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Using a China Agent vs Going Direct

As companies weigh the pros and cons of working directly with a factory vs. dealing through an agent for their China sourcing needs there are many points to consider.

Top 10 Pros and Cons

1.  The scale or dollar volume purchased annually. (I published an article in M&A Magazine which argued it requires $40-$50MM in throughput for any ROI on a direct sourcing office.)

2.  The number of varying categories and SKUs being sourced.

3.  The complexity of products being sourced. Cotton socks are a lot less difficult to make and package than electromechanical items with sophisticated firmware and specialized components.

4.  Experience levels, competence and proficiency with the language of the country with whom they’re dealing.

5.  The  sheer number of factories the buyers/agents have worked with including access to the owners or very least factory bosses and relationships with those individuals; the length of time and history with those factories and dollars of business placed with them; the ability to get production bumped forward in the schedule;  the ability to receive favorable payment terms which impacts cash flow of any business.

6.  Competency with provincial government regulations and requirements. (How would a New Yorker fare in an Alabama factory or vice versa?)

7.  Ability to travel to/from factory within one day for urgent matters, product/packaging changes, and production oversight.

8.  Quality Control-Generally considered the most critical.  The standard process for measuring QC and the depth of practices such as random and in production sampling, testing equipment and facilities, reports, photos, and now video.

9.  Experience with logistics, freight terms and all export documentation and activities.

10.  Does the agent or factory (for direct) share your sense of urgency and same philosophies and principals?  Are they vested in the outcome and long term success of the business?

Diving into the China Pond

Diving into unknown waters

Many have asked me what it’s like doing business in China.  I’ve always said that if you are doing it by yourself it can be as dangerous as swimming with croccodiles.  I finally came across a photo that captured the essence of this concept.

What’s Next for Manufacturing in China?

What is something you can think of that can’t successfully be outsourced in China?

Think long and hard about this. Resist the temptation to veer toward intangibles or time sensitive services with obvious geographical barriers such as a haircut or plumbing repair. What product theoretically cannot be manufactured in China? How about a portrait? I have an acquaintance that has connected with amazingly talented artists who will take a family photo and reproduce a framed, hand painted, oil on canvas likeness taken from a photograph.

It will have the same level of detail and quality as those done by artists in the U.S. costing a minimum of $1200-$2500 just for the painting itself. This does not include the frame which can be another $350-$500. The exact quality portrait from China can be delivered to your doorsteps for $450 or about a quarter or less that which someone would expect to pay here. Why is this?

If you said labor cost you are only partly correct. There are many more factors that play into “the China price” for which Westerners have had an insatiable appetite since the Wal Mart effect took hold in the early nineties. Yet now writers, politicians and economists say the tide is turning. Many assert that currency fluctuation, labor shortages near China’s coastlines, and a rising middle class, are quickly narrowing the cost gap between China and the West. They might be forgetting one thing though according to Mike Bellamy, author of The Essential Guide to China Sourcing , “there is no Next China.”

Rising Labor Costs in China

 

rising labor costs china

In a Roya Wolverson interview published in Time, May 16, 2011, Pin Li, President of the Wanxiang America Corporation stated that “rising labor costs in China will only cause inflation and not necessarily jobs returning to the U.S.” He further explained that what this means is “instead of paying $1 for latex gloves the price may rise to $2 and will still represent the lowest cost available in the world.”

In other words, assuming material costs are consistent globally, even doubling or tripling the average monthly wage of Chinese factory employees still does not bring total cost of goods in line with U.S. workers.

In a recent conversation, Bellamy, Chairman of the Advisory Board for China Sourcing Information Center begins to make the “No Next China” case with the notion that China’s economy is still vastly lopsided in its dependence on exporting. The Chinese and its neveaux riche’ have created the world’s second largest economy that many predict will be bigger than the U.S. within the next decade. The only fuel to keep this burning is the demand for cheap(er) exports. A growing middle class also means bolstered domestic consumption, particularly as brands become more prevalent with Chinese consumers. But to sustain economic growth, exports have to remain a big chunk of the equation.

A Shift By Coastal Manufacturing Regions

The question may not be so much about “Made in China” as it is “What will be Made in China?” Sure there is great capacity and infrastructure in coastal regions but there may be a shift developing with the evolution of improved skill sets and wage increases. Dr. Eric Thun , lecturer in Chinese Business Studies at the University of Oxford China Center, says “pushing manufacturing into high value-added activity is very much what the government wants. This kind of cost pressure stimulates upgrading.”

Bellamy adds, “because China’s economy is still heavily export dependent at present, over the past years there have been concerns about the China government promoting the interior too fast at the expense of the coast. This could have major side effects on the much needed revenue stream gained by supplying product to overseas buyers. But, as April data demonstrates to policy makers, the development of the interior is not having a major impact on exports. “

The Role Of Appreciation In Chinese Currency To U.S. Job Creation

Since June, 2010 when currency truly began floating, the RMB has appreciated 6% against the US dollar. Depending on whom you talk to however, the RMB is still undervalued by as much as 25%. Add to this CPI inflation and productivity growth rates (Chinese worker productivity is growing faster than U.S.) and the RMB will continue to be undervalued for five years or more.

