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Category Archives: Chinese Contracts

It’s common to evaluate potential supplier and supply chain partner’s financial position before placing an order or signing a contract. In fact, most purchasing departments these days, require obtaining supplier key financial data as a standard part of the procurement process. This financial data is then evaluated by the company finance or accounting department and the risk associated with the supplier or supply chain partner is determined. If the supplier is a publically traded US company, that’s easy to do as these companies must comply with SEC rules on financial reporting. But you should be leery of accepting information provided by Chinese suppliers at face value.

China’s largest banks typically only lend to the largest corporations, leaving small and medium sized suppliers to obtain loans from friends and relatives or from a “shadow bank.” Shadow banks are private lending companies that are not regulated by the Chinese government. These shadow banks lend money at a much higher rate of interest, squeezing the small suppliers’ already-thin profit margins. So if you are buying from a Chinese supplier, you should ask and verify where their working capital comes from. You just might find that some suppliers cannot make their loan payments and will simply shut their doors and disappear, leaving you scrambling to find another manufacturer. Finding working capital in China is risky business.

Enter: The Bank of Foxconn. Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer and maker of iPhones, iPads and many brands of laptops, has ventured into the lending world. To protect its suppliers from the pitfalls of shadow banking in China, Foxconn is now making business loans. That makes Foxconn the banker for the world’s electronics supply chain. And Foxconn isn’t the only company to provide banking services in China. Baidu (the “Google” of China), Alibaba (the “Amazon” of China) and Tencent ( WeChat and mobile games) all have lending banks, too. Lending to small and medium businesses provides higher returns to Foxconn than they can make on their contract manufacturing business. It also provides an opportunity for suppliers to borrow at a lower rate than from shadow banks. Foxconn reportedly has obtained licenses from Chinese local governments to provide loans, factoring, financial guarantees and equipment leasing.Foxconn

When evaluating suppliers, be sure to ask where their funding comes from, and don’t be surprised if the answer is the Bank of Foxconn.

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I can’t get that hit rock song by the Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” out of my head.

“Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by the Clash
Darling, you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ‘till the end of time
But you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

I’ve been talking to companies that are now making decisions about keeping their manufacturing and supply base in China or bringing manufacturing back to the US. They are asking the question, “Should I stay or should I go?” and that triggers the song playing in my brain…over and over and over. I wake up hearing it and it plays in my head all day long.
In the 1990s and 2000s, companies went to China out of fear of being left behind, not necessarily because they had made an informed decision based on data about the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Now it seems they are coming back for fear of being left behind again.
Total Cost of Ownership is an all-encompassing estimate that helps business people determine direct, indirect and consequential costs of one decision versus another. The idea was developed in the 1980s and applied to the costs of implementing software over its entire lifecycle. But when using TCO in a manufacturing or sourcing decision to stay in China versus moving back to the US, there are many more components to monetize and compare.
For example, you may find additional factors that must be considered beyond simple labor costs, import and logistics costs, such as supply base considerations, automation opportunities, supply chain latency, cost of travel, IP theft, quality and so on.
There are also costs associated with leaving China such as buying out employment contracts, obtaining permits to shut down operations, and the tools and dies left behind. The legal ramifications of these things can add up quickly. There is a lot to consider and trying to monetize all of the hard and soft benefits can be very challenging.
Nonetheless, it is important to consider all costs for a true comparison before you decide, “Should I Stay of Should I Go?’

flag (2)There are some fundamental differences in business practices that you should know when working with Chinese suppliers.

Culture impacts everything

China’s 5000 year history and traditions affect everything.  The dichotomy of modern industrial China, superimposed with traditional values and approaches to doing business, is often a surprise to Westerners.

Guanxi is not networking

Guanxi is someone’s personal network and long-term trusted relationships between parties. It is not simple networking.  It involves a commitment over time. You cannot do business effectively in China until you build this type of trusting relationship.

