Chinese Checking

What companies really think about the wave of defective products from China.

Is it really worth it? From tainted pet food, seafood, and toothpaste to unraveling tires, exploding cell-phone batteries, and lead-painted children’s toys, defective products from China are giving U.S. companies second thoughts about the benefits of China’s low-cost manufacturing.

In August, Mattel announced that its Fisher-Price division was recalling nearly 1 million toys — 83 products — that were finished with lead paint. All were made in China. Prior to that announcement, 24 types of toys had been recalled in the United States in 2007, and all were manufactured in China. In June alone, 68,000 folding chairs, 2,300 toy barbecue grills, 1.2 million space heaters, 5,300 earrings, 19,000 children’s necklaces, and 1.5 million Thomas the Tank Engine toys were recalled. All of them were stamped “Made in China.” A staggering 60 percent of all product recalls have been traced back to the country, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Yet by and large, companies and the consultancies they hire to evaluate sourcing opportunities in China continue to say that the risk of recalls is worth taking. “If you manage and maintain quality in your sourcing operation and invest in it, the benefits are too large to ignore,” says Bill Ferko, vice president and CFO of Genlyte Group (2006 revenues: $1.5 billion), a Louisville-based manufacturer of lighting fixtures that sources components, subassemblies, and finished products from more than 20 factories in China.

Learning from the experience of U.S. apparel makers, which achieved huge cost savings by manufacturing in China in the 1980s only to incur public wrath when inhumane working conditions in the country were revealed, many manufacturers like Genlyte have developed strict quality protocols in their China sourcing. The process begins with systematic evaluations of potential suppliers, which are provided written expectations of product quality and safety specifications. Quality-assurance inspections by in-house or retained engineers follow, ending with a final check of the product at the importer’s loading dock. In between is a legion of other tactics to combat potential problems such as intellectual-property theft and poor labor conditions.

But quality programs are not infallible. Mattel, for example, not only had quality controls but had also worked for 15 years with the Chinese plant that made the lead-painted toys. “They understand our regulations, they understand our program, and something went wrong,” CEO Robert A. Eckert told The New York Times in August.

Systemic Problems

There is no mystery why U.S. businesses flock to China: the country’s giant workforce churns out nearly a trillion dollars in goods and services at a labor cost that would be illegal here. Typically, a U.S. or Western European factory worker costs an employer $15 to $30 an hour; a Chinese factory worker, by contrast, earns less than $1 an hour, according to Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Even if wages in China were to increase at a 15 percent annual rate over the next five years and rates in the United States were to increase at a 3 to 4 percent clip, average hourly wages would be a scant $2 in China and $18 to $36 in the United States. While currency exchange rates play a role in this calculation, BCG says even a fourfold strengthening of the yuan against the dollar would still make wages in China half what they are here. Small wonder that China currently provides 40 percent of U.S. consumer imports, nearly $250 billion worth of goods annually.

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