My first post in this three part series focused on a post entitled The 7 Major Risks You Run With Your China Manufacturers, by China manufacturing expert Renaud Anjouran. In that post, Renaud outlined the business risks foreign companies face when having Chinese factories manufacture their products. I noted how Renaud’s list nicely accords with what our China lawyers tell our clients who retain my law frim to draft their Chinese manufacturing contracts. See China Manufacturing Agreements: Binding Contract or Contract Terms. I noted how our manufacturing clients usually want to focus on a) intellectual property protection/prevention of counterfeiting, ownership of molds and tooling and after sales warranty service. In other words, the sorts of things legal agreements are really good at resolving. But oftentimes, core business issues like price, quantity, delivery date, quality and resolution of quality issues, subcontracting and shipping are of at least equal importance.
The source of the problems for Western companies that manufacture in China is the pervasive use of the purchase order approach to purchasing contract manufactured product from China. In China Manufacturing Agreements: Binding Contract or Contract Terms, I wrote how there are two basic ways to structure a China contract manufacturing agreement.
Option One is to enter into a legally binding contract (in Chinese!) that addresses all of the basic manufacturing issues. The agreement on price binds both the Chinese factory and the foreign buyer, and even if costs change, the parties remain obligated to pay and sell the product at the agreed-upon price, no matter which party benefits or loses from the changes. This sort of contract is common in much of the world, but less so in China. China, however, the entire risk tends to be loaded on one side or the other. The same applies to the other key business terms in China manufacturing agreements, such as the terms for payment, quantity, delivery date and quality. Foreign buyers who do not want to be bound or who cannot be bound due to lack of resources will follow Option Two. Under Option Two, the contract terms and conditions are binding on the parties only after a purchase order is presented by the foreign party and then accepted by the Chinese party. It is this lack of a binding agreement that is the primary cause of the seven manufacturing risks Renaud discusses in his post.
The obvious path to contract certainty is to enter into an Option 1 manufacturing contract that formally commits both parties to the basic business terms for a specific period of time. However, the lure of China for many foreign buyers is that Chinese factories are willing to do small runs on a purchase order basis. The purchase order system is oftentimes THE reason why the foreign company is having its product developed and made in China. For this reason, our primary task as lawyers is to develop contract manufacturing agreements that deal up front with the risks that come from using the purchase order approach. Our job as China attorneys then is to make sure that our foreign buyer clients understand the risks and then to work on mitigating those risks in a practical way.
I explain below and in Part 3 of this series how our China manufacturing lawyers do that with each of the seven risks Renaud identified.
Risk 1: Lack of “Motivation.” The major risk we see stems from the foreign buyer loading the development costs onto the Chinese side with no incentive for the Chinese side to follow through on development. Renaud calls this risk “loss of motivation” and we see this all the time. The foreign side relies on the Chinese factory to do the product development, normally loading the cost on the Chinese factory. After two years, the development is not completed and the market has moved on, leaving the foreign side high and dry with no marketable product. The Chinese side assures the foreign buyer that they are “working on it,” but in fact the product development project is a low priority as compared to their ongoing manufacturing that pays their bills and so they are “working on it” only when times are slack. It is also common for Chinese factories to agree to take on a development project when they do not actually have the capability to do the work. In this situation, the delay results from the Chinese side being pushed up against the limits of what it can actually do.
The best way to address this lack of motivation risk basic method is to enter into a legally binding product development agreement with the Chinese factory that includes the following:
- Milestones: hard dates for development of prototypes or samples.
- Allocation of costs. If all costs are loaded on the Chinese side, the chance of success is dramatically reduced.
- A real incentive for the Chinese side to succeed. This incentive can be payments for the Chinese factory hitting its milestones or it can be a commitment to purchase reasonable (but predetermined) quantities of the developed product at a fair price.
Few foreign buyers follow this approach, with the predictable results described by Renaud.
Risk Two: Quality Failure at the Production Stage. The Chinese side agrees to manufacture the product at the “China Price.” Initial samples are acceptable in terms of quality, but once production starts, the quality is consistently bad. When pressed, the Chinese side says: “We gave you the China Price and you knew that at that price we would never be able to produce a quality product. It is your fault: you have to choose. If you want the China Price, you don’t get assurance of quality, quantity or delivery date. If you want all those items to be acceptable to you, we need a binding contract that covers all four issues in a manner that works for us too. But if you insist on the China Price and you do not provide us with a binding commitment for orders, you will have to accept what we provide.”
