Homer’s Odyssey: Part One

This is the story of a guy named Homer. No, not the Greek author nor the dimwitted, dough-nut eating man that brought us the phase, “doh”. Although, I have to admit that Homer’s story is rather long twisted and full of those moments that beg for the word, “doh”.

Homer, as luck would have it was our first employee, at a start-up company that some good friends and me put together to change the world. He was a friend that they met while spending time as consultants for a local company in Suzhou. The local company had hired the team out of Los Angeles, where they started their work but soon found that communication with China from Los Angeles was not yielding the results that they wanted nor that the business owner expected. Both sides agreed that a move to China was the logical solution to the problem, a solution that brought these great friends into my life and facilitates a great lesson on doing business in China.

The team for the US settled in at there new home and started working. One employee at the company stood out among the others. He was friendly, helpful and spoke great English. When ever the team had a problem, Homer was there. Even beyond the job, when one of the team needed medical attention, he stayed buy their side through the hospital visit and quickly became a friend they could turn to.

When the end of the contract come years later, the team decided to start up thier own venture and China was a large part of that strategy. The team was well honed at design, marketing, and sales and had lived in China. Why not design products and bring them to life by manufacturing in China’s low cost labor market? Homer was employee number one and started sourcing suppliers and arranging transportation and logistics the team.

The team left China to return to Los Angeles and begin building the company from there. Months past and I received a phone call that they were ready to get started in earnest and the first product was past the prototype stage. Excited to get started, I met up when the CEO came for a visit with one of the Directors of design. This was when I learned that Homer had been helping out in China while they were in the US getting things ready. He was their eyes and ears here, while they prepared sales literature, made contacts, tweaked the samples etc.

The first and most important mission on this trip was to address some issues with the injection molding tooling that were required. I tagged along on a visit to the tooling supplier. We met at a coffee house which I found strange since we were discussing tooling not management theory. As soon as I cleared the thresh hold of the doorway and before I could even say hello to the tool maker, Homer burst across the room and blurted out to the supplier, “He speaks Chinese, be careful what you say,” in Chinese. That set the stage to what became a rather awkward meeting with a lot of silence and sideways glances. We struggled through the issues and seemed to reach a consensus on the adjustments to be made.

Shortly, after that meeting the CEO announced to Homer that I would be joining the team and that he would be working directly for me. His mouth said great but his eyes didn’t echo that emotion.

Our next meeting was with a potential new supplier that was to provide us with an aluminum extrusion. We loaded into a taxi and set out for our destination. The CEO and I where chatting and I hardly notices we had abandoned the paved road for a narrow dirt road that ran between two fields. It was surely a sign that we were lost. Nope! We turned left into a break in a brick wall. At this point, I asked the taxi to wait around for us as I was not looking to hike back to town.

The “factory” consisted of a small wooded building that housed the office and what can only be described as a tin roof spread over some poles. There was an apex at the center that ran down to a tin wall on either side that formed two rooms one on each side of the open center roof. We went into the office and they sun disappeared, not because there was no windows but because the dirty was cake on so thick as to block the sun. Not wanting to offend, we politely took our seats and sipped from our green tea while samples where presented. We looked at different finished and colors. They gave a price which I knew was ridiculous. (In preparation for this meeting I had a friend check some sources). This supplier was a healthy margin above the market price.

By the look on the CEO’s face, I was pretty sure this trip was through but the factory owner offered us a tour. We followed along behind as he entered the open air center portion of the factory. In the center were the finished goods, stacked on the dirt floor. Either side room, house a cutting or polishing operation but the real treat was still to come. We continued on through the center of the building and out the back side into a courtyard set up that had two pits in the ground. These pits, which were lined with red construction bricks, were the anodizing operation. Two men with sticks put the aluminum in the baths and what look to be less then accurately timed intervals.

Homer received a lecture from the CEO on pre-screening factories after he was asked if he thought this factory would provide acceptable products. It could just be that Homer was incompetent but I had other ideas cropping up in the back of my mind.