Friday, September 29, 2006

Two Continents -- One Team

Rikon Power Tools

What happens when a young woman from Vermont and a Chinese industrialist join forces? You get a power tool company. Erin Riley went to China several years ago to provide some marketing expertise to Robert Chen of QCR … a manufacturer who had been making power tools for some time. After a short while, Erin decided that she could run a power tool business as well as anybody – so she and Robert kicked off Rikon. Erin went back to Boston for a couple of weeks and then flew back to China and stayed for over four months. That was the beginning. I first met Erin in a small booth at the Chicago Hardware Show, and if I remember correctly, she had three tools in the booth. As Robert told me, those first years were very tough. Later, Steve Mangano was brought into the picture to provide insight into the woodworker’s point of view and some input into cool new tool features and the picture became clearer.

So in a few years, Rikon has become a tool company to be reckoned with. Their band saws have gained excellent reputations and they are moving forward with their own designs on many stationary tools. It seems to be working for them.

I was really impressed with the teamwork I saw between the US crew and the Chinese team. The true partnership with the Boston group and the people in Qingdao is unique in many ways from my observation. It removes the inevitable tension between two companies and their necessary primary concern of ensuring their own profitability over all else. In this case they are all in the same boat whether it is taking on water or steaming full speed ahead.

As I stated in an earlier entry, business is not conducted between companies, it is done between people. And I saw some great chemistry between the different folks at Rikon. No one knows better than Robert Chen that the power tool business is very competitive, but good teamwork always provides an advantage. Add to that a philosophy of constant product improvement and things start to look bright.

I’ve been told a couple of things to look for from Rikon, but I will let that cat out of the bag when the time is right. But if I were you, I’d keep my eyes peeled for new tools from the Qingdao/Boston team.

Photos top to bottom:
A long time QCR employee. Steve Mangano, Erin Riley, Robert Chen and your intrepid editor. Rikon band saw. 3D design work being done in the Qingdao facility. The Rikon crew ... plus a hanger-on.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Video Postcard

One afternoon, our hosts – May and Lily – took us to the Ling Yin Temple. While we were there, we were lucky enough to see ceremony by a large group of monks. Ling Yin is one of the most spectacular Buddhist temples in China. Here is a video postcard for your enjoyment. Click on the video postcard title (above) to see the video. If that fails cut and paste
Into your address bar.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Last Day in Hangzhou

Rexon – Taiwan to Hangzhou

A thought occurred to me as I was meeting with John Otto from WMH JET/Powermatic and Spencer Lin from Rexon: That not only are jobs being moved from the US to Asia … but from spots in Asia to China. Rexon is a manufacturing company that was founded in 1972 in Taiwan and became quite successful in the power tool business among other things. In 1996, in response to demands for more competitive pricing, Rexon opened its first plant on the mainland of China.

I was visiting the Hangzhou Rexon plant at the invitation of John Otto, to check out JET and Powermatic production. It is a truly impressive operation – more vertically integrated than the plants I saw in Taiwan. The quality control, implemented by both Rexon and WMH, was clearly evident as I toured the factory. In addition to some JET product, I got to see the very first production run of the new Powermatic drill press, designed especially for woodworkers. I think that John was only half kidding when he told his QC inspector, Jerry Wu, that he would have to stay straight through the night in order to finish his inspections by the next day. Jerry’s job was made a good bit harder after I decided to help out on the production line. (See photo) Note John’s response.

A Lovely afternoon and evening
After the plant tour, I spent a lovely afternoon with WMH’s May Lu and her assistant Lily. They were very gracious hosts taking me, and my photographer Donna to a super impressive Buddhist temple. It was really a once in a lifetime experience. Later we went to dinner and then shopping. Lily helped me negotiate (okay, she really did all the negotiating) as I bought some more presents for my family. I think Lily has a great future in business.

Hangzhou is a remarkably beautiful city, and May and Lily beautiful hosts. I will remember my last day in Hangzhou fondly.

Photos top to bottom:
Worker assembling the Powermatic drill press. Rexon's Spencer Lin. Your helpful editor on the Powermatic production line. The quality inspection room at Rexon. May, me and Lily at the temple site. Monks entering the temple. A vendor at a traditional market. Sunset over Hangzhou.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Video Anyone?