Validate everything in writing

Even though there are more English speakers in China than any other country in the world, it is often a mixture of Chinese and English that is not understood by either party.  Just because a Chinese business person speaks English, does not mean he understands the nuance of the language.  Every detail of the contract, specifications for production, expectations, etc., should be put in writing, discussed and confirmed several times.

Contracts are viewed differently

In the Western world, contracts represent the culmination of negotiation on price, delivery, specs and other terms.  In China, a contract is viewed as just the beginning.  Just as an American high school student may view graduation as the end, parents view it as commencement or beginning.  A contract in China is a commencement and the start of real negotiations.

Quality fade

Quality fade, the process of quality degradation over time, is the single biggest issue in low cost manufacturing countries. It happens frequently in China where manufacturing processes are immature and competitive pricing drives the profits to extremely low levels.  You have probably noticed quality fade, but didn’t know what to call it, or understand how it happened.  Maybe you noticed a plastic shampoo bottle that seemed too thin.  Maybe that hand-held electronic game you put in your son’s Christmas stocking stopped working after a few days.  Maybe the zipper in your pants broke after a few zips. The initial production may have met all expectations, but over time, there was degradation in production quality.

Outsourcing and subcontractors

China business is typically a combination of primary manufacturers and many sub-contractors that provide parts and services.  Without regular monitoring of the production processes in China, this common practice of sub-contracting and outsourcing gets out of control.  US importers find it harder and harder to control quality over time and sustain delivery schedules from Chinese vendors.

Importers must remember that doing business in China is not at all like doing business in America.  The processes, culture and legal environments are a world apart.

I am in China again this week and it seems everyone wants to know about the US elections.  They watched the Presidential debates and the election news with great interest and a kind of wondrous amazement.  “We heard what your politicians believe and what they will do,” one executive told me.  “In China, we have no idea what the policies of the leaders will be.”

I hadn’t really considered the difference in politics this way.  Americans have access, information and a fundamental understanding of what the leadership is planning.  Chinese people have none of this.  Most people have no clue about what is in the new Chinese 5-year plan, or how the new Communist Party Chief Xi will lead the country.

With the US elections now over and Obama reelected, the new President Xi assuming the leadership of China and Putin in Russia, we should all be wondering what will change in the world.   These three super-powers will surely bring dynamic change in the world order.

The Chinese Communist Party began its leadership transition as the 18th National Congress opened in early November.  This transition in leadership happens only once every 10 years. The new President Xi will be charged with executing the new Chinese 5-year Plan, developed earlier this year.  This plan includes a heavy emphasis on the environment, and from what I have observed in China, whatever the government decides to do, gets done.

In the US we have had the privilege of watching the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, listened to endless TV advertising and news reports.  We have a pretty good idea about the President’s agenda.  But how that agenda will interact with Xi’s and Putin’s is a big unknown.

I recently had the opportunity to travel from the US to Europe to Asia and rode in taxis in all three places.  I was reminded that while a taxi ride may seem mundane, the differences are quite significant. 

 

Take London, for example.  The famous shiny black cabs are the pride of the city: neat, clean and the drivers are professionals who are required to take a test of their knowledge of London before they are allowed to drive a cab. 

 

You will experience the complete opposite in a place like Chengdu, China, a city of 14 million people, where you risk your life when you go for a wild taxi ride…that is IF the taxi driver knows where you want to go and is willing to take you there, after you argue over the destination and the price. It’s the Wild, Wild West of China, where traffic laws and standard driving rules are still in the early development stages.  When the ride is over, you’ll breathe a polluted, but grateful sigh of relief that you survived.

 

In Germany, the taxis are likely to be Mercedes Benz, which feels a little less threatening as the drivers go at break-neck speed to your destination.  Everyone in Germany will tell you that speed is safe. What is it about the Germans and their love of speed?

 

Then there is Seoul, Korea.  A taxi driver will simply refuse to take you anywhere he doesn’t want to go.  And knowing the secret between black cabs (those drivers speak English) and the silver cab (good luck trying to communicate) is important to a successful journey.

