Did China spell doom for Dell?

Michael Dell returns to run the company he founded, but the battle he's fighting may have been lost years ago.

Published February 1, 2007 4:54PM (EST)

The business press is making much of the resignation of Dell CEO, Kevin Rollins, who will be replaced by company founder, and former wunderkind, Michael Dell. The Wall Street Journal's analysis is typically full of inside baseball:

Mr. Rollins was also known as a stern and aloof manager. Early on, he was the executive who strictly enforced the Dell model of using cost cutting to gain market share and lift profits. Executives who disagreed with the approach were forced out or left. When the PC market slowed down earlier this decade, Mr. Rollins drove Dell into printers and consumer electronics, hoping to show its low-cost, high-velocity model could work in other markets. Neither move helped reignite Dell's once-rapid growth.

Et cetera. But Silicon Hutong's always perspicacious David Wolf says nonsense: The trouble at Dell has little to do with Rollins' mistakes, and everything to do with China. Wolf notes that what made Dell special was its ability to cut costs and make its supply chain more "efficient" than that of any of its competitors. But there's nothing proprietary about increased efficiency. Dell's supposedly "unique business model," writes Wolf, was eminently copyable.

Nowhere is that lesson being learned better than in China. The key date for Dell, writes Wolf, was Aug. 16, 2004.

On that day, Dell announced that it was retreating from the consumer PC space in China.

As Simon Ye and Annie Chung at Gartner Research called it four days later, Dell -- the low cost leader in most of the world -- was run out of the market by companies willing and able to produce computers at a much lower price. Although Dell was manufacturing in China alongside its competitors, it had lost the race. Even with its network of retail stores around China, Lenovo was able to sell an entry level computer for 25 percent less than Dell.

Observers wrote off Dell's failure to market conditions that were specific to China. That was the easy answer, and it was short-sighted. The point was that it was cheaper for Dell's competitors to get product to customers than it was for Dell. The competition had managed to work more inefficiencies out of their system. The Dell model was not invincible, it had been replicated (or bettered) and it had failed in the second-largest and fastest-growing computer market in the world.

A change in CEO isn't going to change that.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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