Here is my first attempt at a video journal of the trip. Please remember that I am an editor, not a film director. To check it out, click on the "Video Anyone?" title above.

If clicking on the address does not work, simply cut and paste into your browser address bar.

Down-home in China

Skil In China

Skil has been putting out power tools for a long time, and the same can be said of Mike Graham, the plant manager for Skil tools in Hangzhou, China. I first met Mike years ago in Heber Springs, Arkansas … and in truth that locale seemed a bit of a more natural fit for Mike. His Southern drawl is pronounced, a fact that the Chinese people on his team seem to find a bit of a challenge.

Skil is moving to China in a big way, although it is nothing new to them. They have been in Asia since the mid 1990s. It is an inevitable move when the situation is looked at as a whole. Most of the parts that Skil is using in its power tools are made in Asia, so getting close to the source just makes sense. And there is hardworking dependable workforce as well.
When I asked Mike if Skil can build good quality tools in China, he said absolutely. “These folk are good workers and very diligent. There is no question that we are building very good tools here”.

The plant that I saw was very efficient, and remarkably tidy (much cleaner than my office). Skil is using the process improvement and manufacturing processes -- pioneered by Toyota -- that are now the gold standard in manufacturing systems around the world. As a frequent visitor to many woodworking tool-manufacturing facilities, I can say the Skil plant was a familiar sight.

And while it is clear that Mike Graham will always be more at home in the hills of Arkansas, it was also clear that he is moving Skil products forward in Asia with a sure hand.

Photos in this blog entry:
Mike Graham and your attentive editor. Mike Graham.
A group of Skil line-workers, meeting to improve the production process.
A happy forklift operator and a typical assembly line at the Skil plant.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Back to the Mainland

Back to China

Yesterday was a travel day, as we went from Taiwan to Hangzhou, China. I will visit a Skil manufacturing facility today and a Powermatic plant tomorrow. This time our travel was much smoother – all of our tickets showed up on the computer system and all the planes were on time. In the evening we had a walk around Westlake and lovely dinner.

The images here are to show some colorful scenes and characters that you might be able to find in Taiwan.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Enjoying Business

JET and Powermatic

As I spent the day with John Otto and Alan Huang from WMH – JET/Powermatic, something that my father taught me many years ago came to mind. “You don’t do business with a business, you do business with people”. From the moment that we stepped into the OAV Company, one of WMH’s key suppliers for about 16 years, I could see that maxim was absolutely true. OAV’s President, Mike Liu, started our time together by making tea. While we sipped, we chatted and learned about each other in a friendly atmosphere. It was clear that John and the folks at OAV were more than mere business partners – that a warm friendship cemented their relationship.

As I toured the manufacturing facility, Mike’s son, Dennis, explained their very modern and sophisticated systems. Whether they were making band saws, table saws, dust collectors or air filtration systems, they applied the same level of efficiencies and quality control procedures. An example of their sophistication is a weight-based inventory process, where when a bin of parts dropped below a certain point, their supplier – monitoring the weight via the Internet -- deploys a shipment to OAV. Just in time inventory, automated over the Internet.

Later, we were graciously allowed to see part of Mike Liu’s collection of Asian antiques. They were absolutely amazing. Everything from several carvings of “the happy Buddha” to exquisite ivory carvings.

Later, Alan Huang, Director of Product Development, took me to two more plants. Alan showed me the custom tooling and the extra steps taken to insure the quality of their products. A demonstration of balancing band saw wheels was very impressive. Even more impressive in my opinion was the level of testing and documentation that Alan showed me later at their Taichung office. Basically, if a problem appears with any JET or Powermatic tool, simply by means of a serial number, they can look at the quality inspection and testing results for that specific tool. Their record keeping is very impressive, documenting the products development process all the way through to the most recent manufacturing run and container shipment.

John, Alan and I ended the day by hooking back up with Mike and Dennis Liu at a lovely restaurant for good food and good fun. Mike was in a happy mood and made me promise to come back to Taiwan – next week! (I don’t know how I will explain that to my wife.)