 

Un-huh…then there is New York City: taxi drivers in stinky cabs honk at one another, people, cars, and trucks for seemingly no reason at all, all day long and all night long.  On one journey in NYC, when I argued with the driver that my building was across the street in Times Square and I expected him to take me all the way there and not drop me in the middle of the chaos, he yelled at me, “get out of the cab, lady and walk!”

 

And San Francisco, where a drive through the steep hills at 0-60mph for every block, will take years off your life. The drivers are quite friendly and often chatty there, while they risk your life.

 

And then, there is Beijing.  If you don’t ask for the driver to turn on the meter, you will get charged 5-10 times more for the fare than you should.  On a recent trip from the Beijing airport to the Hilton Beijing, I asked for a meter cab.  The driver took me to a side street across from the Hilton, instead of the entrance, and unloaded my bags.  The fare was 58 RMB.  I handed the driver 100 RMB and asked for change and a receipt.  He got in his taxi and drove off with my 100.  I should have known better.

Mike Daisey, a journalist and feature writer, delivered a radio show about Chinese factory workers on NPR “This American Life” in January.  I listened to the show one Sunday morning with a friend and kept thinking how odd it was that the things he was saying about his interviews with workers outside of Foxconn, just didn’t ring true.  I remarked to my friend throughout the broadcast that his examples weren’t true, or were odd. For example, he claimed he talked to several young girls who told him they were 12 and 13.  If they were underage workers at the Apple factory, why on earth would they say so and risk losing their jobs in one of the best factories in China?  In another example he talked about guards at the factory gates toting guns.  I have never seen anything like this in the factories I have visited.

Well, it turns out that Mike Daisey lied and embellished his story for NPR and for his off-Broadway monologue called “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”.  Only a few parts of his story were true…enough to make it sound real.  NPR has broadcast a retraction and the world press has skewered Mike for lying.

It’s not that those of us with China experience don’t believe there is room for improvement.  Chinese factories in general have a long way to go to improve working conditions and address human rights issues.  Conditions are not consistently up to world standards yet.  But the Foxconn factories are some of the best places to work.  Apple, HP, Dell and other companies have taken pains to monitor the production environments to make them humane and safe.

What bothers me most about Mike Daisey’s lies is that he has incited people to believe more fiction about China.  It’s time we dig deeper and question stories like this in the Western press and demand that our news companies verify all facts prior to printing or broadcasting.

I taught a 2-day workshop on Sourcing and Manufacturing in China on Sept 16-17.  This is the second time I have taught this workshop, but the first time in the US.  The last workshop was in Shanghai in April.

This time it was in Atlanta and the students were all Americans.  This was a great group of people who were anxious to learn and discuss the possibilities of doing business in China.  I was impressed with them.

More importantly, I keep learning, too.  I have started to examine the ways Chinese culture affects the Chinese manufacturing environment.   Of course, 5000 years of Chinese culture is behind everything that’s said, behind every dinner that’s hosted, behind every ride, every cola offered to you, every small gift, behind every business deal.

One of the most important things I teach my students about is the disparity between East and West cultures regarding contracts.  In the Western world, we rely on contracts to spell out the terms and conditions, expectations and approach for doing business together.  If the contract is violated; we file a law suit and go to court. 

In China, the contract should be seen as no more than a way of communicating the end-state of production.  After the contract is signed, you may be the only person to ever look at it again.  If there is a problem with production or the agreed-to terms in the contract, you are likely to be told, “this is not the way we do it in China.”  The business relationship you have with your Chinese supplier is based on “guanxi” – personal relationships – not on written legal contracts.

If you were to take your supplier or manufacturer to court (and generally, I advise against this because it is a waste of time and money), you are unlikely to get a favorable judgment.   This is because Chinese laws are immature with little precedent history.  Everything is subject to interpretation by a Chinese judge.  In the rare case you might get a favorable judgment, it is probably not enforceable.  Your Chinese manufacturer will simply go out of business.