Our Story - The Road to China Connect Advisory

Becoming a Baker – It was almost magical

“From High School Graduate to Master Baker: How I Turned My Passion into Reality and Raised $16,000 for a Service Mission to Taiwan”

I needed sixteen thousand dollars.

It was 1998, I had just finished high school and that was the cost of serving a two-year service mission for my church, a goal I had been preparing for, for several years.

It was time to get a job. And that’s how I became a baker.

It was a boutique bakery in Wellington, NZ. I began as a cleaner with one of my younger brothers (he didn’t last long). Perhaps it was my incredible charm, or maybe it was my brilliant work ethic, but I quickly moved up from cleaner to delivery driver and from there I became one of two bakers.

Unexpectedly, I loved baking. I was fascinated with how the combination of raw materials like flour, butter, cocoa, baking powder, milk, etc., would mysteriously become a moist cake, a decadent slice, or delicious cookies. All I had to do was follow their recipes and I could create masterpieces from everyday ingredients. It was almost magical, and I was falling in love with the process of taking a concept on paper and seeing it materialise in the physical world.

I spent a year working at this bakery, a year of creating endless sugary treats almost from nothing. Then, as if no time had passed at all, it was over. I had saved my sixteen thousand dollars. It was time for a new adventure. An adventure that would introduce me to a foreign land and the mysteries of Chinese.

A Kiwi’s Journey To Learning Mandarin Chinese

“From High School to Taiwan: A Young Kiwi’s Journey of Immersion and Self-Discovery”

I was nineteen and had only been out of high school for a year. Now I was off to Taiwan for two years. A place I had never been and speaking a language I had never spoken. I was excited. I was also nervous.

The tradition in my church is that nineteen year old young men and young women volunteer to serve a two-year service mission somewhere in the world. And you don’t choose where you go. It is assigned. What language you speak is also assigned. 

You could be speaking Japanese in Sydney, Australia, Portuguese in Nagoya, Japan, or Swahili in Kenya. Wherever or whatever the need is, that is where you could end up.

They assigned me to Taiwan, speaking Mandarin Chinese.

First, I flew off for 12-weeks of full-immersion training in the USA, and from there to Taiwan. It was an intense two years.

When I arrived in Taiwan, I learned there’s ‘immersion’ and then there’s immersion.

There’s much to be said about fully immersing yourself in a culture. It’s probably the best way to learn a language. Practising on paper and learning from books all flew out the window when I was on the street trying to talk to someone. I had left my training in the USA feeling as though I had a basic grasp of the language. I was wrong. When I got to Taiwan, I couldn’t understand anything, and no one could understand me. I didn’t know what words I didn’t know, so I didn’t know what words I should learn later.

It was about two weeks after I arrived in Taiwan, this hot, tropical, humid country that I was not used to, that I tried to have a conversation on my own. I couldn’t say much but managed a few sentences introducing myself, my name, where I was from, what I was doing in Taiwan, etc. And that was it.

Twelve weeks of intense immersion training in the US, then two more weeks being surrounded by the culture and language, and that was it.

This was going to take some time.

It was a long road, but an exciting one.

I learned unfamiliar words slowly and would add them to my conversations. After three months, I could hold a conversation on my own. I was getting good at small talk. I would ask the same questions again and again. It was going well. But, as soon as I branched out from the small talk it became difficult again. If it was a topic I had not learned words for, things became completely incomprehensible.

Chinese is a tough language. The writing system is complex and difficult to learn and, to make it even more challenging, Taiwan uses traditional characters which are even more complex. Then there’s pronunciation. There are sounds in Chinese that Westerners just don’t make in English. At first you cannot even tell the difference. Chinese has five distinct tones which English doesn’t have, and most of us can’t even hear when we start out. Changing the tone of a word can completely change the meaning. For example, the word ‘Ma’. Depending on the tone, it can mean ‘horse’, ‘tell off’, or ‘question mark’ and it can also mean different things depending on the context! So much of what is in books (or on the internet) is not how things are on the streets. Language is constantly evolving. Slang is used for so many things, and most of those won’t be found in books or classes.

During that two years, I spent every day speaking Mandarin and interacting with the local people. For the last eight months, I travelled around the area quite a lot, working with other missionaries like myself. I got to see different places and learn the culture even more.

All this is to say that, for a Kiwi nineteen-year-old not long out of high-school, this was a unique and refining experience. I learned a lot and grew to love the Chinese and Taiwanese culture and language. I learned a lot about myself, how to be independent and self-disciplined. I learned an appreciation for a culture and people that differed greatly from my own. When it was time to leave, I was sad to go. I would miss my time amongst these people, and it was an experience I will be forever grateful for.