Photos top to bottom:
Mike Liu preparing tea for his visitors. Dennis Liu explaining processes to your traveling editor and John Otto. The whole gang from OAV. Alan Huang explains the exacting band saw wheel balancing process. Alan and John Otto explain some details regarding the production of their PM2000 table saw. The support staff at WMH in Taiwan and a happy editor.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Fresh Start in Taiwan

Steel City Tools

Today I spent the day with Dick Hsieh from Steel City Tools. We discussed at length the differences in doing business in Taiwan as compared to China. Dick lived in Hangzjoh, China for nearly 10 years, so he was able to provide some very clear insight. Dick grew up in Taiwan, his family having emigrated during the Qing Dynasty.
When Steel City Tools was just getting formed, Mark Strahler and Scott Box, both of whom he had known when they all worked for another toolmaker, asked him to be their VP of Asian Operations. He had been thinking of getting out of the tool business and opening a pub or restaurant, but they convinced him to give it one more go.

After a brief meeting at his office, where I got to see a prototype of a new 13” planer (due out around October) and sample some moon cake. Then we went to lunch and on the way back to his office, stopped by a Buddhist Temple. The carving and woodwork was simply amazing. The stonework was outstanding – the temple visit was a chance of a lifetime. Then Dick took me to the factory where many of the Steel City band saws are made. I was really impressed at how clean and well organized the operation was. Dick told me that the goal was not to pump out a hundred saws a day … but to construct the saws well. He said that quality is much more important when it comes to this level of tool. The young men doing the assembly would fit right in with my son back home.

Although Steel City is a very young company, Dick feels that with the group of fellows involved in the start up, it has a good chance to succeed. While no one, least of all me, can predict the future, I was impressed with the new planer and the manufacturing I saw today. And the memory of the temple visit will be with me for a long time to come.

Photos from top to bottom:
Steel City’s Dick Hsieh. Your favorite editor and Dick at the factory. Rob and Dick talk about the construction of band saws. The master – Confucius – the Buddhist Temple. A carved dragon against the sky. Yours truly and Dick Hsieh in the temple courtyard.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Long Day

A Bit of a Rough Road

Yesterday my goal was to travel from Shanhai to Taiwan, eventually ending up in Tiachung. The goal was achieved, but not without a few hiccups …
My photographer’s tickets were not listed in the airline’s system …even though we had paper tickets in our hands. This kicked off a very long day … from approximately 5AM until 10PM … More on the trip later.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Enter the Dragon

Black & Decker Factory Tour: Suzhou

Suzhou is at the epicenter of the industrialization of China. In the last decade or so, this city of 7 million people has ramped up to creating 8.9% of the total foreign trade in China. Just last year more than 750 new businesses opened their doors. Part of the reason is that Suzhou is benefiting from some special governmental zoning that makes is a favorable area for foreign businesses and for local workers. Part of the reason is that Suzhou is a beautiful and ancient city with much to offer regarding culture and scenic beauty. Situated on the Yangtze River and modern highway and rail systems and just 50 miles from Shanghai, Suzhou is home to hundreds of brands of consumer products that you know well.

Qin Zou, the Managing Director of Black & Decker’s Suzhou plant (and several others as well), presented many surprising facts to me regarding the state of manufacturing in Suzhou. As I stated, the workers are well paid, plus they get a series of government directed benefits – pensions, special housing allowances and medical benefits too. And it is a worker’s market. As you can imagine, with 750 new businesses start ups last year, the demand for experienced workers is very competitive. As with a business anywhere in the world, employee turnover is a number that you want to keep quite low, so the market is favoring the workers in many ways. This is true from line workers to engineers. Chinese workers get vacation time, sick time and at B&D, there is a year-end bonus. I did not find the oppressive working conditions that my personal prejudice had painted a picture of in my mind.

During my tour of the factory, I saw conditions that were the same as I’ve seen in the USA and in Germany. In addition, I was very impressed with Black & Decker’s testing facilities and the rigorous amount of benchmarking and quality control testing being done. In short, the plant I saw in operation would be a top-flight facility in any region of the world.

The Daily Meal Report:
Lunch was uneventful consisting of sandwiches and soda. Dinner was something else, as I got to eat in a small restaurant that featured the special dumplings (served in broth) that are local to Shanghai. Lotus helped select the various types of victuals we dined on. We had returned to Shanghai during the afternoon and spent the early evening seeing some sites and doing some shopping for gifts. Then we decided that dumplings were on the menu. I have to say they were excellent, although I do not know what was in some of the dumplings. I also had black rice … and don’t know why it was black. Later, we went to the Bund, a truly lovely area of Shanghai that is a legacy of the early British influence in this area.

