China sourcing: How to avoid potential disasters!

China sourcing How to avoid potential disasters

Back in 2011, I wrote a blog post called “seconds from sourcing disaster” using the format of the National Geographic channel program called “seconds from disaster.” Today we revisit that blog as the lessons are still applicable today.

The Nat Geo show takes nightmare scenarios like plane crashes and shipwrecks and walks the viewer through the steps leading to an actual disaster. In my blog post I walk the reader thru a case study involving how an international buyer let their China sourcing project go off the rails.

Unlike the Nat Geo disasters which have complex root causes that only experts can identify, the types of sourcing disasters I share in this post are very common and with a little bit of experience you too will be able to spot them and avoid them. In writing this blog, I hope to help the reader know what to look for and avoid falling into these common pitfalls.

This very long story made short:

Do your due diligence/audits on potential suppliers BEFORE you send money and make sure you check the quality before the goods ship out of China.

Intro to the full story:

Would you buy a car without taking it for a drive, even if the dealer was well known?

Would you buy a house without taking a tour first, even if the realtor was a famous agency?

Would you have major surgery without getting a second opinion, even if the doctor was from a prestigious hospital?

Yet for some reason far too many buyers place large orders in China without conducting proper due diligence. They put far too much trust in online directories and fail to do even a minimal amount of due diligence and quality control.

Additional Resources: Check out www.SupplierBlackList for a user generated list of underperforming suppliers.

Flying yourself to China and spending a few days at the factory is a tiny investment, especially when you weight it against to the cost of a lost deposit, quality failure or missed delivery date. And if you don’t want to fly to China, know that audits can be done by 3rd parties (check out at very affordable rates.


The full story (in Nat Geo’s Seconds from Disaster Format)

Witness (Purchase Manager): “Everything I am about to tell you we can back up absolutely with emails, photographs and videos.”

Investigator (me): “I have no reason to doubt you. Yours was not the first Sourcing train to wreck on the rails out of PRC.”
Witness: “I can tell you from firsthand experience the company has virtually no control over the crummy factories they contract with as it turns out. “

Investigator’s notes to self:

Clue #1: “as it turns out” indicates the buyer assumed the vendor was in control but later learned this was not the case.

In China if you “assume” or “hope” things will work out, you have already lost. Only if you are “sure” something will take place do you have a reasonable chance of it happening.

Probable Mistake #1: Failure to conduct due diligence or a quality audit. I suspect the buyer took the web page and factory sales people at face value when the supplier said they were a professional and experienced company.

Witness: “Even though we went to China to approve the first production sample the entire first container of our product was totally defective.”

Investigator’s notes to self:

I’m sensing some discrepancies in the story. If the entire container was defective, then all parts pulled from the production run were defective, so it is not possible that first production samples were acceptable. I suspect that the buyer THOUGHT they were looking at production samples when in reality they may have approved “golden samples” or prototypes provided by the supplier to ensure the buyer had something good in their hands before placing the order.

Wise move for the buyer to come to China, sad move that they didn’t stick around to confirm that the “so called initial production samples” actually matched what was being produced on the line for their particular order.

Likely Mistake #2: Lack of pre-shipment inspection to confirm that order was to spec as it was being loading into container for shipping.

Witness: “The company admitted to the defective product but in the process forced us, under duress, to place another order (twice as large) as a condition to take back the first order. Sadly it was not until the second container had departed and the company had received full payment we were than informed the second production run was also defective. This time they had purchased sub-standard parts and did not have the required finish.”

Investigator’s notes to self:

Repeat of Mistake #2: Failure to conduct a pre-containerization inspection.

Additional Mistake #3: Failure to link inspections with payments. The golden rule of sourcing in China is to pay your supplier (full or at least partial payment) AFTER inspection has been made on your order.

Witness: “The seller agreed to pay us to repair the defects which entailed taking every unit apart completely to replace the bad parts. They never paid for this work which we are now doing piecemeal to keep up with sales. They also “bought” hundreds of units from us two years ago but never paid for them. They are now attempting to coerce us once again to place yet another order to get the money they owe us which we are absolutely convinced will be defective.”

Investigator’s notes to self:

Train wreck imminent, yet passengers failed to jump off when the chance presented itself.

Witness: “To make matters worse while all this was going on we also had paid the company a huge deposit for tooling our commercial version of the product. The 10 production samples they sent us in time for a major show were worthless and broken. We found out later the supplier the company found was one they had never worked with in the past.”

Investigator’s notes to self:

Appears the buyer was dealing with a trading company rather than actual manufacturer. Trading company probably has a great marketing message and price, but no actual experience and little control over the manufacturer. The blind leading the blind, resulting from Mistake #1: failure to research your suppliers and verify their ability.

Witness: “When asked why the company would send garbage knowing they were no good the answer was “to make the deadline.”

Investigator’s notes to self:

Ramification of Mistake #3- not linking payment to inspections. Factory was incentivized to ship on time in order to get paid, rather than focused on “shipping products TO SPEC on time”.

