The following post compiles the complete “A Joint Venture Survival Guide” series. I´ve compiled it to help sharebility & bookmarking. If you had not read them before, I recommend it as it has got really good reviews. I hope you find it useful.
Joint Ventures (J-V) in China can go well, and can also go very wrong. When the latter is the case, problems come up from where you less expect them. “Mike Smith” (not his real name) spent two years in rural China supervising his employer’s interest in a Chinese joint venture where they were the majority partner (deal signed before he landed there). His case falls within the second category I’ve mentioned (I would in fact say that all that could go wrong went wrong) but that has given him invaluable lessons on how to ensure things are done right. He has also met on the way a number of joint-ventures facing quite similar challenges to the ones he experienced.
We met to talk about his time representing the foreign partner and I’ve drafted “A Joint-Venture Survival Guide” based on his experiences, opinions, tips and comments (which means some of these tips will only apply only to manufacturing joint-ventures).
Some introductory thoughts
1. China is a noble and good society… but when it comes to doing business, the value system changes. Ripping off a foreigner may be seen as a clever thing rather than a bad one.
2. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are in a universe of their own. Drive just 100 km away into central China and reality changes. It is a hardship environment and corruption is readily encountered.
3. You may have successfully set up joint-ventures and businesses in other countries. Do not assume China is going to be the same. You are lost without an expert if you are going to deal with a local partner.
“My company had successfully set up J-Vs across the world, and nowhere did they face the situations they faced here. They assumed they knew it all, and that was a big mistake”.
4. The foundations for your success will be laid before you sign the deal.
Preliminary work is essential, and I cannot stress this enough. Once you have signed you are helpless. And later on, once your million dollars are in China, you will not be able to get them out unless you exit the J-V. There is plenty of room for disaster so make sure you dig into every single hole to figure out where the problems may be.
! Tip: This is the time to get as much information as you need. You need to be able to access all books, information about operational manual, … You may hear the somewhat overused sentence “What is the problem? Don´t you trust me?”. Well it is not about trust, it is about business, and companies that have nothing to hide will share the information with you.
5.Confidentiality and know-how protection will be difficult in a small cities. All the legal issues about this will be judged in the city in which it happens, which means that if you have a company in Shanghai and someone “copies” your product in Ningxia, the legal procedure will be carried out in Ningxia so you will be dealing with all the difficulties of operating in a place that is not a j-v business hub.
! Tip: We are a European SME. If that is also your case you canhave free brief advice from the European Chambers of Commerce. Also a free advice for intellectual property, copy right, etc in China IPR SME Helpdesk.
6. A GOOD consultant/advisor: Priceless.
You need real in-depth expertise to pull this one off successfully:
! Tip: “J-V conflict resolution and dissolution in China is really complicated compared to other countries. Consultant/Advisor companies have an instinct for knowing the real situation”
7.[On consultants] … But find the one suited to your size
“The reality on the ground for SMEs is quite different to that of MNCs. We don’t have their leverage and muscle power and we deal with different issues/situations. It is essential to get on board a very good consultant but I wouldn’t recommend one of the big ones. I think they are better suited for big companies.”
! Tip: MNCs are often interested in high tech, setting up R + D centres, the pharmaceutical industry, medical issues and they will find some decent protection from the Local Government. In the case of SMEs that do business outside big business hubs, protection will be very difficult to guarantee and there will be unimaginable issues unless they hire the right consultant/advisor. And believe me, consultant/advisor big names will not help you to find the back door of your J-V.
8. Sign the right “pre-nup”
You obviously don’t want your relationship to go wrong, but if things happen you need to have put in place the right “break-up” conditions.
! Tip: Always use the Chinese or Hong Kong Arbitration Court. Most companies feel more comfortable with international arbitration, but what do you do when your Chinese partner doesn’t show up or doesn’t comply with the resolution? It needs to be done in China or Hong Kong where the resolution will be mandatory and enforceable.
9. Your Potential Partner is Well Connected … Maybe Good, Maybe Bad
Experience: It is quite common to be taken on the “big tour”, introduced to the city mayor, the bank’s president, and all sorts of top-end contacts. Your partner will put especial effort into making a great impression and showing you how easy doing business in China is going to be if you deal with him.
! Tip: Do not be dazzled by your partner’s connections …They will not necessarily be used for your benefit.
The fact that your partner is well connected is good (you obviously don’t want to end up with a nobody), but it is also a fact that at times those connections are only used for their own benefit.
10. Financial Reports: “I can’t live with or without you”
Financial reports: you need them, if only because when things go wrong you will be the first one fired if you did not order a financial report. But just be aware that reports can easily be falsified, and a lot of relevant information may be missing.
