October 17th, 2011
03:39 AM GMT
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New York (CNN) – Can Apple make you rich? That is what John Vons hopes.

An architect by professional, Vons was laid off three years ago. Frustrated and running out of options Vons decided he needed to reinvent himself.  Inspired by the design and popularity of Apple's products, Vons created an iPhone accessory he calls the yofo.  It is a small suction device that allows you to cradle the iphone on your shoulder or stick it on a surface to more easily watch content.

As he and his partner, Genie, made the rounds to secure funding, the feedback was good, but would-be backers shied away due to the shaky economy.   A friend finally came up with enough to pay for the first batch, but there is little left over for marketing.

September 21st, 2011
01:08 AM GMT
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(CNN) - Cigarettes used to be the bounty of choice for shoplifters keen to turn a quick profit.

Now gangs of “modern day rustlers” are targeting supermarkets for prime cuts of meat to sell on the black market, according to police in Tasmania, Australia.

“Years ago, there used to be rustlers. They used to go out and steal cattle, cut them up on the side of the road, in paddocks, take the meat and sell it. Our lot are a lot lazier,” says Detective Inspector David Plumpton.

“These days, these modern day rustlers, they just go straight into a supermarket. It’s already packed, and they’ve just got to put it straight into the frying pan.”

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Filed under: AsiaSign of the times

September 30th, 2010
03:36 AM GMT
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East Cork, Ireland (CNN) – The issue of ghost estates in Ireland is more than empty houses. It's a symbol of the country's descent from the Celtic Tiger leading the European charge of prosperity to a broken state, crippled by what most would agree was a universal greed: greed of consumers, developers and those who Irish people blame the most, the banks.

I moved to England from Ireland 10 years ago, just as the building boom was really taking off. I left a small coastal community of just over 5,000 people, and on each return visit I was amazed and somewhat aghast at new developments nestled within the town.

The old fairground and amusement center made way for a block of brightly colored apartments. The field where my friends and I used to hang out as children was freshly paved with a new development. Even the building which used to house our convent school was rumored to be next in line for conversion into seafront apartments.

This money never came and the building now lies unoccupied. One look and it's visible that the grounds remain unattended, with grass shoots sprouting from some parts of the roof.

It's this overindulgence –- this viewpoint that property equaled money –- that drove the Irish property market. Cian O'Callaghan, one of the authors of the only official reports into ghost estates, told me that during the boom the few voices that questioned this flood of housing were systematically accused of “standing in the way of progress.”

In other words, the Irish people seemed to view this building trend as a means of traveling to modernity. Rows of bright shiny houses with two bathrooms, front and rear gardens and a garage would show the world that Ireland was no longer the poor man of Europe. Ireland was taking its place amongst the developed world and its people would benefit from the fruits of its success.

People now living in ghost estates were, not surprisingly, reluctant to talk about the experience of living in a half-finished development. But I met an interesting character who shed more light on an already tragic situation. This man was a council tenant on a ghost estate where the council had taken over about a dozen empty homes.

He takes care of his severely disabled daughter in a two-story house. Moving his daughter up and down the stairs was proving difficult and he pleaded with the council authorities to rehouse him into a bungalow.

“It's a disgrace,” he kept saying. “Not five miles down the road there are rows of empty houses, all unoccupied and with all the thousands of unoccupied houses in the country, the council tells me there are no bungalows available.”

I traveled to the estate he told me about in a neighboring village and sure enough, there was a fenced part of an existing estate with rows of bungalows and signs threatening: “Danger. Keep out.”

In a radius of 10 miles from the town of Middleton, which is featured in my report, I must have counted at least a dozen ghost estates. In some, there were a few rows of houses occupied. One entire estate of 78 houses, which appeared almost ready for occupancy, was now fenced off. The developer had gone bust. Roads and lighting had not been finished. However, advertising signs of future planned developments next to ghost estates remain: A sign that had not the money run dry, the appetite for development would have continued. Now the land earmarked for future building lies empty and overgrown.

