Q&A: Entrepreneurs in China  —  A Perspective from Chifeng, Inner Mongolia

Microfinance manager shares her secrets for success financing entrepreneurs

By Jim Rosenberg

Zhu Yanyan, general manager of Chinese microfinance company Grassland Inner Mongolia.

Zhu Yanyan, general manager of Chinese microfinance company Grassland Inner Mongolia.

With nearly 5 million residents, Chifeng isn’t a small city. But as it sprawls across the vast prairie of Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in northern China, some parts of the city feel almost rural. This combination of rural and urban create a diverse mix of clients for Grassland Inner Mongolia.

Initially launched as Accion Microcredit China in 2009, Grassland Inner Mongolia remains a locally registered microcredit company (MCC) but is now part of the Pan-China operation, Grassland Finance Ltd. Accion partners with Grassland to help deliver financial services to China’s underserved businesses using in-person, mobile, and digital platforms. Over the years, Grassland Inner Mongolia has provided more than RMB 1.7 billion (USD 261 million) in loans to over 16,000 customers, with the average loan amount under RMB 105,000 (USD 16,100).

On a recent trip to China, I spoke with Zhu Yanyan, the general manager of Grassland Inner Mongolia, about how the company has developed since its founding, and her vision for its future.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the clients you serve.
A: We provide microloans to farmers, herdsmen, commercial households, and microenterprises. Most are in the trade, services, agriculture, and manufacturing industries. They are diligent and honest entrepreneurs, yet they aren’t targeted by banks since most of them cannot provide the kind of collateral required. However, unsecured loans are our primary product so we can enable access to financial services for such clients.

Q: You’ve been here since the beginning in 2009. How has your job changed over that time?
A: I’ve had the honor of witnessing the transformation of the firm over the past eight years, in several areas.

With the formation of Grassland Group, the company’s geographic coverage grew rapidly, now covering Pan-China, from here in Inner Mongolia, to Chongqing, Hunan, Shandong, Sichuan, Xinjiang, Hubei and Shanxi provinces.

Grassland’s Head Office team is familiar with best practices in Chinese microfinance and has good insight into the Chinese microcredit industry. They’ve been very effective in bringing about new corporate best practices, so we’ve been able to standardize processes and policies across the group, helping us work better with faraway colleagues.

At the same time, the company embraces the principle of “local people managing local affairs,” trusting our local talent and investing in training to help local employees with potential become good microfinance professionals.

I’m proud of our social impact, as well. Through our continuous effort in promoting inclusive finance in Chifeng, Grassland Inner Mongolia has been widely recognized within the microcredit company (MCC) industry as a forefront contributor in promoting financial inclusion. Each year, we’ve won awards from the China Association of Microfinance and from the Finance office at the city and provincial government levels.

Q: How are you using new technology to support your work?A: We feel we’re at the forefront of technology and innovation among MCC industry players. Grassland has built public websites for both investors and customers. In 2016, we also introduced a digital field application tool called Keystone, which is an end-to-end platform loan officers and credit managers use to process loan applications via tablet.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?
A: My three favorite things are:

First, taking on the challenge of expanding Grassland Inner Mongolia’s operations. As I explore the market, I seek to identify the best areas for lending, forecast the market potential for growing our loan portfolio and number of clients, and learn how to control risk effectively.

Second, the opportunity for constant learning and self-improvement. Through this job, I continue to work toward being a well-rounded leader, not just in terms of new business development and credit risk management, but also in areas such as operations, finance, and HR, therefore becoming a true General Manager.

And last but not least, I like to see our clients expand their businesses and improve their lives through the services we offer.

Q: What’s next for Grassland Inner Mongolia?
A: I am determined to continue expanding our business operations to other parts of the region and making sure that we continue to be a critical player in the overall Grassland organization as we look ahead to a prospective IPO in Hong Kong in a few years.

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