PassageMaker’s Founder Interviewed by the Financial Times

PassageMaker’s founder (Mike Bellamy) was interviewed by the Financial Times about his professional and personal life in a special segment on how East intersects with West.

Visit for the full article entitled “A foot in both cultures”. Below are some highlights.


Blackbox assembly in China explained using Mike’s desk as a case study.

Multicultural Business and Family

The American founder of PassageMaker, a sourcing company that acts as a go-between for midsized western companies that supply retailers from factories in China, laughs when he describes how his teenage daughter symbolises this cultural ambidexterity. She picks “the eyeball out of a fish-head with chopsticks with one hand while helping herself to mashed potatoes” with the other.

Blackbox Assembly Explained

…while everyone wants the China price – ie the low costs associated with sourcing from the country’s factories – clients are just as concerned about being copied by suppliers who quickly become competitors. “We are a buyer-appointed firewall. Buyers don’t want the sub-suppliers to see too far up the supply chain,” he says.

The process used to manufacture his exercise bike-enabled desk is a case in point. Its steel legs are made by one manufacturer, the plastic table-top at another. The unit is then assembled at a factory owned by PassageMaker and shipped directly to Amazon – without even the middleman client in the US seeing the finished product.

The manufacturer of the steel legs could have been used to make the whole product but breaking up the process allows the company to protect its intellectual property. The company’s shift a few years ago from a sole focus on sourcing to protecting IP – what Mr Bellamy dubs a “black box” approach to manufacturing “to give clients a physical infrastructure to protect their IP when the IP laws don’t”

Small town USA to Shenzhen China: Learning the language

He first moved to Asia in 1993 and has been a resident of Shenzhen, southern China since 1999. Mr Bellamy jokes that more people live in his apartment building in Shenzhen than in the small Upstate NY town where he grew up. Studying Chinese was not easy. Back in the 90’s, his roommate, a Chinese engineering student, returned to their hostel with a second-hand television. “He said, ‘This is how you turn it on’,” Mr Bellamy says. “I thought, I have to learn this language otherwise people will think I am stupid.” Mr Bellamy now reads, writes and speaks Chinese.

Mike Bellamy received his double degrees in diplomacy and economics at the American University in Washington DC and later received an MBA from the University of South Carolina.  As part of his program, he took a year of graduate level courses at the Harbin Institute of Technology in north-east China and at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.


Starting PassageMaker: Honest business in a corrupt system

In 2002, he founded PassageMaker with two employees; the company would later grow to over 200 employees.

Mr Bellamy jokes that he has sourced everything from church pews and sex toys to iPod accessories. Today, the company sources $200m worth of products for clients in the US, Europe and Australia.

Unlike many large supply-chain companies in Asia, PassageMaker does not ask for a commission from the factory supplying the product as well as from the buyers. “Our compensation is 100 per cent from the clients. As soon as you take a percentage from the supplier, there’s a conflict of interest,” he says.

If this sounds like the business equivalent of being a Boy Scout in China, it is probably because Mr Bellamy’s mission for his company is based on the Rotary Club’s guiding principles. On the walls of his company’s Shenzhen offices are questions employees are supposed to ask themselves as they do business, taken from Rotary’s Four-Way Test. “Is it fair to all concerned?” and “Will it build goodwill and better friendship?” are two of the maxims on its website and walls.


Visit for the full article.

Protecting intellectual property in China: Don’t be a guinea pig!

Protecting intellectual property in China Dont be a guinea pig

In the West we say “don’t burn your bridges”

In China they probably say “let the bridges you burn light the way”.

In a recent China Daily article, Heavy Equipment Manufacturer LiuGong (think of a Chinese knock off of Caterpillar) proudly explains how their company, over a 50 year period, leveraged naive international buyers and partners to grow their business. Here are some excerpts, be warned, you will see no sense of remorse.

An Australian customer bought a loader from LiuGong. Because the loader was equipped with an imported automatic gearbox, the mismatch between it and the supporting system caused many malfunctions. The angry customer set the loader on fire.

LiuGong discovered one of its Italian clients had repainted its products once the machines arrived in Italy because the customer said, “the ugly design cannot be changed, and the rusty look is intolerable”.

In other words, the strategy was “get the order, ship some junk, learn where the customer is not happy, and try to improve on the next order”.

I’m not sure if this strategy is part of Sun Tzu’s art of war, but it certainly is commonly used by Chinese suppliers large and small, even today. And there is absolutely no sense of embarrassment regarding the abuse of clients for unilateral gain.