The question is, will Ireland ever be at a point to resurrect these plans on its quest for progression?

August 30th, 2010
02:11 AM GMT
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An historic journey is happening now...and no surprise, it's to feed China's appetite for energy.

The SCF Baltica is a large tanker that has just made it safely through the Arctic Circle to deliver 70,000 tons of  gas condensate (a natural gas extract) from Russia to China. This is the first time a tanker of this size has been able to make the journey through the Northern Sea Route. It's now headed for its final port destination just south of Shanghai.

There are two  interesting angles to this story:

1) This route through the Arctic cuts down the distance traveled by almost a half. The route from Murmansk, Russia to Ningbo, China covers 7,000 nautical miles. This is down from the 12,000 nautical miles it takes on the traditional route through the Suez Canal.

Sergey Frank, CEO of SCF Group, is taking the journey on board his tanker. I spoke with him via satellite phone and asked him how much money the shortcut is saving his company. He says, "That depends on the freight market but today, the freight market in the tanker business is not great. But anyway, the one day capital cost is $20,000 to $25,000. Any day of savings from these logistics is definitely improving the economics of the business."

2) Global warming. You only have to connect the dots: A  huge oil and gas tanker can make it through ice fields in the Arctic today because of the effects of global warming. And even then, the SCF Baltica  tanker is being escorted by two nuclear-powered ice breakers.   Sam Chambers, journalist and author of "Oil on Water," tells CNN, " It is unquestionable that this route has only become possible thanks to global warming, as sailors have been trying to - and failing - to find an Arctic route for centuries. Just a couple of weeks back Canadian authorities found an old sunken British ship in the far north that had met its end attempting the elusive Arctic passage."

Whether we like it or not, the Arctic is the new frontier for oil and gas transport. According to SCF Group, the information collected on this historic voyage will be entered into a database to plan future Arctic crossings with larger ice-class tankers.

June 2nd, 2010
04:38 AM GMT
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WANTED: CEO to lead a blue-chip country slightly past its prime.

Must be experienced consensus builder who can appeal to the nation’s urban elite while appeasing its politically powerful rural communities. Ability to harness nation’s spirit of innovation amid its revolving-door politics preferred.

Must be a self-starter who can get things done in one of the most politically conservative nations in Asia - in one year or less.

After eight months in office, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is out. No amount of multicolored fashion statements could save his approval rating.

It is an ignoble end for Hatoyama. His Democratic Party of Japan defeated the Liberal Democratic Party, which had a virtual stranglehold on Japanese politics since World War II.  But any hopes that the party’s victory would bring significant change to Japanese politics are dimming.

If there is any consolation for Hatoyama, he is in good company – Japan has had four new prime ministers in four years. Indeed, looking over the history of Japanese prime ministers in the past 50 years, few survive longer than a year or two.

However, it’s interesting to note that Japan's golden age of durable prime ministers seems to have been from 1957 to 1972 – where in a 15-year period of time the nation had three prime ministers. It also marks a time when the nation had its greatest era of economic expansion, with annual growth rates that rival that of China today and propelled the nation to the second largest economy in the world.

It makes one wonder: Is Japan’s political instability the result, or the cause, of Japan’s economic doldrums?

January 19th, 2010
04:36 AM GMT
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I boarded Japan Airlines flight 1381 at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. My destination: a small town in western Japan called Shirahama.

I slid into my seat towards the rear of the plane. I didn’t have to compete for a spot to toss my overhead baggage, because there wasn’t anyone in my row. In fact, there wasn’t anyone in the seats next to me, the row behind me or in the ten rows in front of me.

Flight 1381 took off from Tokyo more than half empty. The flight appeared about 70 percent empty. That’s a lot of empty seats for this plane, an MD-81 which, according to Japan Airlines, seats approximately 160 people.

Shirahama is near a world heritage site. It’s a gorgeous, remote area of Japan where the ocean meets cliffs of spectacular beauty. It’s not a highly populated area of the country. Yet Japan Airlines flies flights in and out of the small airport in Shirahama twice a day.

