Thousands of American companies that have moved production to China to take advantage of cheap labor might want to consider a case study that is unfolding for a U.S. manufacturing company. Fellowes Inc., one of the world's largest makers of office and personal paper shredders, is witnessing the destruction of its business, as its large Chinese manufacturing plant has been shut down by its joint venture manufacturing partner.
The company's Chinese joint venture firm has barred 1,600 employees from entering the plant, stolen all of its proprietary manufacturing production equipment and forced the venture into bankruptcy. The contracts Fellowes signed with its Chinese production company meant nothing. For Fellowes, there is no such thing as rule of law in China.
The Itasca, Ill.-based company has lost $168 million worth of business and is no longer able to produce personal shredders for the world market. It has taken its case to Chinese courts, to no avail. It has pleaded with members of Congress and federal agencies, with no results.
Fellowes entered into the joint venture in China in 2006 with a company called Shinri to build a factory in southern China to manufacture inexpensive shredders. Shinri is part of a large holding company called New United Group owned by the Zhou family. Fellowes and Shinri produced shredders bearing Fellowes' brand and incorporated Fellowes' proprietary product and process technology. The shredders were produced exclusively for sale to Fellowes and its subsidiaries. Under the agreement, Fellowes owned the tooling and intellectual property used to manufacture the shredders in the factory. The joint venture manufacturing facility had 120 Chinese suppliers.
"For over three years, this engagement resulted in a very productive relationship, with Shinri manufacturing and shipping our goods to Fellowes' locations throughout the world," says James Fellowes, a third-generation chairman and CEO of Fellowes Inc. "Shinri enjoyed a 100 percent-plus return on investment for each of the years and this return on investment was always paid on time."
But in 2009 everything changed when the leadership of the Chinese company shifted to another Zhou brother. Over the next year, the Chinese company "gradually attempted to usurp control [of our operations] in direct violation of the joint venture agreement," Fellowes told a recent hearing of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. "Shinri methodically imposed unreasonable requirements on Fellowes in an effort to extort more profit and ultimately control the global shredder business in direct violation of our contract."
Shinri insisted that Fellowes assign its 100 percent-owned tools to the joint venture. It required that Fellowes assign 100 percent of its engineering capability and its 100-percent owned Chinese sales division to the joint venture. It told Fellowes it must increase its prices immediately by 40 percent. It told Fellowes that it had to unilaterally contribute over $10 million to the joint venture and if it didn't "then Shinri would close down our operation as the legal representative of the joint venture," says James Fellowes. "When Fellowes refused these illegal demands Shinri proceeded to destroy our business."
Starting on August 7, 2010, Shinri started to obstruct shipments of shredders from the factory, forcing the joint venture to stop production. "It placed security guards and trucks at the gates to prevent the entrance of our people, the shipment of our goods and the transfer of our wholly owned assets," says Fellowes. "They expelled Fellowes' appointed management personnel at the facility and they illegally detained Fellowes' injection molded tools. This ultimately led to the bankruptcy of the joint venture."
James Fellowes immediately flew to Changzhou to meet with Chinese government officials. "They sympathized with our plight but they were either unable or unwilling to force our Chinese partners to open our factory or facilitate a purchase of the joint venture by Fellowes. The cumulative impact of these actions is an economic loss totaling over $100 million to Fellowes."
Fellowes has recently learned that Shinri is planning to compete directly against it in the shredder business using Fellowes' custom molding tools "that represent the embodiment of Fellowes' engineering investment and intellectual property," says the company CEO.
The court in China has gotten involved: It has initiated proceedings to liquidate the joint venture and auction the assets "to satisfy the debts of the joint venture" -- suppliers who are demanding that unpaid invoices be paid, according to Fellowes. "The sale of Fellowes' tooling and our finished goods inventory to anyone other than Fellowes would be a direct violation of our intellectual property rights. The immediate release of our tools is of great concern for us today. We have been restricted from these tools for eight months and that has greatly hampered our ability to recover."
Fellowes wants to bring these tools back to the United States so that it can re-establish a manufacturing operation in Illinois. It is "working around the clock to retool our products and bring up new factories," says Fellowes. "We hope the U.S. government will act to protect the rights of American companies like ours."
After James Fellowes' testimony, subcommittee chairman Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) said that he has been involved in Chinese trade issues for a decade, and there is a growing number of similar cases involving American companies. "I see China going backwards," Manzullo said. "I have never in my life in any Congress seen so many complaints over outrageous stealing of intellectual property and making a folly over the rule of law. They are going in the opposite direction based upon the complaints coming in."
There have been plenty of Chinese officials who have gone to law schools in the United States, Manzullo noted. "They know the rule of law. They are just not interested in enforcement because they don't have the same principles of private property that we do. It's an entirely different culture."
Manzullo said another company in his district, Aqua-Aerobic Systems Inc., a wastewater treatment firm, had a similar experience in China. That company was in the process of installing a wastewater treatment plant in China "and somebody there locally stole everything, even wiped out their website," Manzullo said.
"At one time, we had a working relationship with the Chinese embassy" in Washington, D.C. Manzullo said. "We no longer do. We have written five letters to the ambassador of China. Each time, he has refused to answer those letters. Before, with prior ambassadors, we have asked them to come into the office. With the case of Aqua-Aerobics, we showed them the evidence and the Chinese government became actively involved in that litigation with our Commerce Department. The litigation ended up favoring the American company. . . If the ambassador from China wants to just blow off members of Congress, which he has been doing over the last several months, that to me is no indication of a breath of fresh air going through that country."
American companies would do well to remember that the People's Republic of China (PRC) is a totalitarian, communist dictatorship that has only partially immersed itself in capitalism's waters.
Which is why tech companies that rely upon China for essential parts and assembly services -- i.e., Apple among them -- should keep their eyes open.
Hat tip: R.F.