Witness: “They owe us big money which they admit to in writing. Yet now in the latest email from the company representative she now states we never told them there were any problems until “months or years later.” We spent 3 days writing a reply to state agreed dates and specific emails to demonstrate this is a BIG lie.”

Investigator’s notes to self:

Missed Opportunity. Buyer should have launched legal action (at least a demand letter) (ask the author if you need an introduction to a lawyer in China to issue demand letters). Instinct tells me the supplier knows they are wrong and is throwing every last ditch excuse in hopes of getting the buyer to spend even more money.

Or perhaps the factory is using the time to liquidate their assets in case a lawsuit does come down.

Scenario is reminiscent of the old “guess which cup the ball is under” scam. The mark keeps paying round after round but never gets it right because the ball was removed from the cups when the victim wasn’t looking. In this sourcing case study, the buyer keeps putting good money after bad and the supplier may have no plans to actually ship quality product.

Witness: “I‘ll finish with one last example of the fraudulent nature of the company’s business practices. Our Netherlands distributor placed an order for 100 units which were shipped directly from the company. After the order was in transit we received an email from the company’s representative stating there was a problem and a tool was being made that would be required to repair each unit. She suggested we wait until the distributor took delivery before telling him we shipped him defective units. Needless to say we had similar issues caused by the company with all of our overseas distributors.”

Investigator: “I can’t say I didn’t see that coming.”
Witness: “As I stated, all of this is well documented and we are now seeking to discover what recourse we have to get our money back. If all else fails I may choose to put together a book proposal for my literary agent who is based in NY, to circulate to publishers. A good title might be THE GREAT CHINA RIP-OFF.

Investigator: “A book may help you vent your frustration, but it is not going to get your money back. Assuming you have proper contracts and a clear payment trail to the vendor, don’t rule out legal action. There are plenty of English speaking local lawyers based in China, and just like factory labor is lower than back home, luckily so are attorney fees. But before you engage a legal team, I would suggest the following:

a) Hire investigation firm to find out if the company you want to sue actually has any assets lawyers can sink their teeth into.

b) DON’T let your supplier know you are preparing a case. This will most likely not scare them, but rather give them time to prepare and perhaps hide assets.

Believe it or not, the China legal system has come a long way, and foreigner can get a fair shake in the courts assuming you have signed contracts and well documented order details.”

Witness: “Yes, if we choose to investigate you will hear stories from the company’s representative that our product is no good and is too hard to manufacture. “

Investigator: “Sounds like they have already started to prepare their defense.”

Witness: “Check out our website. Our product won an award and has been endorsed by industry pros. Ours is a great product that ended up in the hands of unethical amateurs not skilled in the manufacturing process and went for the cheap out of spec materials to make more money disregarding and interfering with our brand building process. “

Investigator’s notes to self:

Why would such a professional company let themselves do business in the first place with a sloppy supplier? The answer to this question will expose the root cause of this sourcing train wreck. By selecting the wrong partners in the first place, the buyer began a sequence of events that was more likely than not to end in the project’s demise.

Summary of lessons from the case study:

1. If you are going to use a trading company or broker rather than going factory direct, make sure they have excellent reputation and track record of success.

2. Link payments to performance/ inspections.

3. Do multiple inspections at various key phases of production.

4. Find the right supplier in the first place is the best way to avoid drama in the long run.

VAT rebate in China: Scams exposed!

VAT rebate in China: Scams exposed!

This post is based upon a recent question that came in to our mail bag. To protect the sensitive nature of the individual in question, we have changes the names and product, but the issues concerning VAT discussed below are be applicable to buyers of any product coming from China.

Question: We are a wholesale manufacturer/importer of hand-woven textiles. Our tapestries are all 100% wool. We are using a new export company and we are not sure if we can trust the information they are giving us, because it is quite different from previous years.

1. What is the VAT rebate rate for these products?

2. What percentage of the VAT is retained by the export company, and what percentage goes to the factory?

3. The export company is telling us that since they are a new company and all export companies must show a profit to be eligible for the VAT, that they need bill us an extra 17% on each shipment. They are telling us that we will be reimbursed this amount in the coming months once they have applied for and received the VAT. Does this make any sense?

Any advice or help would be greatly appreciated.

My Response

Before you read my comments, as a primer on what we will talk about below, I encourage you to read my article “What is VAT and why should I worry about it?”  if you have not done so already.

My co-worker in the China office where I am based, who is a licensed customs broker, looked up that your products have a VAT rebate rate of 16%. If we know your HS code we can confirm for sure, but based on the information you have given me so far, I think the 16% is accurate.

In China, every aspect of a trade is up for negotiation. There is no law or even industry standard that dictates how much of the VAT is retained by the export company and how much, if any, is shared with the factory and/or buyer. I’ll explain more in my answer to your #3 question.

For many of the early years of my China career I banged my head up against the VAT wall, but after a lot of research and the experience of setting up multiple businesses in China that have import-export rights and VAT licensing, I now have fairly unique understanding of the situation you describe above.