Experience: I will not get into too much detail but let’s say that I have even seen the falsifying process in action. Do not believe everything you read, and be aware that there will be facts/realities that are not reflected in those reports.
! Tip: There are things you will only get the feel for if you base yourself at your potential clients´ workplace. My recommendation would be to place your trusted person (who by the way should be China-knowledgeable and understand what he/she is looking for) at the company´s site . You need to see how the factory works, how many workers there are, their accounting, their stock control ….
11. Tax Planning: “Tax Breaks. Do not believe all you hear”.
While you are negotiating the joint venture you will be promised a lot of benefits. Tax breaks are a common tool to lure you into a location that needs to be developed. A lot of companies start operations in a location partly because they have been offered corporate income tax exemptions or reduced/zero import/export duties. It is also common to find that the day you to try to apply for them, you are told that the central government has changed the regulation and they can no longer grant you the benefits they promised.
Experience: We were promised tax exemptions on all those tools and parts required for our product manufacturing. It did not happen. Not even once.
! Tip: As mentioned in tip number 5 , it is essential to get the support of a good consultancy firm. Your investment should also make sense regardless of the tax exemptions or other promised benefits.
12. Let me guess: your Chinese partner wants to contribute the land to the joint venture.
Experience: The Chinese partner always wants to contribute his own properties to the J-V. But, can he give you actual proof of the real land value? These are common situations to encounter:
- The real value of the land, does not correspond to what your partner is claiming.
- The audited value presented and paid by your Chinese partner has been (easily) falsified.
- All sorts of excuses to justify the absence of a purchase document stating the real value they paid: “Government does not give invoices. We got a good deal …” . Do not fall for them.
In our case, we got an independent valuation of the land. It was worth 30% less than what our partner claimed.
! Tip: Do not fall for excuses. A land purchase should be properly documented. Beware if is not.
Experience: We wanted to buy land for the JVC. Our Chinese partner finally presented what he deemed was the best possible location and the required size(we felt it was too big). The land value would be considered capital contribution by the partner. He presented an alleged Government document stating the land value. The document had no seal so we suspected something was wrong and requested an independent valuation. The land value estimation was 200,000 € cheaper than the value presented by our partner. Our company´s President trusted the partner so they decided to take his word on this (by that time MD was already suspicious about the partner). The land was purchased, the invoice was never seen. He showed us an ownership title and the land became his capital contribution. Later on I managed to located the real purchase documents and the deal had been sealed at a 400,000€ cheaper prize.
13. Does your land have a license to have a factory built on it?
You need to watch out for this one. Chinese companies often ignore this step. You may find sizeable companies operating (100 employees, tax bureau number, social security …) without the license to legally operate a factory/company on their land. That may not be a problem while you stay together (they will surely have their ways to ensure there are no problems). But in the event of a split you may face one of these two situations:
- You want to sell it but you can’t because there is no licence for the construction done.
- You want to operate it alone, but being a foreign company you will find the government inspection at your doorstep day one. And they will close it due to lack of permits.
! Tip: Make sure you know all the licenses the business needs to operate legally. If your partner claims to have the license for that land already, you need to see it. If licenses are pending have your expert/consultant involved in that matter.
14. Building the Factory- Oh Nightmare
This is another potential source of conflict. You will probably trust your partner to lead the factory construction works.
Experience: “…a workshop building would not progress and when I inquired I would get “We have run out of money”. Digging into the contracts details I would find a lot of irregularities like missing contracts, unsigned contracts …”
! Tip: “If your project involves building a factory, I would recommend to budget for 15% to 20% extra cost vs. agreed amounts. Timewise, I would build in an extra 40% as a buffer. Penalties should be included and quantified in your contract. And as mentioned before, always use the China or Hong Kong Arbitration Court”.
15. Check Company Operational Manuals.
Very often there is nothing written on how operations should function. When you land there and try to organise things you do not even know where to start. And what is worse, your Chinese partner is not interested in changing anything as he feels it has been working for him for years before you arrived.
! Tip: The trusted person I advise before to place in your prospective partner´s operation should check out the operational manuals and whether the company works in compliance with them. If there are no manuals in place, you should request them to record their existing processes so that you can discuss them and negotiate before the deal signature.
16. Money Hole #1: Company employees & Social Security.
There are a couple of “black holes” that are often used to suck your money away: the stated number of employees in the company and the payments to social security. You need to get two proofs here:
- Proof of the total number of employees in the company
- Proof that they are paying Social Security forthose employees.
Do not accept their word for this.
Experience: Our partner kept swearing that the company had 74 employees. My calculation was that there were no more than 50 employees in the company. I asked them to prove their claim but there were no contracts to be seen. When I asked for the bank transactions to assess the amount of money we were investing in overheads I was told it was paid in cash. When I asked for the receipts signed by the employees they said there were none.
