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Chinese Retailer Poised for Expansion

I just returned from China were I visited one of my portfolio investments, QKL Stores (QKLS - Get Report), a thriving grocery store chain.

It had been two years since I first visited QKL's headquarters in Daqing, a city in northern China near the Mongolian border. At that time, QKL was operating 19 stores and had at a run rate of $7 million in sales a month.

The company founder and CEO, Zhuangyi Wang (or Johnny as he is called in English) had impressed me beyond belief. You want to meet a CEO that lives and breathes every crack and crevice of his business. Well, "here's Johnny!" When describing him to others, the simple term I like to use is he is a "killer," a take-no prisoner CEO -- the kind of man that you know would have made a hell of a field general if he wasn't running a grocery business.

What a difference two years can make. What I found this trip back to visit QKL Stores was a totally different company. QKL is no longer the small boutique grocer with a hand full of stores. The company has evolved and is now operating almost 40 stores, having transformed itself from an autonomous group of stores under the QKL umbrella to a true western style chain of supermarkets, hypermarkets and department stores.

This transformation can be linked to one man, Alan Stewart, the company's new chief operating officer. Tall, well dressed, with his grey hair slicked back, Stewart is easy to spot at QKL's headquarters.

At 67, he moves with the energy of someone 20 years his junior. His resume is legendary, most notably as president of American Stores when it had 175,000 employees and $22 billion in sales. He has also run various international chains, including a period in the mid 1990s when he worked directly for HRH Prince Alwaled, helping him expand his Riyadh-based grocer Al Azizza-Panda United into the largest retail supermarket chain in the Middle East.

I sat in on a presentation he gave to some visitors and there is no question that he knows every aspect of the business. He should; he's been doing this for over 40 years.

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