Price is not the only issue; there are four key factors involved in having your products made in China: price, quantity, delivery date and quality and if you fail to hold your Chinese factory legally accountable for all four of these things, you are likely to have problems. If your Chinese supplier takes all four factors seriously, its pricing must increase. Foreign buyers who are not willing to accept such an increase will continually face the Chinese factory failing to comply with the other factors. Quality will suffer, delivery will be short or late, or the factory will suddenly quit accepting orders right at the height of the delivery season.
Risk Three: Low Priority in Production Schedule. The Chinese side accepts your purchase order for a small run of product at a low “China” price. Then another buyer shows up and offers a slightly higher price for a larger quantity of product. The Chinese side then pushes your order down the line for priority and your delivery is delayed. In some cases, the delay extends to the point where delivery never takes place. The Chinese side is not concerned about failing to deliver on the purchase order, since the litigation risks are extremely low because you do not have a Chinese language contract that works. See China Contracts: Make Them Enforceable Or Don’t Bother.
This situation regularly occurs when the relationship is based on “one off” purchase orders. See How To Get Bad Product From China With No Legal Recourse. The way to deal with this issue is to have a contract manufacturing agreement that clearly incorporates your purchase orders into the legally binding contract and that provides specific monetary penalties if your factory accepts a purchase order and then either delays or fails to deliver. When pressed to enter into this sort of agreement, Chinese factories will treat accepted purchase orders seriously and their delay/default rate goes way down. In our experience, factories that intend to take a relaxed view towards their legal obligations under an accepted purchase order will simply refuse to execute a formal contract manufacturing agreement, which is exactly what you want. See How To Write A China Contract. Liquidated Damages.
Risk Four: Sudden and Unpredictable Price Increases. Under the standard scenario, the Chinese side agrees to manufacture your product at a goal price, without ever having undertaken any serious examination of what it will actually take to manufacturer your product. The Chinese side then does the product development and the production implementation. The samples are acceptable and it is time to begin production. The foreign buyer then submits the first purchase order at the goal price. The Chinese side refuses to accept the PO and announces a substantial price increase. If the price increase is not accepted, the factory states that it will not accept any future purchase order.
There are two reasons China factories do this. The first and most common is that the factory never understood the price issue and never planned to meet the proposed price. The factory merely accepted the goal price to prevent you from going to another factory. The Chinese factory assumes you will be compelled to accept a purchase at the “real” price (whatever that price is) because you will be unwilling or unable to spend another 6-12 months (or whatever it will take) to start over with another factory.
The second common reason Chinese factories will take on a product development project with no intention of giving you the product you want at a price and delivery schedule that can make sense is that the factory is treating you as its outsourced R&D center. The idea comes from the foreign side, the implementation comes from the Chinese side. But the ultimate goal is for the Chinese side to make and sell the product on its own. The Chinese factory never planned to make the product for the foreigner. So they offer a very high price. If the foreigner accepts, they make the product for the foreigner at a price higher than they ever imagined. If the foreigner refuses the price, they move on to make and sell the product on their own. This sort of thing is incredibly common and hardly a week goes by without someone calling one of our China lawyers for our help to “require the Chinese factory to get its price in line with the market.” But unless you have a written contract that works for China and made pricing clear, there is nothing we can do to help at that point.
If the foreign buyer is purchasing an off the shelf product that is part of the Chinese factory’s standard inventory, the risk of any price issue is low. If you are engaging the Chinese factory to make minor customization of its standard product (maybe just adding your logo or changing the color), the risk is also low. But if the Chinese factory will be modifying/customizing its existing product, you should have a legally binding contract that the Chinese factory feels compelled to honor. The way to deal with this is under a product development agreement that includes the following three key components:
- A strict timeline for developing the working prototype.
- A provision that makes clear you own the prototype and all data, drawings and tooling required to manufacture based on the prototype.
- A provision that states that if the factory meets the target price, you will purchase exclusively from the factory, but if the factory cannot meet the target price, you are free to take the prototype and have it manufactured at any other factory.
Without an agreement like this, you should expect a price increase as an almost a certain result of the product development process.
In part 3 of this series (coming later this week), I will examine how best to deal with the last three business risks inherent in having your product made in China, including one of my favorites, subcontracting.