Pin Li argues that “currency can help but it also can hurt. Structural issues are more fundamental for the U.S. and China. This is more of a political question than any economist can even measure. Politically we have to pretend it’s an issue. But the reality is that jobs from China won’t come to the U.S. They’ll go to Mexico, Korea, and Indonesia. And that means the imports that came from China will now cost more which also doesn’t solve the deficit issue.”

Bellamy claims “we can expect that the US government will probably use the April export record to put pressure on China to allow their currency to appreciate. The China government has a plan in place for a slow but steady increase as opposed to a dramatic adjustment as desired by the US. Don’t expect China to change their plan just because of this April data and any related pressure from the USA.”

China as a Market

Li’s passive reference to the deficit is interesting and should not go unnoticed. While many grip about jobs, only a small percentage of Western companies have invested in growing market share in China.

In an October 6, 2010 Bloomberg Press report it was estimated that China market was valued at $150 billion in potential goods and services or a top ten global opportunity for U.S. companies. “U.S. companies have experienced tremendous commercial success in China’s market and the prospects for future growth are significant,” said Erin Ennis, vice president of the U.S.-China Business Council.

Beijing has a $145 billion trade surplus with the U.S., more than its deficit with the next seven- largest partners combined. But is this solely due to undervalued currency and cheap labor? Could it be more the apathetic or myopic strategies of only selling into North American and European markets and not breaking from traditional business models?

Pin Li makes a bold statement when he asserts, “Firms’ access to Chinese should be their more of a concern than an unbalanced currency.”

The Next 5 Years

China remains a factory to the world. Government subsidized infrastructure has ensured overcapacity of manufacturing availability. One needs to simply travel from town to town; cranes as far as the eye can see. Staggering development continues in all sectors such as transportation, industrial, housing, recreation, hospitals, shopping centers, and resorts. Innovation and branding are now woven into the next generation’s mindset with Beijing’s full support. There is no next China. Whether as adversary, trading partner, or ally the future will depend on setting priorities and building mutual trust.

David Alexander is President of BaySource Global www.baysourceglobal.com

New Product Development and “The Adaptation Curve”

Nobody has an ugly baby.  The same goes for new product developers.  Whether an independent entrepreneur or seasoned marketing team, once a new product concept is developed and months, even years in some cases are invested, our babies become prettier every day.  The same unconditional love and support that builds as our children mature and develop transfers into the professional mindset of innovators.

Calling All Product Developers

Creating a viable and robust market for a new product takes enormous resource, planning and resolve.  The sheer capital to unveil and furthermore generate brand equity is often the most overlooked aspect of getting a product to market.  Take the Segway for instance.  This emission free, efficient mode of personal transportation has been around for over a decade.  With some quick, simple training even children can master riding this marvel.  Reaching top speeds of 12.5 mph it has a range of up to 24 miles on a single charge.  Still commercial acceptance has been scant.  Why wouldn’t every warehouse and airport have a fleet of them?

Recently two Swedish designers have developed an entirely new concept for biking safety in the form of the Hovding, an airbag which deploys vies-a- vie algorithmic intelligence protecting riders from head trauma in the event of a fall or crash.  This revolutionary “bike helmet” is worn around riders’ necks and actually becomes a stylized accessory.  At $520 prospects for commercial distribution of any scale in the next five years may be slim.  However according to Forbes writer Jeremy Bogaisky this startup has already taken in $13 million in venture capital.  He cites bicycle industry analyst Gary Coffrin who gives a great summation stating “The adaptation curve for such a unique product at this price point is not likely to be rapid.”

Taking the tech factor down a notch, in my own gym sits a clever form of a door stop called “James the Doorman.”  I would imagine the designers, Black+Bum had their “Eureka” design moment and the wheels started spinning.  Honestly I have never seen such a cool variety of a door stop and  without knowing much about how they developed this unique version of an age old application, I can’t comment on what lengths they went to in commercializing their product.  I do know that the one in my club is the only that I have ever seen.

Every week we hear from inventors and product developers who have put great thought into products which offer unique solutions to every day needs.  Often though there are many missing pieces to their overall strategies.  Below are the Top 8 Hurdles to Successful New Product Launches.  In the coming months, I will be writing a series which individually expands on each of these, why they are often overlooked and how they are important for taking new products to market.

1. Product Development Costs 

Most inventors underestimate the cost for designing a manufacturing ready product.  Tools and molds can easily run into the five to six figure range and can dwarf first year profits.  Developing engineering drawings—those that translate into production and material specifications  require time and money.

2. Distribution Channels

Some products are ideal for Big Box retail but unless you know how to navigate this space, most category managers are not going to take a chance with a single line item vendor.  It creates additional administrative work for the system, and most inventors don’t have the capital to market their products.  Specialty and on-line retailers generally are better proving grounds for a products’ acceptance but you still have to generate interest and traffic.  Oh, and did you get a UPC code yet?