Little did I know then my experiences with these cultures had only just begun.

How To Manufacture in China The Hard Way

“From University Studies to Entrepreneur: The Unforgettable Journey of Building a Scooter Business from Scratch”

There were no instructions.

Just a container load of scooters only 90% assembled. There had been no notice that they would arrive like this. I had already pre-sold one, and the customer expected to pick it up the next day. I had already pushed them back three times because I hadn’t realised how long it would take to clear customs. I had no forklift or lifting gear of any kind. It looked like it was going to be pure grunt work to get them unloaded and into my garage. And I still had to figure out how to finish assembling them, something I had never done. It was going to be a long night.

How had I got here?

I could blame Robert Kiyosaki’s ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’, I suppose. I had really disliked university. REALLY disliked it. Many lectures were skipped, and my marks ranged from A+ to complete failures. Books were not my priority. Instead, I focused on setting up a share house to offset my rent, flipping cars as a cash income, dabbling in business ideas with my brothers, and looking for ways to make money. And I had read Mr. Kiyosaki’s book. It resonated so much that I was determined to never work for anyone other than myself. Ever.

In mid-2005, I was at the end of my studies. Although I had treated university more like a ‘side-project’ after 4 years I graduated with a double major in Materials & Process Engineering and Chinese. 

I had no money, but banks were more than willing to loan me some even though, on paper, I had no way of paying it back. I was in my early twenties. I had plans. My confidence and determination to do things ‘my way’ was sky high.

It was time.

As soon as my final exam was over, I booked a one-way ticket to China to explore factories and potential suppliers. I was on my way.

Guangzhou, China. A city with a population of over 46 million. A little bigger than my hometown of Wellington, New Zealand, which was now over nine thousand kilometres away. I had no idea what I was doing, from a business standpoint, and even less when it came to identifying a good Chinese factory.

I attended the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, the oldest and largest and most representative trade fair in China, and I soon found some contacts and set up some meetings to visit three different scooter factories. A few days later I had visited and chosen a supplier. Their scooters looked good (at least on the outside), they said all the right things (not that I had any idea, at that point, what the ‘right things’ were) and they actually had a physical factory. That was enough for me. I returned to New Zealand with more than I had left with: a supplier and a product.

As soon as I returned, I secured a bank loan and ordered a twenty-foot container load of scooters. Then I started selling. I targeted my university as I thought students would go for a cheap mode of transport. Things looked like they were going well. I was on my way.

Then the scooters arrived. First, they took an unexpectedly long-time to get through customs, something I had not accounted for. Then they were only ninety percent assembled! This, I soon learned, was to keep the cargo size to a minimum. I had no previous experience fixing a scooter, not to mention assembling one, and there were no instructions to speak of. But I had confidence in my mechanical abilities and, after a long night, I thought I had them figured out.

In part, I was right. Some of them even worked. I would sell them and never hear from that customer again. Others almost seemed possessed, as though I had displeased the Startup-Business Gods, and they were punishing me for my hubris. Had I flown too close to the sun? Had I dreamed too high? These scooters had problem after problem after problem. I had no spare parts. Why would I? I had ordered none because I just assumed my brand new products would work. In the end, I had to strip some of my stock for spare parts, leaving me short of four scooters.

And so I was introduced to the adventure of manufacturing in China.

I was not sleeping well. I wasn’t eating much and I was losing weight. I dreaded the phone ringing as most calls were from customers having problems with their scooters. I was often up all night trying to get one scooter, JUST ONE, ready for a customer the next day. I’d spend hours on warranty issues, driving into town when someone had broken down, knowing that I could be there for hours and still have no idea what the issue was as there were so many possibilities. Customers would break down on the way to work, or their scooters would not start when going to leave home. Scooters would splutter while driving, breaks would squeak, other rattles and noises, hoses would come off. The list was endless.

It appeared that the Startup-Business Gods were not done punishing me yet.

I found more and more issues, large and small. As the scooters came back, I would note down the problems and check, reinforce, or rectify all subsequent scooters. By the time I was ready to order a second shipment, I had a fairly long list of things that needed to be checked, reinforced, replaced, and added. I discussed these issues with the factory. I sent photos, and I vented my general frustration at them. I should add that at this point in my life I had lived in Taiwan for two years and had become fairly proficient at speaking Mandarin Chinese. I had even taken a few Chinese papers at university. So, I did have some confidence in my ability to communicate. Unfortunately, I had never dealt with factories or manufacturing, so the vocabulary was all new to me. I learned very quickly that, even knowing Mandarin Chinese, it was easy for me to say one thing and for them to hear another. To make things clearer, I communicated most things over email with photos to help highlight the issues or parts I was referring to. The factory assured me they were all minor issues and that they would rectify them for the following order. So, I placed a second order and this time I ordered multiple spare parts.

