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Category Archives: Factory workers

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.

fork-in-the-road-what-now

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?’

Walmart 2015

Last week we participated in the Walmart US Manufacturing Summit in Bentonville, Arkansas. Walmart has taken the lead and has ignited the Reshoring movement in America by committing to spend $250 Billion for products Made in the USA over the next few years. The annual Summit was an amazing event again this year, with an important “Open Call” day for suppliers pitching their American-made products to Walmart buyers.
Walmart estimates that 1 million new US jobs will be created through this initiative, including direct manufacturing job growth of approximately 250,000 jobs and indirect job growth of 750,000 in the support and service sectors. This alone is important for rebuilding the US economy, but because of Walmart’s size and influence, other retailers are likely to follow Walmart’s lead and establish initiatives of their own that will also result in more job creation in the US. And as we know, Retailers are the “Mothers of all Supply Chains.” These initiatives will affect manufacturers and their global supply chains.
Walmart is quickly becoming a catalyst for the Reshoring movement for another important reason. By igniting the US manufacturing movement, suppliers and their supply chains will cause the reshoring and redevelopment of key industries needed to support manufacturing in general. Take small motor manufacturers, for example. These small motors are in many consumer products such as lawn mowers, vacuums, hair dryers, and small appliances. Yet most of the small motor production was offshored to China in the early 2000s. Bringing back the production of these motors will help boost US content for many US manufactured industrial products.
Plastic injection molding, cut-and-sew equipment and other component parts will be reshored as a result of this movement. The skills to support all kinds of manufacturing were offshored too, and now skilled labor is in very high demand in America. So the Reshoring movement will drive the redevelopment of these industries and skills in America.
The federal government is supporting innovation through the bi-partisan Revitalize American Manufacturing Act of 2014 and the establishment of 45 Innovation Institutes, bringing together companies and universities to co-invest in advanced manufacturing technologies.
Walmart is the company that will make the difference because it is basing the need for innovation on the demand of its customers, and that is powerful.

tppThe TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trade Agreement) is at best, difficult to understand. There are a lot of arguments to be made on both sides of the agreement and it can be tough to wade through all of them and read the long associated text in articles for and against. So let me simplify why I am for it.

  1. Increased trade helps create more jobs, including manufacturing jobs that pay more. In our quest to reshore manufacturing, we are trying hard to rebuild manufacturing in the US and the TPP will help. One out of every five jobs in the US can be tied to international trade (about 38 million jobs).
  2. Manufacturing jobs pay better (about 18% better than other jobs). In the US, manufacturing jobs pay between $65K and $85K – squarely in the middle class. And middle class people buy houses, cars, big-screen TVs; they shop at Walmart and send their kids to college. They are the heart and soul of the United States and keep our middle-class economy going strong.
  3. 95% of consumers live outside of the US and with the middle classes growing worldwide, particularly in Asia, our US export markets can be expected to grow. Manufacturing products in America for export put US residents to work, and that is good for all of us.
  4. Trade agreements level the playing field. It’s no secret that foreign governments offer incentives and subsidies to their own manufacturers and exporters. And because the US has such an open-economy, allowing for all kinds of imports, we are seen as a big, red target market for foreign products. Trade agreements put equal rules in place so that all signatories have to play by the same rules and regulations. This will help our exporters and slow or stop unfair imports into the US. We will have legal recourse when the rules aren’t followed.
  5. Small and medium-sized exporters benefit the most because the regulatory hurdles and challenges of foreign countries are standardized or removed. In addition, we see the most reshoring activity happening in small and medium sized companies, so growth in manufacturing is in the US, plus an improved ability to export. The projections say that 98 percent of these companies will benefit from TPP.
  6. Those countries participating in TPP will be required to abide by environmental and labor conditions oversight. While this may not fix the pollution and human rights issues in all participating nations, it is a very strong step in the right direction.

If we sit back and do nothing, surely China will step in with an overriding agreement of their own and it may not be so favorable toward US manufacturers. With TPP passage, we will continue to play a leadership role in Pacific trade.