A few months ago my book, The Essential Reference Guide to China Sourcing went to press. Based on your situation, I think you would gain a lot from reading my book, but in the meantime, to help answer your question, I’ll draw upon some lessons learned over the years of doing VAT and pull some tips from the guide book to help explain what may be going on at this Chinese company as well as give you some pitfalls to be aware of.

“New company”

The VAT rate of 16% mentioned above assumes the exporter has achieved what is called “normal tax payer status” in the eyes of the Chinese government. As I understand it, and have experienced setting up PassageMaker, when a new company is set up, they are on a kind of VAT probation for the first year under what is called “small tax payer statues”. And during this probation period, a much lower % of rebate is applicable. In my experience, the probation period last about a year assuming the business achieves a stable and larger scale of business. Some small companies remain small tax payer forever.

“all export companies must show a profit before factoring in VAT”

I believe that technically the laws here imply that a business should be profitable before VAT rebate in China is returned. But in practice, because the margins are so tight for most exports, a huge number (I am guessing the majority of suppliers) don’t make any real profit until the VAT rebate is returned. So it is a bit of stretch for your exporter to say they need to bill you an extra 17% and rebate you later. I suspect this is just a negotiation tactic which leverages the gray areas around VAT to build in hidden margins for the exporter.

VAT rebate in China: Scams exposed!

Pitfall 1

I am interested to learn how the supplier says they would actually pay you the VAT rebate once it comes back to them from the government. If they are running a PRC compliant set of books, it is not easy to legally send you funds overseas. I am betting they told you they would simply give you a credit on the next order. Sounds nice, but what happens if you don’t have future orders with them for whatever reason. You may find your funds are stuck in China with no recourse.

Pitfall 2

No tax agency/ government anywhere in the world gladly gives refunds. In China, especially for new or inexperienced exporters, it is a real paperwork nightmare to submit the supporting docs for the VAT rebate to the government. And the scary part is that the government has the right to say “sorry you filled this minor point out wrong, so no rebate for you on this order, thanks, try again on next order.”

If your supplier messes up the paperwork or doesn’t have good communications with the local government to sort things out, do you think the supplier will stand behind their promise to send you money or do you think they will just say “we didn’t get any money back, so we have no refund to give you”. Happens all the time.

Pitfall 3 “the partial refund”

I talk about these tricks of the trade in my book in detail, but here is the scam in short. Let’s say the rebate rates that the supplier gives you checks out at legit, and for the course of example, let’s say it turns out the VAT rate for this product should be 13%. Let’s even go so far as to say the supplier does indeed give you 13% back at the end of the process. Sounds pretty fair doesn’t it?

But what you may not realize is that in China the interpretation of the rebate amount can vary from port to port and from one tax official to the next. It is possible that a rug for home use has a 13% discount, but the same rug used in a hospital gets a full 17% as the government wants to promote so called high end exports like medical.

I have witnessed cases where the supplier tells the buyer the rebate is 13%, and the customs book also states 13% for the given HS code. BUT behind closed doors the supplier persuades the local officials at the port that the product is actually a different HS code or a different use (medical for example). Or perhaps via an under the table payment to the official, they get the rate set at 17%. The supplier keeps the difference and the buyer never knows.

You are not alone.

A N. American company was spending millions USD each year with a supplier. They had been doing business for 15+ years with that supplier in China. They had the tightest of margins negotiated and even got price concessions downward each year with the vendor. They knew the BOM and labor rates down to the cent, but for the life of them, the buyer could not figure out how the supplier had the cash to buy 2 new Porsche Cayennes, a new home and send the kids to university in Switzerland. That buyer smelled something fishy and hired us for a quick VAT study.

It was pretty clear from our research that the supplier has some hidden VAT rebate %. With that knowledge the buyer renegotiated with the supplier, moved some production to another source and had PassageMaker process all the VAT rebates for the buyer’s exports during the 2 years that the buyer needed to set up their own office in China to process under their own VAT license as suggested in the VAT study conducted by PassageMaker. This advise probably saved the client millions of USD over a 4 year period.

Some possible solutions for you to consider:

Explain to this trading company that you realize the VAT is a very complex subject and you like to keep it simple. Ask them to quote a “FOB nearest China port” price and any VAT issues are their problem. Under FOB, the price is already inclusive of VAT.

Do you have any back up suppliers that can provide you the goods without all the drama?

Do you happen to know the actual manufacturer? Perhaps the manufacturer has an export license already and doesn’t need the trading company. So often the trading companies tell you they are essential to the exportation, but quite often that is an exaggeration and trick to keep you from going direct. Not only could your exporter be pocketing some hidden VAT rebate, but they may even have a hidden commission with the actual manufacturer.

My sales team will be upset with me if I spend an hour on this email and fail to mention how PassageMaker can help. So putting on my salesman cap… perhaps you would consider the services of a 3rd party like to help research and find a more suitable supplier in China and/or process the VAT under our company in a transparent and trust worthy fashion. Happy to give you references of clients we have helped out of China VAT jams. Sorry to slip into sales mode, but I wanted to let you know we can help if you need support.

Sorry for the long post, but I get very passionate, maybe patriotic, when it comes to helping other Americans avoid being taken advantage of in China.