See. I was learning my lessons.

I asked for them to send me photos during production to make sure things were done right prior to shipping. I double and triple checked with the factory and, as I continued to assemble, sell, and cover warranty issues on the first shipment, I would contact the factory with additional problems, making sure the next batch arrived as close to perfect as possible. Meanwhile, my first shipment was still proving a nightmare. Some scooters had every issue under the sun. Some had mysterious scooter diseases that, no matter what I did, would not go away. On one scooter, I swear I replaced every major part one by one until the whole scooter was basically new and it still would not run properly! The only thing that kept me going was the thought that, because of all the work I done talking through issues with the factory, the second batch would be a much smoother ride.

But apparently I had not learned my lessons well enough.

The second batch arrived. And, miracle of miracles, the issues I had discussed with the factory were in fact resolved ninety percent of the time.

However, as I assembled them I found fresh problems. Things which had been perfect in the first batch were now a headache. Some parts were slightly different and had obviously come from a different supplier. Although the specs were the same, and fit the same, some of these parts were better than the first batch… but some were worse! The small screws were inferior quality and easily snapped off if I wasn’t careful. The spare parts I had ordered helped me fix warranty issues as they came in, but now I was having new issues and once again no spare parts to fix them with.

The inconsistency almost killed me. Pretty much everything the factory had promised to fix from the first batch was fixed, so I couldn’t complain there. But now I had new problems and when I approached the factory, the answer was the same as last time: “No problem! We will fix that for the next batch”. I wanted to give up. 

I felt like I had two options:

1) Give up and spend the next 12-24 months servicing warranty issues while making no money off the business – just to shut it all down, or

2) find a factory with a better product which wouldn’t have the same quality issues and inconsistencies.

I decided to explore the second option, even though I knew that there were absolutely no guarantees a new supplier wouldn’t end up worse than the first…    

I bit the bullet and traveled back to China, and this time I was more prepared.

I had a better idea of what things to look out for on the assembly line, what questions to ask, and I found other factories who used parts that were interchangeable with my original scooters. So, I teed up more factory visits. I asked lots of questions and highlighted potential issues. I could see that these were a higher quality build. I ordered enough spare parts, and I did everything I could to avoid the previous problems.

Still, I was worried. When the shipment arrived, would I get what I had seen in the factory?

The shipment arrived just as I was nearing the end of my original stock. Thankfully, they were better! They still had issues but compared to the previous order there was a definite step up in the build quality and the attention to detail. I knew I had been lucky finding a better supplier, as it could have gone either way. But I had spare parts of everything, and sales were starting to roll in. Things were looking good.

I moved out of my garage and into a proper storage facility. We organised parts into sections and every scooter had a fifty-five point checklist we went through before they were let out the door. Assembly from start to final testing was methodical. However, consistency was still a challenge and potential issues were hard to predict because it was still clear that, although parts were interchangeable, the factories in China were using multiple parts suppliers. But things were going well enough that we placed an order for another container. It was our last order.

And then, 2008. Not a great year.

While orders were still coming through, 2008 had brought with it the Great Recession. By the time our shipment arrived, the recession had really kicked in and it scared people to spend money on new things. As a result, we sold what we could at a profit and the rest we sold at cost price. We had hundreds of spare parts that hung around for the next two years before finally making the tough decision to sell the entire lot for a fraction of the cost and wipe the slate clean.

I would spend the next 3 years paying off the business debt that remained.

A nightmare. A baptism of fire. A learning experience. All terms that could describe my journey. I had come out with some scars and a list of dos and don’ts. It was a bumpy start, but it was also the beginning of my adventures with doing business in China, with its people, its factories, its culture.

Growing Pains

“From Crisis to Solution: The Transformative Power of On-Ground Representation in China”

The brand was potentially in trouble. Because the company was growing rapidly, issues that were easier to detect and fix at lower volumes were now becoming a problem. Thankfully, there were no safety issues yet, but retailers were getting annoyed with a few even threatening to pull the product from their shelves, and unless things improved quickly, the company was going to suffer some damage. They needed to move on this fast.

It also didn’t help that all manufacturing was done in China, a world away from the company’s head office.

This is where I entered the picture.

With a sparkly new degree in materials and process engineering, and with my recent adventures (nightmares) with scooter manufacturing in China, I was hired as a quality engineer for the company. During my interviews, the Head of Engineering walked me through their current quality issues and asked what my thoughts were. I pulled out the only useful things I could remember from university, which seemed to be enough. But I think a major reason they hired me was because I could speak Mandarin relatively well.

