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From book clubs to real estate and e-commerce – Ekkehard Rathgeber’s career in China mirrors the country’s tumultuous development since 1989. The German entrepreneur spoke about his experiences at the MERICS China Lounge.

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E-commerce is Eckehard Rathgeber’s latest passion. Toothbrushes, shoes or furniture – the Chinese buy virtually everything online. The world’s biggest market for online sales is known for its fierce competition. Many foreigners find it hard to navigate, but not Rathgeber.

Rather than trying to sell toothbrushes or shoes to Chinese customers, Rathgeber built an online sales platform for maternity, baby and kids’ products, offering more than 10,000 products. Not only is it an important growth market among China’s urban middle class, but it is also the perfect market for a German businessman in China. German products enjoy the image of being safe and solid among Chinese consumers. For Chinese parents who were rattled by scandals over spoilt milk powder and other unsafe infant products, the fact that the online vendor’s CEO has a German background might be an important selling point.

“It is a cut-throat market, which is already dominated by many big Chinese players”, the Shanghai-based German entrepreneur said at the recent MERICS China Lounge. “But you can be successful if you come in with fresh, yet realistic ideas.”

Rathgeber may not be a household name in international business circles. But when money can be made in China, he is likely to be among the first foreigners to grasp the opportunity. From book distribution and online publishing to real estate and e-commerce – in more than 20 years spent in China, the former Bertelsmann manager has engaged in a wide array of commercial activities. And in many ways, his own career mirrors the twists and turns of China’s development from a planned economy into a capitalist system.