Free's a rich guy now. He has a condo in Montreal and a house and a condo in Atlanta. He buys bright Nodus shirts from Paris and just shelled out $140,000 for a 2008 Maserati GranTurismo. He also has a latecomer's enthusiasm for travel. Free had never traveled abroad until 1988, when he visited Germany for a Northwest training seminar, and then with embarrassing results: His Georgia accent was so thick that the German instructor didn't know Free was speaking English. "That trip to Germany was shocking, that my English was that poor," he says. "I think people perceived me coming across dumb." He returned home, hired a linguistics coach, and bought audiotapes to help him soften his accent. When Northwest posted him to Montreal, in 1995, he met his second wife, Debbie, and they started to travel together.
Free encourages a similarly cosmopolitan attitude at his company. When he opened the China office, he held seminars in Atlanta, bringing in Emory University professors to talk about international business, currency, religion, and cultural issues. He also offers $750 and an extra two days' vacation for any Atlanta employee who agrees to vacation outside the United States.
On a tuesday morning in Shanghai, which is 13 hours ahead of Atlanta, Free wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for calls with the Atlanta office, goes to the hotel gym to log some time on the stationary bike, sends a bunch of e-mails, and finally climbs into a van heading west of Shanghai. He's off to visit a supplier MFG.com has recently signed up. The trip is part of Free's effort to build guanxi, a Chinese concept of doing business based on networks and relationships. The windows are fogging from all the quiet talking in the car. Free takes a call from an American applying for the post of chief technology officer back in Atlanta. The three Chinese marketing employees who have arranged this field trip, all women in their 20s and 30s, are exchanging cell-phone photos of their boyfriends and dogs with Lindsay Bradshaw, MFG.com's Atlanta-based PR manager. As the van advances along the six-lane A9 highway toward Hongqiao, sprawling growth is everywhere. Billboards abound for McMansion-type housing developments and "golf estates" on gleaming ponds, advertised in both Mandarin and English. Then the van turns into the Qingpu Industrial Zone, and apartment buildings give way to one factory after another lining both sides of the road. For the next half hour it's an uninterrupted stream of factories with names like Every Joy (Kunshan) Holding, Kunshan Leadlong Knitting, and Kunshan Lily Textile. These are the companies Free wants to sign up as clients. The goal is to have 20,000 onboard by 2011.
Finally, the van arrives at the supplier's factory, Shanghai Maxton Industrial Company. It's a gray two-story building on a side road lined with rubble and old men smoking cigarettes. The van drives in, attracting giggles and stares from workers outside on their break. They are young men and women, in ponytails and Mohawks, wearing jeans and royal-blue jackets, all sipping tea from mugs and plastic cups. Free hops out of the van and is quickly surrounded by a few older men with a managerial air who usher him into a chilly conference room.
When Free first came to China, he wasn't sure how to find, let alone sell to, Chinese suppliers like this one. You can't purchase a directory of small manufacturers, as you can in the States. MFG.com has assembled a team of about 20 interns in Shanghai who collect and screen the names of Chinese suppliers. They find listings through yellow pages, Web searches, and trade show directories. The team is made up of mostly college kids who work part time for 800 renminbi (about $114) a month, plus 1 renminbi (14 cents) per call. The team has identified 58,000 suppliers and aims to have a list of 100,000 by the end of the year.
Shanghai Maxton makes parts for industrial gear. In silence, Free and the Chinese factory managers exchange business cards one at a time and nod firmly at one another. Then everyone sits, sips green tea in paper cups, and watches two long multimedia presentations about the metal stamping and cutting facilities. The language barrier is high here, and everyone remains silent rather than engage in the usual business banter. Finally, the second presentation ends, and the lights go up. "Thank you. Very nice," Free says.
"Have you any questions?" asks a Chinese sales manager. "Not about that," Free says. He's more interested in hearing about how MFG.com stacks up against its competitors. Maxton, he learns, also uses a Chinese competitor called MadeinChina.com. Free begins firing questions at his hosts. Do they get good service from his Shanghai office? ("Yes, sometimes they recommend some customers to us.") Is the stronger Chinese currency and value-added tax making it harder to compete? (Yes, it increases costs 15 percent.) Will they transfer some work to lower-cost countries like Vietnam as a result? (Not yet.) Is MFG.com's website fast enough? (No.) Can they understand drawings written in other languages? (Yes for Japanese and English; no for German.) They will follow up this stilted exchange with an equally stilted lunch, everyone sitting around a lazy Susan in a rundown banquet room at a nearby restaurant, with a waitress in a stained red skirt serving boiled fatty lamb and slippery shrimp. Free will say, in slow English, how delicious the food is and thank the managers for taking the group to lunch and for using MFG.com.
First, though, a factory tour is in order. Though the screams of metal on metal and puffs of machinery drown out most of what the Chinese managers are saying, they are eager to show off their systems. The factory is clean and organized. With Free's staff translating the more intricate explanations, the Shanghai Maxton executives run through their quality controls and workflow charts. The employees, they say, earn a base salary of about 1,200 renminbi (about $171) a month for five eight-hour shifts per week, and they get a housing stipend and two meals a day at the factory. (The factory lunch smells and looks pretty good: fish in sauce, a leafy green vegetable, rice, and sprouts.)
Free pays several compliments about the cleanliness of the factory, then steps away from the tour for a moment. He is diverted by a grim-faced young woman sitting at a boxy, beige machine. If she understands English, she doesn't let it show and ignores the American CEO and the fuss her bosses are making over him. She is on the clock, cutting holes into sheets of metal, six times a minute, 360 times an hour, eight hours a day. Free takes a long look at her. That was once his job, too.
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