Tomorrow we fly to Taiwan and the adventure continues.

Photos top to bottom: Qin Zou, Managing Director of the Black & Decker Suzhou plant. A worker during a lunch time ping pong game. Two workers who enjoyed having their picture taken. Lotus and your intrepid editor.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Meeting with Black & Decker

Down to Business

I started my day in Shanghai, a city of around 12 million people. I found it to be a modern and active city – very industrious and much more Western than I had expected. At about 9AM I met with representatives from Black & Decker, the parent company of DeWalt, Delta and Porter-Cable. These included Todd Huston, the Vice President in charge of woodworking, Lowell Lueking and Frank Mannarino, Vice President of Marketing – Asia Pacific Industrial Products Group (and a host of others).

Black & Decker is a worldwide producer, with manufacturing on nearly all the continents except Africa and Antarctica (and no plans for Antarctica … as far as I know). As explained to me, B&D has a commitment to creating and owning significant infrastructure wherever they do their business, including China. This allows them, along with their internal systems and management style, to create products of good quality, regardless of geography or culture.

All at the meeting agreed that quality products begin long before they get to the manufacturing. Market research, a commitment to great engineering in product development is where quality products begin. Lowell pointed out that B&D has high expectations of the material and component suppliers that they use and that rigorous testing of the supplied materials is the norm.

All in all, I could see the sizable commitment Black & Decker is making to Asian production. Next, I will get to visit their plant in Suzhou (pronounced sue-joe).

Enough Business

After the meeting, I was hosted by, George Bennett, head of Asian manufacturing for Black and Decker. First off, we stopped by a B&Q, a home improvement store in which any American DIYer would be perfectly at home. It was a bit like Home Depot meets Ikea.

Then we moved on to lunch. We ate in easily the biggest restaurant I’ve ever seen in my life. The food was delicious … I ordered the chicken feet (among a bounty of other dishes), they were a little bony – but tasty.

Next we left for Suzhou, where we got to spend some time shopping – I think my wife and daughters are going to like me when I get home. I have to thank my guide, a young woman named Lotus for her help -- she was a very good negotiator. The day ended with a lovely meal. Snails, abalone, fish … the biggest mushroom I’ve ever eaten – too much to mention, and I loved every bite. Dinner ended at 9PM with me feeling so tired I must have appeared stupid. For me it was the end of a great day in China.

Pictures from top to bottom:
Frank Mannarino with yours truly. Lowel Lueking and Todd Huston. Shanghai, China. The world’s biggest eating establishment (In my experience). Scooters in Suzhou.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Safe in China

Successful Flight!
I am writing this entry from a fancy-shmancy hotel room in Shanghai, China. It is 11:30 PM here, while back home, my wife just went to work (it is 10:30 AM in Minneapolis). I have to say I am a bit tired from the flight, but generally feel great. Lowell Lueking from Black & Decker/DeWalt … and now of course -- Delta and Porter-Cable, met us at the airport after graciously waiting a couple of hours for our plane to come in.
Lowell has been working in China for many years and had a lot to say about how things have changed in this region of the world as we enjoyed the 45 minute ride into the city from the airport.
Tomorrow my education begins in earnest as I will get to see China in the light of day and begin meetings with the Black & Decker folks on their woodworking business here in Asia.
The two images are of my last American meal for a while and me trying to make sense out of a Japanese phone book. The only listings I could recognize were for karoke bars.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Oops, The Adventure has Begun

Well, our first adventure ... such as it is.
Our travel agent apparently booked my photographer Donna on a different flight than the one I am on. They arrive in Japan about 10 minutes apart. (Apparently they are forming a convoy! Ya good buddy.)
Anyway, we seem to be on the same connecting flight to Shanghai.
Such is life on the road.

September 16th Takeoff!

Today is the day!
We (my photographer Donna and I) are leaving Minneapolis, Minnesota around 3PM. A short 12 and a quarter hours later and we'll be in Japan. Then 3.5 hours after that … Shanghai, China. We leave at 3PM on the 16th and arrive at 8:45PM on the 17th. There is an International Dateline thing happening somewhere over the Pacific.
Tomorrow (or is it the day after tomorrow?) we will be visiting a Black & Decker plant making Delta machinery. I am looking forward to it.
And … our first meal in China. Here we go!