Japan Airlines, or JAL, in its November 2009 report, shows the Shirahama-Tokyo flights had an occupancy rate of 54.3 percent.. In October 2009, the airline says occupancy for that route was 39.5 percent. You see a bigger problem for the airline when you look at passenger loads for all of its domestic routes: In November 2009, 95 routes - more than two-thirds of JAL’s domestic flights – had occupancy rates less than 60 percent. Industry analysts say that, generally, 60 percent capacity means that a route isn’t profitable.

Aviation specialist Kotaro Toriumi says all these empty planes symbolize many of JAL’s problems. “JAL was originally a government-controlled company, although it was privatized,” says Toriumi. “What we see today is the legacy of its bureaucratic roots.”

Toriumi says the company’s inflexibility to cut unprofitable routes, downsize aircraft, and adjust to economic downturns has been an ongoing problem for the last twenty years.

As the nation’s flagship carrier, Japan Airlines has been subject to political pressure, both from the national and local governments. Air travel has been traditionally seen as a source of vital transportation and income into communities.

“You can’t just blame JAL. The airline hasn’t been able to eliminate non-profitable routes if they’re popular destinations for Japanese, such as resort locations, because there’s a strong resistance by the government.”

Japan Airlines would not speak to CNN on camera, citing its upcoming bankruptcy proceedings. The airline did respond to CNN questions via a statement. “It is important to note that the profitability of a route cannot be determined by the seat factor alone. Past reports have claimed that the break even seat factor is 75%, but this is wrong to say. It would vary from route to route. Since January 28 of last year, JAL has announced that it will suspend 20 domestic routes, with the closure of four domestic offices. JAL has been progressively switching to the use of smaller, more efficient aircraft on both its international and domestic network.”

I boarded my return flight to Tokyo from Shirahama. Again, I had plenty of elbow room: no one was in my row. There were a few more passengers on the return, but the plane was still mostly empty.

A woman on my flight said that without this flight, Shirahama would be “cut off” from the rest of Japan. She hoped that the route wouldn’t be eliminated. Japan Airlines will have to balance the needs of its customers with its own financial survival. The choices will not be easy, but vital to the airline’s post-bankruptcy future.

January 18th, 2010
03:29 AM GMT
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New Delhi, India (CNN) – Most of us don’t worry about “the economy.”

We worry about our own personal economies. We ask questions such as how will I pay my bills if I get laid off?  How can I possibly ask for a raise in this kind of economy? Where do I put my money so it is safe for retirement?

When some of the best and brightest minds on Wall Street failed to predict the global financial meltdown, where do you turn for advice about your financial future?

In India some are turning to a centuries old tradition for help.

Vandana Varma is a saleswoman trying to make a name for herself on the global stage but it’s been hellish. “My effort level was 100% but my finances were going down,” she said.

Nothing was working and Varma was losing self-confidence fast. Varma decided to solve her financial frustration by going to an astrologer, or as some in the West might put it, a fortuneteller.

“People are looking for solutions and every country every direction on the globe has some solutions,” she said. “We Indians have lot of alternate remedies. For example we have Astrology, Gemology, Vastu, and Reiki.”

Varma picked one of the most sought after seers in New Delhi, Poonam Sethi who calls herself a “Karmic Healer.”  She reads flames, coffee grinds, Tarot Cards, a Crystal Ball and faces among other things.

As the economy has declined, her clientele has gone upscale. "CEOs, vice presidents all that lot – I used to never have people of that lot coming in,” Sethi said. “One, maybe they were too practical in life and they had it all going for them, they never needed to. But today I see all of them.”

The question is does it work? It is hard to find a scientist who will agree any of the methods Sethi uses can predict anything.

But for Varma it’s done something else. She says Sethi’s reading was like having a personal guide through life’s financial pitfalls. It has also given her a boost in confidence, which has helped her work-life.

“It’s as if I’ve gathered lot of strength,” Varma said. “I have become calm, composed. [The] situations are still the same they may have changed a little, however the anxiety level has come down to such a low level…I feel relaxed.”