The big boss was in the office that day and, in front of everyone said, “So, you speak Chinese, aye?” He signalled a Chinese sales team member to join us and put me to the test. With the boss and the entire office looking on, we had a brief conversation in Chinese. When we had finished, she looked at the boss and said, “Oh, his Chinese is very good!”.

And that was that. They offered me the job and threw me in the deep end.

Because of their rapid growth, I came into a situation where there were several issues that were being rectified both in production while also being reworked in the market. My role was coordinating the in-market rework and feeding back what we were learning to the design and engineering teams, which then fed back to the factory.

I travelled a lot. From Australia and New Zealand, to Canada, the USA, UK, Spain, and more. The list grew. But, while things were improving, there was still a major problem. Communication.

Our head office was still having challenges communicating with the Chinese factories. In a discussion with the Head of Design, it appeared obvious to me what they needed.

“Have you thought about having someone from our office over in China full-time?” I asked.

“Yes, but we have never had the right person for that role. And, no one has put their hand up to do it.”

“Well, I’m putting my hand up right now,” I responded.

It took about six months for everything to fall into place, but pretty soon my flights were booked and I was off to live in China. It was only supposed to be a three-month arrangement, but it became obvious very quickly that having someone like me on the ground was an enormous asset, and I soon became the conduit for all product communications between head office and the factory. My role shifted from quality to project management, and the need arose to build an office and team around me.

Well, long story short, having me in China working directly with the factories proved too valuable for the company and three months turned into four years. Within 3 months of being based in China and after a lot of blood, sweat and tears we managed to turn things around completely until those quality issues were thankfully a thing of the past.

When I eventually left that company, I stayed for a further two years building my own business, this time with much more experience and wisdom behind me.

My experiences in China with my own business and with helping to improve the processes with the previous company showed me the importance of having someone with networks in China who can help ensure that systems and communication are clear. It became very obvious that this is essential for organisations to successfully manufacture in China.

‘Saving Face’ to Build Relationships

Uncovering the Hidden Truths of Manufacturing in China: Navigating the Complexities of ‘Saving Face”

You may manufacture in China already and feel you have a pretty good grasp on the process and what is going on. You may have even visited China, had a look around, and even had a tour of the factory where your products are being manufactured. So, you could be forgiven for feeling like you have a grasp on the inner workings of manufacturing in China. 

Perhaps things are working as well as you think they are.

Then again, perhaps they are not.

I lived and worked in Taiwan for two years, and mainland China for six. Over that eight years immersed in the culture, I spent a lot of time around manufacturing from a variety of industries. With an office based where our products were manufactured, I saw a lot: Raw materials arriving from other suppliers, items being checked off and housed prior to production, assembly of goods, through to final quality checks and packing and loading into shipping containers. I thought I had a good understanding of manufacturing processes, which I should, right? I was right there.

The reality is, I only saw, heard, and understood what my Chinese colleagues wanted me to see, hear and understand. I was still an outsider and represented the customer. There was more work for me to do to truly see ‘under the hood’.

There is an important concept to understand when manufacturing in China: ‘Saving face’. It has a very specific term in China, and it plays an important role in understanding working relationships. It basically means that you operate in a way that helps the other party ‘save face’, particularly if that other party is your superior. In China, a worker would never call out their boss, even if they have made a decision that is obviously, clearly, blatantly wrong. Instead, you work in a way to come to the correct outcome while ensuring your boss ‘saves face’.

While I got away with a lot more than my Chinese colleagues could (I represented the client after all), I still had to understand and operate by this concept if I was going to build strong relationships.

As with most cultures, Chinese people wanted to put on their best show for me. They didn’t want to air their dirty laundry, so to speak, especially for a Westerner who wouldn’t have understood it even if they had. So, it took time and work, and a respect for the way my Chinese colleagues worked. Year by year, as I worked on my relationships, I would be let in on more and more of what was actually going on behind closed doors. Every six to twelve months it was like I would peel back another layer to the processes I thought I had understood. I would gain a deeper understanding of why decisions were made the way they were, why this person was promoted over that one, why there was such resistance to changes I thought were quite obvious.

It wasn’t until the end of year five that I felt like I had built relationships that were deep enough that people were not trying to needlessly ‘save face’ in front of this Western customer. Colleagues would tell me everything, nothing held back, the good, the bad and the ugly. And because I had taken the time to learn and build relationships, I not only knew what was going on, I understood why. And I loved it.

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