By Cecil Hoge
I started traveling at a young age. At least that is what I am told. I went to Chicago at the age of one and half to meet my rich aunt Nan. I do not remember many details of that flight, but I am told I was a real fire-cracker of a passenger, crying and screaming from time to time, trying to get out of the wicker basket that I was being carried in (seat belts were not the issue they are today), trying to peer out the window and look down at clouds and the landscape of America below. Yes, it was early flight experience and I do not remember much except the big turning propellers. That was over 70 years ago so I hope you forgive my lack of detail.
I did not travel very much in the next fourteen years…a few trips to Chicago to say hello to the relatives we had out there. I am not counting train rides to various schools, car rides to from the city to beaches and ocean, to Bellport and the Hamptons.
At 16 that changed.
That was when my father came back from a trip to Europe and announced he wanted to marry a German lady and told me he wanted me to meet my new German family. Three weeks later, I was on a Boeing 707 on my way to Berlin. The year was 1958 and the Boeing 707 had just been introduced for travel to Europe three weeks previously. So after my father had decided to remarry, I found myself in the cabin of one of the first 707 jets.
And that was a flight I do remember. For one thing, I remember being astonished by the fact that the plane had jet engines on the wings and that there were no propellers. The few earlier flights I had been on, all were in smaller planes and all with props. This was a time when airplane seats were comfortable to sit in. This was a time when pretty young stewardesses came over every few minutes to see if you were comfortable, if you needed a blanket or a snack or a full meal. And I had blast requesting multiple Coca Colas and potato chips and cookies and other good stuff.
What knocked me out about the flight was that they served full meals on the plane with real silverware. That plane ride was also establishing an historical speed record for commercial intercontinental flights because the flight only took nine and half hours – all previous flights to Europe took 14 hours or more and sometimes involved stop-offs in Iceland or Ireland, in which case the flight times were longer – more like going to Asia today. So this was a kind of break-through flight at that time.
The faster flight in the 707 and the sudden emersion into West Berlin culture was a shock to my 16 years old, jet-lagged body. I do not remember what going through customs was like, I just remember sticking close to my father as we were asked various questions. At the airport, we were met by, Fritzi, my new step-mother to be, Papilein and Mutti. Papilein and Mutti were slang for my step-mother’s father and mother.
Berlin was a tremendous mind blowing experience. Meeting my new stepmother to be, meeting her parents, and after we drove in from Tempelhof Airport, her sisters and her young brother was unbelievable. We spent two weeks in Berlin and every day we went different places and did different things.
I was seeing buildings and museums and restaurants and parks I had never seen. Berlin at that time was still a very barren city, despite the fact there were already a lot of gleaming new buildings. And we found ourselves staying in one particularly new gleaming building. It was a brand-spanking new Hilton Hotel. We were checked into two luxurious rooms. Yes, I had my own single room and this was just another wonder that was hard for me to understand. As I remember it, it was on the 8 or 9th floor. At night I could see the cars and buses and trucks bustling along on the Berlin city streets below with the city light bouncing off the roads below. It was an awesome sight, to use a present day expression.
On several occasions, I went through the Brandenbur Tor into East Germany. Once to listen to Bach Choir concert in some famous East German church, once to visit various Soviet museums where I learned about industrious Soviet women who developed better socket wrenches to improve production of various Soviet products. It was quite a contrast to West Berlin.
I have written more detail about this particular trip on this blog in a story called “A Fog Moves into Berlin and I Gain a Stepmother”. So to get more details on my first big trip to Europe and how my father came to marry my stepmother, just scroll down to that story. It is still on this blog.
For the next 8 years I finished Catholic prep school and eventually college, but I did not travel much, except for a few train rides and motorcycle rides back and forth from prep school and college. After emerging from college and a few false starts on the road to life, I entered my father’s business, married my wife, had a child and started to travel on a more regular basis. At first it was just trade shows for our fishing lures and inflatable boats, then it was to visit customers around the country. After a few years, it was to visit suppliers for our fishing lures and inflatable boats in Europe.
I did not mean to become a traveler, although I always thought it was a very cool thing to do. It was just that it became a kind to routine to attend certain trade shows around the states, to visit certain customers around the country and to visit certain suppliers, first in Europe and eventually in Asia. Well, if you travel for 60 years, the effect becomes cumulative and perennial.
I will try to give you an example of a typical year.
In January, I might go to the boat shows in New York or Chicago. In February, I might cruise down to the Miami Boat Show. In March or April, I might be at visiting some fishing lure or inflatable boat customers. In May, I would head to the grand city of Sidney, Nebraska to visit Cabela’s and then come back by way of Springfield, Missouri to visit BassPro’s headquarters. In June, I would head out to visit my big wholesaler fishing lure customer in Chicago and then cruise over to Seattle to visit Costco or a local inflatable boat dealer. And often in June, I would head over to a European Fishing Tackle Show which could be in Paris or Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Milan. In July, you could depend on me
being at the American Fishing Tackle Show, presently called Icast, in St. Louis or Kansas City or Las Vegas or Miami or most recently, Orlando. In August, I would be at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. In September or October or November, no doubt, I would being visiting suppliers, first in Italy and France and in the last 25 years in Asia, in Korea and China.