It also won’t hurt her chances for better sales now that economic analysts are predicting India’s economy will surpass growth expectations and grow between 7 and 7.5 percent this fiscal year.

The question is: Is it crazy to think that a fortuneteller might be able to help predict your financial future as well as say one of Wall Streets best and brightest financial gurus?

January 7th, 2010
01:52 AM GMT
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It takes years of brilliant business strategy to build a global brand. And love it or hate it, Starbucks is one of the most recognizable coffee products around. So why would the Seattle-based behemoth want to un-brand its powerhouse name, logo and taste?

That's exactly what it's trying, in what some call a brazen attempt at "stealth retail," when a corporate giant tries to sneak a sip of home grown neighborhood familiarity with the consumer never knowing the difference. A Seattle outlet of the Starbucks chain has been rebranded as15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. And there's nothing Café Misto about it. Most certainly, your java and milk in this corner café will be called, quite simply, Café au Lait, as the rest of the un-Starbucked world knows it.

Starbucks sent out its own sleuths to study local coffee shops observing everything from the décor, to the music, to the cups. The company already has opened two of its uniquely named remodeled coffeehouses in Seattle as an experiment that could be extended to more of its 16,000 stores.

Seattle bloggers are frothing at their Frappuccinos over the news. Just a quick sampling below will give you a sense of the local flavor:

"In desperation, Starbuck's is now throwing Hail Mary passes. It's likely going to backfire in a big way."

"Starbucks can do whatever they want to do with their business. If you don't like their stores, go somewhere else, but stop whining!"

"What's wrong with taking fashion tips from the most fashionable girl in school?"

"I hate Starbucks. OMG the most pathetic people go there."

Well, what can you say? In a retail age in which growing numbers of consumers want to know exactly where their carrots come from, what philanthropic causes a CEO supports, and whether child labor was used to pick the cocoa beans in their favorite snack, "stealth retail" could become a lightning rod.

Take the UK's "Innocent" story. A completely non-corporate maker of smoothies and juices recently sold a stake to Coca-Cola, of all companies, for a reportedly sweet-and-substantial 30 million pounds. "Innocent" built its brand as eco-friendly, sporting cute cow-like vans and is just one in a lineup of local success stories to sell to a corporate fat cat. "Innocent" wanted to raise funds to expand in Europe, and of course growing the brand often means giving away the hand. It's business, isn't it?

While different from "stealth retail," the "Innocent's" loss of innocence is another example of how wary consumers need to scratch more than just the surface.

Consumers who are conscious about what they buy can become confused, even outraged when they discover they're not getting quite the thing they thought they were. Or that after years of patronage, a trusted company changes direction, and nobody bothered to let the public know. As a conscious consumer, you might be shocked. You might be appalled. People seem to take this stuff rather personally- as if your long haired peacenik husband came home one night with a buzz cut and a rocket propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder. You might run the other way, but even if you just shrug your shoulders and get on with your evening, chances are, you at the very least- notice!

So what will the consumers' verdict be on this kind of stealth, corporate tactic? Is there anything wrong with taking fashion advice from the most fashionable girl in school? What if her outfit turns out to be a fraud? I honestly don't know, but in today's market, the consumer will most certainly decide.

Join me on World Business Today for an examination of "stealth retail" and other trends.

December 14th, 2009
03:31 AM GMT
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MEERUT, India - Sajid, a tileworker from Andhra Pradesh, India, heard Dubai was a kind of paradise: A land of beautiful beaches, clean roads and plenty of high pay.  So he did what many of his friends and fellow Indians had done.  He paid an agent to fix him a job and went to Dubai.

Indians top the global list of migrant workers: more Indians leave their country to find work and send back money, called remittances, than citizens of any other country. The Indian Government estimates there are over five million Indian workers overseas, with 90 percent of them in the Gulf region.  Most of them are considered temporary migrants.

If you travel through the south Indian state of Kerala, it is easy to spot the homes and stores built by remittances.  Ask locals where the money comes from, and “Dubai money” is often the answer.  Kerala has the greatest number of migrants to that Gulf nation.