The bottom line for me is the test of rebuilding the middle class in America through manufacturing. TPP will do that by giving access to export markets for small and medium-sized manufacturers. And that is good for America.

2013-07-05 01.58.31I took the bullet train from Shanghai to Nanjing today, a journey in a pleasant 1st class, sparkling clean rail car at 200 km/hour, for about $30.  Rail is such a great way to travel in China.  It’s efficient, convenient and inexpensive, plus you see things you would never see from an airplane.

Along the way, in every direction, are miles and miles of factories.  They come in all shapes and sizes – small and squat to enormous smokestacks –apparently producing simple assembled products, electronics, plastics, castings and everything you can think of in between.  

Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei told the G-20 meeting in 2014 that manufacturing accounts for nearly 60% of Chinese GDP, an unsustainable share which has created the problems of pollution and overcapacity, he said.  This is very evident as I traveled through the manufacturing areas between Shanghai, Wuxi and Nanjing.  The pollution was overwhelming; the skies were thick with a smoky fog and the sun was a muted disk low in the sky.  The pollution gets so bad from time to time that people wear surgical masks whenever they are outside during the most dangerous periods.

The Chinese government is no longer shying away from or denying allegations of the horrendous air quality.  In fact, in the latest government Five-Year- Plan, China is finally putting real muscle and money into environmental clean-up.  I expect to see substantial improvement over the next few years.  In addition, China plans to use the excess manufacturing capacity to address the needs of their own burgeoning middle class by producing products demanded at home.

Americans need to work on balancing the difference between the Chinese economy supported by 60% manufacturing and the US economy where only 11-12% is based on manufacturing.  Manufacturing is the fundamental backbone of a healthy economy.  We need to bring some of it back to the US- but very carefully.  We want skilled jobs that pay a living wage and don’t pollute the environment.

I visited a State Owned Enterprise (SOE) machine shop near 5th Ring Road in Beijing one very hot and humid August afternoon.  The machine shop was located among a cluster of buildings that didn’t seem very remarkable from the outside.  But inside was a different story.

We were greeted by the Plant Manager and the Operations Manager, who were expecting us for a visit that afternoon.  After the greetings were exchanged, the two managers disappeared to take a phone call and we were left to wander the plant by ourselves, unescorted. 

We walked down the center aisle of the machine shop, surrounded by giant drilling and cutting machinery making thunderous noise and throwing off metal shavings.  We were offered no eyewear protection, no foot/toe protection and no earplugs.  The Chinese machine tool operators were wearing black cloth shoes with rubber soles; not the steel-toed boots you would expect in a US factory.  About half way down the center aisle, a chemical smell was so overwhelming, that I looked for an open window or door to gasp some “fresh Beijing air”.  I was allowed to take as many photos as I liked.

The lack of safety standards and allowing us to walk through the factory unescorted was a dose of reality regarding Chinese manufacturing.  China’s steady climb in the industrial world has not been paralleled with world standards for safety.  The climb to achieve these standards in China is extremely steep.

Recent stories in the Western press describe impending doom for Chinese manufacturing, relating the Chinese demise to Japan in the 1990’s.  But to real China-watchers and experts, this is a naïve view.  It assumes that the Chinese government will sit back and do nothing to correct the trends and that the Chinese economy will stagnate.

While Chinese manufacturing is not known for innovation, it really is just a matter of time.  With 700,000 graduating engineers per year, China is quickly becoming the world’s powerhouse in manufacturing engineering and in continuous improvement.  The next phase is innovation and optimization. 

To address innovation, the Chinese government advocates student exchange programs and invites thousands of visiting US professors into its universities to infuse creativity into the education systems. Over time, this will reignite the creative innovation spark that the Chinese displayed over thousands of years, inventing printing, gun powder, deep water bridges, massive sailing ships and irrigation to name a few.  While US politicians tell us not to worry because China cannot innovate, the Chinese are busy proving them wrong.

To address optimization, China has started on the journey to automation.  Automation and the adoption of software systems will dramatically increase productivity at the factory level and will drive continuous improvement and optimization.  Although this is a long road to travel, it is nonetheless the road Chinese manufacturers are on.

It’s time to wake up and smell the green tea.

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.