是件容易的事情,但是这为我们在授权费用上节省了一大笔钱。”2012年公司的研发费用占营业收入的17%,850名员工中55%都是技术人员。今天,华平拥有89项专利,和47项软件著作权。在2006年,华平做了一个惊人的举动,花了100万美元添加了专业化的视频会议设备,几乎耗尽了先前所有赚的钱。刘总抱怨道“在中国过去还有现在人们都没有完全重视无形产品的价值。”
       就性能和客户定制化方面,硬件阻碍了软件的设计。2010年开始,公司推出了针对特定行业的远程沟通系统,为医疗、教育、建筑、保险等行业做了客户化的定制。上一财年,行业收入占总收入的50%。举个例子,发生车祸时,华平在保险行业的远程定损系统可以使定损员不用亲自到现场,只需要通过修理厂的远程定损系统进行理赔,这样减少了定损的时间。这当然也需要系统非常的方便、适用于在无线网络下进行记录和数据传输。
       华平为中国人寿提供了视频会议系统,包括人寿财险。中国人寿在华平2012年的营业收入中贡献了6%,华平的前五大客户合计占28%。刘总表示,“我们在全国有超过8000个客户,我们想从每个行业的翘楚着手。像中国人寿这样的大规模公司,我们几乎已经完成了所有网点的覆盖,但新一轮的技术创新正开始,这也给我们提供了无穷的商机。”
       华平在2012年将业务领域扩展到监控行业,并以2300万美元签下了贵州铜仁公安项目,为其提供监控系统。华平随后在贵州的黔东南10多个县开展天网工程项目。刘总说道,“从视频会议发展到视频监控并不困难,因为前者涉及到多方向的数据流,基本上包含了后者需要的技术,方向是一致的,在这个领域我们相对还是新手,但是我们有我们的强项,浙江大华更依赖于硬件,而华平更注重软件的优势。”
       根据智慧城市战略目标,住房和城乡建设部选择了200个城市从2012年开始安装监控系统,总项目预计达到700亿美元,推进了社会服务和资源的有效利用。华平也一直在寻求与政府间的合作,上海杨浦创业中心帮助了华平的成长,公司获得了多项国家补贴,但公司在知识产权方面非常谨慎。刘总表示公司对政府的反馈表现在纳税上,而非带有其他附加条件。
       尽管一些国外企业会担心中国会政策扶持本土企业,但是刘总认为在北京并非如此。在一些政府项目上,像我们这样的企业给与的优惠甚至更多,但是他们更倾向于选择如思科这种国外企业。至于原因刘总表示比较复杂。
       公司也是中国武警某部队的供应商,因为国家保密性,刘总并没有透露更多。刘总说到,因为小时候买不起作战飞机的模型,就喜欢收集这些东西的杂志和图纸。飞机制造设计仍旧是他的梦想,并且一直会是。与此同时,华平产品使人们的沟通变得更方便快捷,甚至比飞机的速度更快!

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