Sajid and other locals estimate there were more than 35,000 others who came from their area, looking for a better future.  They are from Meerut, a dusty north Indian city that sprawls into house plots being carved from former farmland.

In Dubai, Sajid says he lived in a camp with other workers, where water would run out.  He says there was often no cooking gas, so he and his friends would borrow gas from other camps to make their meals.  Life was difficult, he said, but for several years, it was fine.  He was able to save money and sent it back to his parents, his brothers and sisters, his wife and five children.

About eight months ago, Sajid says, his boss came to him and his fellow workers and told them to work faster.  “Do more in less time,” Sajid says he was told.  Sajid didn’t know what was happening but started to realize something was wrong when he saw other workers being ‘sent back.’

Then his pay stopped for a month, and then two, until he was owed six months pay.

He and his fellow Muslim workers were told to go home for the festival of Eid and they’d get a lump sum on return.  Sajid says they went, believing that they’d be happy to get their money in one chunk.  But before he left, he was told to sign a paper in English.  He couldn’t read it but says he thought it was a form for his leave.

While home for Eid, he got a call saying his visa was cancelled since he’d resigned.   It was then Sajid understood he’d been tricked into signing a resignation form.  Sajid has heard nothing since that phone call, and doubts he’ll get his money.

His father Shahabuddine has had to sell his land in Meerut to pay debts, including payments on the more than $2,000 that was owed to the agent that sent Sajid to Dubai.

Sajid has been trying to find local tilework – the only trade he knows – but says work in Meerut will only pay enough for him and his family to live from day to day.

In spite of his bad experience, Sajid says, he’d go back to Dubai if the work picked up.  For Sajid, and millions of other Indians, a place like Dubai is still the best hope for a better future.

September 14th, 2009
04:18 AM GMT
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MUMBAI, India (CNN) – Whenever my mother was unsure about what to gift someone for a birthday, wedding, anniversary or festival, my grandmother would say to her, “give gold.”

“It will last a life time and everyone appreciates it,” she would say.

Even today, my parents often gift gold on a special occasion. It’s part and parcel of Indian culture. Indians love wearing gold, giving gold, receiving gold.

Turns out we love hoarding it too. At least 20 to 25 thousand tons of gold is stored in households across India. With gold prices currently around $1005 an ounce that means around $807.7 billion is stashed away deep inside cupboards, under mattresses and at the back of safes in India.

India is the world’s largest consumer of gold and also a net importer of the precious metal. Problem is, once gold enters India, there is no transparent, standardized market for the resale of gold back into bullion. Gold sellers are at the mercy of middlemen: Anyone wanting to sell gold have to take a necklace or chain to a scrap jeweler. He would check it, weigh it and come up with a price for it. He’d charge a hefty commission, take it to a refinery and melt it.

Anjani Sinha is asking gold sellers to ignore the middlemen and follow him instead. He runs the National Spot Exchange – which has created the first transparent, standardized platform for gold trade in India.

Under this system, anyone with gold to sell can go directly to an approved refinery where gold is melted into bars or coins of an international standard. The seller can either take the bar home or leave it in a vault. He is given a receipt, which he can sell via an approved broker. The idea is to make trading in gold as easy as trading in stocks and shares.

If sellers start bringing some of their gold out from under mattresses and into the spot trading market, it has the potential to revolutionize the gold market – and make a massive impact on the Indian economy.

Si Kannan of Kotak Commodity Services walks us through some of the numbers: At current prices, even if 1% of India’s household gold enters the market, it would mean an extra $24 billion circulating through the domestic economy.

This would reduce India’s dependence on imports, pave the way for investment in domestic refineries, and increase employment opportunities.

The biggest challenge now though is convincing people to go to a refiner, not a scrap jeweler, when they want to sell gold. To be honest, I can’t see anyone from my grandmother’s generation going to a refiner instead of a family jeweler she has known for ages. Some habits are hard to break.

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