Pretty smart. They found a way for early clients to finance the R&D, yet early clients don’t get any return on that investment.

The article goes on to explain that

“Mergers and acquisitions became a shortcut for Chinese enterprises to acquire technology and marketing channels, especially after the financial crisis in 2008.”

But you don’t have to have a formal JV in place for your technology to be hijacked. Plenty of technology is transferred because naive buyers share the “secret sauce” without taking protective measures like registering IP or setting a 3rd party black box for sensitive assembly. (Click here for an example.)

Related Videos:

Video 1: Finding Suppliers
Video 2: Evaluating Suppliers
Video 3: Negotiations
Video 4: Project Management and Quality Control
Video 5: Protecting Your Intellectual Property
Video 9: Returning Defective Products
Video 10: Resolving a Dispute

Buyers are often seduced by the siren’s song of low cost. But after the sweet and temporary taste of low price fades, the bitter taste of poor quality remains for a long long time.

As the article in the China Daily proudly explains, many China factories simply do not believe the expression “you have one chance to make a first impression” because there are so many international buyers (who take unnecessary risks) that if the factory screws up the order, they simply drop that project and go out and find another buyer. Repeat process until they manage to improve their product and production process.


Make sure you or your representative make sure the so called factory is reputable and has experience making exactly what you want at the level of quality you expect.

Know the difference between “factory can make this” and “factory has made this”.

Protecting intellectual property in China is paramount. Don’t be a guinea pig for a Chinese factory’s R&D department.

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.

Great China sourcing content worth reading from December 2013

Great China sourcing content worth reading

Here is a list of the most popular pieces of content from the China Sourcing Information Center. Much of the content below was created by PassageMaker staff who volunteer at the CSIC.

Best of CSIC 12.3.2013 to 1.13.2014

QC: OK to be picky. But be professional.

Best of Fall at Asia Quality Focus [AQF]

B/L (Bill of Lading) manipulation scam

Top 4 questions asked of the CSIC in 2013

Hong Kong’s Virtual Scammers

Best of Fall at Global Sources [GS]

Sourcing Fair & Conference: Melbourne 2013. Video Recording/ Resources for Buyers

Purchase Orders or Purchase Contracts?

Insider’s look at legal services in China: Introduction to the series (Part 1)

Problems with SD card delivery. Scam or legitimate excuse?

Free tools for due diligence (China’s courts compile first ever blacklist)

Tips on Attending Trade Shows in China

If you are seeking a Chinese supplier to manufacture your goods in the PRC and have made plans to attend a trade show in China to find a supplier then PassageMaker has the following suggestions to make the most out of your trade show experience:

Do Your Homework Before Attending the Show

Since there are so many Chinese suppliers, research qualified suppliers before hand online and email them to see if they are exhibiting at the trade show. If they are, arrange an in-person meeting during the trade show. If possible, visit the potential supplier’s facility while you’re in China so that you can ensure that the supplier actually has the infrastructure and know-how to manufacture your product.

Consider the trade show an opportunity to collect market intelligence instead of forcing yourself to sign a deal with the first supplier you meet at the show. Therefore, ask important questions about the supplier’s financial health, sales turnover, quality control history and so forth.

However, if your goal is to sign an agreement with a supplier while attending the trade show, then bring along pertinent information such as, common terms of trade, pricing information, lead time requirements, shipping costs, etc and discuss them in detail with suppliers. Keep in mind that many reputable suppliers exist in China that do not attend trade shows so don’t fret if a qualified supplier that you found online is not attending.

Some Things to Keep in Mind…

One: Be wary of disclosing drawings with exact specifications of your, especially with new-to-market products to with suppliers while at the trade show because the suppliers can turnaround and be your biggest competitor a few months later. Therefore, make sure your product patent and trademarks are in place.

Two: Beware of increased tooling and/or shipping costs from the supplier to compensate for their low promotion price on products at the show.

Three: To present your product more articulately to potential manufacturers, make sure to bring product materials written in Mandarin to the trade show.


Open Lines of Communication

Arrange a translator before the show begins. While many English-speaking students will offer to be your translator outside the trade show grounds, it is advisable to arrange an interpreter that is familiar with the products and technical terms (in both English and Mandarin) in the industry you are researching. Make sure the translator is knowledgeable about your goals and products before attending the Fair. Remember that many qualified reputable suppliers do not have good English speaking skills but they have the know-how to manufacture your product. Try not to judge suppliers solely by their English language skills.