I was not alone in this situation. I encountered other companies facing exactly the same challenge.
! Tip: You need to check this when you are negotiating and you still have bargaining power. If you discover this when you have already invested several million dollars you will be helpless. Do not accept their word on this. In China they file Social Security online. They have a website where they can access, through their company name and password, all their social security, accounting and fiscal (tax) data. Request to have access to this while still negotiating.
17. Money Holes #2: Stock Control
Companies often do not have good stock control in place and this is another big “black hole” your money will slip through.
Experience: You are told they bought 10 units of a product and they just purchased 5. When you try to investigate in detail they tell you there are not stock control systems in place, or the switch off the computer, or they tell you it does not work …
! Tip: Make sure you have access to all the policies and procedures manuals before you sign a deal. And once you have access, make sure you assess whether the policies and procedures are really happening or not. It is also quite possible that they do not even exist
The people from the purchase department should be “your people”. If that does not sound possible it is better to create the department from scratch and hire a local purchase manager of your choice, that you can trust, to ensure proper control.
18. Money Hole #3: Accounting
How many accounting books is your partner keeping? Make sure you keep a tight accounting process.
Experience: I always used to work late. One evening I happened to walk through the accounting department and somebody had forgotten to lock away the accounting books. To my surprise, the number of accounting books was higher than what I thought our company was keeping. I did not need to be too smart to figure out what was happening. Our partner was using fake purchase orders to divert money into his own personal accounts. Our accounting team was also keeping the books for his own company, which by the way was not supposed to exist any longer but should have merged into the J-V.
! Tip: Make sure you have unrestricted access to all cabinets and locations where information is stored.
!!Tip: Keep a very strict monitoring of the accounting. All expenses must come with proof of purchase,authorised and signed by you or your team.Fa piao (we could translatefa piao as “super-receipts – receipts that are hand-stamped and recognised for tax and other purposes)”
are difficult to audit as they usually come without a description of the expense.
!!!Tip: Develop a good relationship with the CFO
!!!!Tip: Purchases should come with double signature (CFO and your representative) on set days (probably not necessary more than three times a week as purchases are planned in advance)
Other things that could go wrong
19. Technology Transfer – IP Risks
A fact you should be clear about is that your partner is likely to end up copying your technology.
Experience: Our target market was China, so our J-V was supposed to manufacture a product more sophisticated than the existing competition in China but not as technologically advanced as our products in Europe. In order to do that, we needed to transfer some know-how to our Chinese partner. I strongly suggested against it but at that time, it would have been equivalent to giving up the project and I still did not have physical evidence of what was going on.
My fears were soon proved right and I caught them copying our electronic cards … And later on I found out about them copying machinery and tooling.
!Tip: Well, you have no way to control it. Fingers crossed and good luck (do not forget we are talking “deep China” and not main business hubs). If all steps have been taken correctly things are more likely to go better.
Most business people I´ve met in China share a view that the new generation of Chinese business people who have studied abroad understand how to do business for the long term rather than for immediate and dishonest gain.
20. Company Seal- Always with You.
In China documents can be signed and stamped with the company seal. Back home contracts would not be valid unless you have signed them. Here the company seal is enough to make a contract valid … so
!Tip: Never leave your Legal Representative seal with somebody else. If you absolutely need to, be sure you can trust that person 100% as that seal is equivalent to your own signature.
21. Be ready to test your endurance
Experience: My Chinese partner was responsible for my house utilities. Once I was left without power for several days, another time I had no running water for three days. I also got internet connection discontinued.
People around me also suffered. I went through three finance managers who left the company shortly after I hired them. I remember the case of one of them who would systematically arrive at the canteen to be told there was no food for him. These are highly paid professionals who have no interest in going through that hell when they can have a nice well paid job somewhere else.
!Tip: I think when you have reached this stage, things are going really bad. In this case, it could be safest to control your house contract and utilities directly (probably through somebody you trust).
22. Beware of direct communication between your partner and your headquarters.
When you start proving to be a “damned nuisance” in your partner’s life he may try to get rid of you in different ways. He may contact your headquarters and try to make you look like inept or make them believe you complicate your life (and everybody else´s) with non-existent problems and issues.
Experience: In my case the Chinese partner kept calling my company’s president and emailing the board of directors in order to undermine their trust in me. I was very lucky because in the end I managed to get access to all sort of documents that proved we were being ripped off. But I’ve later on met other people who lost their positions due to pressure from the Chinese partner.
!Tip: Invest in “Educating your Headquarters” before you start operating in China. Headquarters don’t like to hear bad news. And some of the stories you will tell them are so unbelievable that they may end up thinking you have gone China-mad.
So what are your tips and experiences in Chinese joint ventures? You can leave a comment or contact me to share it in a longer form!
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