3. Inventory Capital 

Minimum order requirements (MOQs) by factories usually cause a lump in the throat.  Even if you have the greatest gadget in the world, how do you plan on financing that first big order?

4. Educating the Masses 

How will you announce the arrival of your new product to the world?  Magazines?  PR campaign?  Put an ad in the paper?  Direct Response Television (DRTV) is a great but often expensive form of advertising and one of the best ways to demonstrate a new application or use as well as building brand equity.  It’s great to have a video on your web site but again, how will you drive viewers and a following?

5. Price vs. Value 

In the initial phase of your product’s life-cycle there will likely not be the scale (volume) to drive down production cost.  Unless you can convince consumers they should pay a premium retail price, break-even may be longer off than you expect.  Plus, buyers will tell you whether your SRP (Suggested Retail Price) is in line with their category. 

6. Regulatory and Testing Requirements 

With your product in the public domain, most retailers will require some sort of regulatory or product safety testing and compliance with groups such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and others.  Depending on what industry you are in, your item may require testing and certification by default.  To you this means additional time, red tape and money.

7. Patent and Intellectual Property Protection 

This is perhaps the most critical and misunderstood area of product development.  In many cases developers could have saved themselves months of work simply by doing some basic research and analysis.  The United States Patent and Trademark Office site has become more navigable and efficient thanks to improvements in their search functions.  There are three ways to begin your inquiry using key words, designs or a combination to see if someone else has registered a similar product.  Even if they have you may be able to make some functional changes to distinguish yours but again, many underestimate the time and capital required to protect the investment of your innovation.

8. Aftermarket Sales and Support

Now that you’ve got a patent pending, finalized your business plan, raised early stage capital, have product on the warehouse shelf and are starting to generate traction don’t forget the basic administrative requirements.  If you hit the lotto and are selling to Wal Mart, using retail link is a requirement.  This entails sending a staff member for training and ultimately using their on line tool daily or weekly.  Is someone manning the phones for product questions and concerns?  How robust is your web site?  Oh, we haven’t even discussed how much this will cost to build.

While these hurdles aren’t surmountable, it is critical to factor in all the critical and time consuming elements of bringing a product to life.  Even this list is not comprehensive enough to account for the unexpected turns in the pathway to new product development.  If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Read Part 1: New Product Development and the Adaptation Curve

David Alexander is president of Baysource Global and has a decade of experience with new product development and contract manufacturing.

Who Is Responsible For Monitoring Quality When Utilizing Low Cost Country Sources?

China is notoriously blamed for quality issues in products sold in the West. But who really is responsible for ensuring quality can be found in products shipped abroad from China? In a former July post to 10 LinkedIn Groups associated with manufacturing, engineering, supply chain and quality control this was the question posed. Readers eagerly provided a total 104 responses of which 49 gave specific answers.

The results could be summarized and compiled into 8 consistent categories. They were:

1. The Manufacturer – 11 respondents
2. Purchasing- the buyer- in house sourcing – 8 respondents
3. A reliable third party QC firm – 8 respondents
4. Cross functional teams (purchasing, engineering, & production) – 7 respondents
5. The company importing the goods – 7 respondents
6. In house QC – 4 respondents
7. The seller/customer – 3 respondents
8. Entire supply chain – 1 respondent

11 Sage Morsels of Advice:

• Do not start LCC sourcing if you are not able to build the appropriate team. Consider outsourcing it to insure the quality of your supply chain.

• Specifications must be clear as to the quality standards expected and the acceptance test regime and what happens to the rejects – you do not want them to appear in the local street market if it is a branded item!

• Be present at intervals throughout the production process. The factory you visit may not be the one producing the goods.

• Establish a personal rapport with your supplier. It is good business and makes communication a lot easier.

• Arrange for acceptance testing – either by your own staff or by an outside agency in the country of origin. Nothing is shipped without inspection.

• Develop a supplier approval process.

• Allot resources for site visits.

• Get references for third party teams.

• Determine their ability to complete the contract. Determine if supplier is financially stable. Assure that they have systems and certifications, such as ISO-9001, in place.

• Ensure that they are motivated to provide quality and on-time delivery.

• Be clear why you are using a low cost country and take all costs into account – it may not be so low cost in the end.

So in summary, everyone has a stake in quality even though it is easiest to point the finger at the manufacturer (China). If we capture all the great advice from industry experts, heed the wisdom and incorporate all these due processes, everyone will come out a winner.

LinkedIn Groups:

GVRT Council of Supply Chain Managers
Global Sourcing
Innovative New Product and Service Innovators
ISM Purchasing and Supply Chain Managers
Offshoring & Outsourcing Forum
Procurement and Supply Chain Leaders
Procurement Professionals
Retail Global Sourcing
SME Society of Manufacturing Engineers
Strategic Sourcing and Procurement

David Alexander is President of BaySource Global, a leading China consulting firm specializing in project management, sourcing, establishing China procurement, and selling into China. He can be reached at david.alexander@baysource.net

www.baysourceglobal.com