“No Problem”

“Mei wen ti,” he said

September 24, 2016

Everyone smiled broadly in the meeting and the translator told her when the boss said “Meiwenti” it meant “No Problem.”

That’s when her problems really began.

Buying in China offers great opportunities for a western business if things go well. When they don’t the unanticipated costs and consequences can be significant.

The China manufacturing miracle started just north of Hong Kong’s “New Territories.” when Deng Xiaoping planted a symbolic tree and said, among many other things, “Let them become rich.” The Chinese people having suffered terribly through famines and internal strife thought that was a wonderful idea, a capital idea, if you will. There have been tremendous changes since then. One of the first highways we would travel on out of Shenzhen towards Guangdong was paid for by Hong Kong industrialists. It had no signage and few off or on ramps. People tamped dirt against the side of the raised highway as a way to ease onto existing dirt or poorly paved surface roads. Soon we noticed we could ride for hours and never be out of sight of new factories.

The factory buildings were consistent in design, but varied in decoration. The early ones all were three or four floors. First floor was used for shipping, receiving, parts and finished goods, bathrooms and kitchen.  The second and maybe third floor were used for manufacturing. The top floor was  a dormitory. Men on one end, women on the other; amazingly, no wear and tear on the wall between. There were stairs on each end and a freight elevator in the center. There were no doors, just the open stairs. Grills were pulled across the openings and locked to close the warehouses and work areas. In the summer it was hot. In the rainy season it was very damp (mold was a problem). As the capacity and sophistication in the south expanded their prices crept up. Some industries moved further north. Then in the winter the open factories were cold, sometimes brutally so. Workers wore their heavy clothes all winter to work, to eat, when they went outside. No heat. Still the orders kept coming, people moved from the small farms in the provinces to factory dormitories and megacities along the eastern seaboard.

When the boss, says mei wen ti, he’s not trying to mislead you. He means it. Still, his commitment may be different than your expectation. He’s a businessman who has seen miraculous changes to his country, his society and his personal prospects. He may have only a vague idea of what you want or how to do it, but they’ve successfully completed other projects that started the same way. He has friends who’ve made similar things, or he has people who use the internet and find answers. He sees his responsibility as being a good host, exuding confidence and, most of all, getting the order.  Then they’ll figure it out; no problem.

We’ve been sourcing, creating factories, designing and inspecting in China for almost twenty years. We were there before the equipment arrived. (That’s kind of a joke, but partly true.) By now we’ve been involved with thousands of containers of successful product shipped all over the world. Some electronics, some sporting goods, wooden things, plastic things, metal things, toys, lighting, etc., etc., etc.

We have a lot of respect for the boss, he really has made something out of nothing. But, we also know that his optimism creates a potential for missed deadlines, missed cost targets and unsatisfactory products. He operates, like many big bosses, at the 3,048 meter level. We like to get down in the weeds, before the factory quotes, and explain exactly what you want, hopefully with drawings, dimensions, product specifications, performance characteristics, life expectancies, packaging designs, pack instructions, seasonality and your best current guess about demand. Then you’ll get a fair price, a good design and tooling that matches your needs. With good humor, patience, persistence, and our experience, we’ll even get you a realistic schedule.

We enjoy working in China, with the Chinese. We are impressed by their success, their industriousness, their inventiveness. Working as we do between Western buyers and Chinese factories we’ve had a lot of fun, a fair amount of frustration and learned a gazillion ways people can go wrong. Guiding buyers around those pitfalls is our business.