In some years, I would go two or three times to Europe or Asia, but most years, just once. But the trips to suppliers were always long because we always visited four or more suppliers in Europe or Asia. And if you were trying to visit four or five suppliers, you would have to take 1, 2 or 3 days with each and then were weekends, which meant that your Sundays and sometimes, your Saturdays, were free. Anyway, add it all up and the supplier trips were usually always 3 or 4 weeks, depending on which countries I going to and how long I had to spend in each place. These days I try to keep my trips to three weeks, but even that is very difficult.
Now I have been traveling like this for forty years, so that amount of travel really does add up. I have pretty much visited every major city in the U.S. once or more. I have visited France and Italy each about 20 to 25 times – I have lost count. I have been visiting China once or twice year since 1993 and Korea once or twice a year since 1997. Then there is the odd country here and there – Japan twice, Taiwan twice, Costa Rica twice, Germany four or five times, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway one or two times. So in the end I think it is true to say that I have traveled pretty far and pretty wide.
I have said in other places in this blog that is is very hard for travelers to explain their travels to non-travelers. It is my theory that the world is divided between travelers and non-travelers and while it is easy enough to tell someone about a trip, it is almost impossible for a non-traveler to understand what your trip is actually like. This is because, if you have not experienced travel, it is hard for non-travelers to relate to the stories of a traveler.
With that said, I would like to relate what a recent trip to Asia was like. I know it is an impossible to really capture the experiences I had, but I will try to explain just one trip.
It happens that I am recently back from a trip to Korea and China. Now this trip is particularly short, just nine days, so it might be easier. In the last two years, I have cut back my trips because my wife has had some back and knee issues and I wanted to stay nearby. So this particular trip was less than half the normal trip to Aisia.
Any trip these days starts with an airplane ride. To get to the airport, JFK in this case, we chose to take a limo. So I got picked up by a nice driver some Central American country (Honduras, if I remember) named Julio from my house in Setauket and then with one heavy bag in the trunk and my business bag inside, we head off to pick Ryan Healey, a guy who works with us and handles our inventory management. That means he buys boats and accessories for our inflatable boat business.
We stop in St. James, pick up Ryan and head out to JFK. It is a trip that lasts a little over an hour. After some discussion with the driver about corruption in South America and the upcoming presidential election – Julio immigrated to the States about 30 years ago, thinks America is the greatest country in world and is worried about corruption in Central America, turmoil in the Middle East and the election in the States.
The ride goes quickly and Ryan and I enjoy Julio’s thoughts on the state of the world. Julio seems to be a very intelligent guy very up to date on world events. He is particularly worried that Iran, with Russia’s help, will takeover over the oil in the Middle East.
“What are we going to do without that oil?” He asks.
I try to console him by saying we are doing a lot more fracking these days (a practice I am not thrilled about) and now have quite a bit of oil. We get out of the car, start dragging our heavy bags into the terminal, leaving Julio to ponder how he might drive back and forth from Kennedy if the Iranians and Russians take all that Middle Eastern oil.
For the last 20 years or so we discovered that we can trade American Express points (of which we have a lot) for business class flights all over the world. This makes travel a whole lot more comfortable. Accordingly, we cruise up to the Korean Air business counter, check our bags, which conveniently are not that heavy ( just under 23 kilos/50 lbs.). That is not important for business class because they will accept pretty much any bag, no matter the weight, but it will be important later on our other flights inside Korea and China, as will be explained later.
Now business class is nice in many ways. It is not quite as comfortable as first class and nowhere near the comfort of flying your own jet where you have full power to outfit the plane as you wish and where you employ people to wait on you hand and foot. But we are not billionaires. That said, business class is pretty damn comfortable. First of all, check in is a lot easier.
The line for economy is 15 to 20 times longer than business class. So, with business class, you can usually cruise through in less than 5 or 10 minutes. But after that, there is security and security is completely democratic these days. There were times in the more pleasant past, when there was a special lane for business class or first passengers, allowing them to cruise through security far faster, but these days we are all into in it together – at least in JFK on the October 15th, Sunday noon hour, 2016.
So getting through security involves winding around on a line that takes about 20 minutes (the line is relatively light on this Sunday), taking off your shoes, removing everything from your pockets and getting radiated or scanned by some infrared technology that helps detect bombs and weapons by perhaps imparting more radiation or something else which you may not need. No matter, while not without its irritations, it seems better to get scanned or to get a vertical MRI, than have people shoot you or place bombs on your plane.
Once through security, you then have to make your way to customs so they can can check that you have the proper papers (valid passport, valid visa for China) to legally leave the country. That takes another 10 minutes or so, and then, finally you are released to area where duty free shops, restaurants, bars and business class lounges are all available.
Now, I can say the process of getting through an airport was infinitely easier and more pleasant 20 or 30 years ago. 30 years ago, there literally was almost no security. Yes, you had to present your passport and ticket at the ticket counter and check your bag. And then all you had to do, was go through customs. There was literally no actual security. So the whole process took far less time.
Anyway, we head to the business class lounge to soak up some coffee and itty bitty sandwiches before getting on the plane. After and hour or so, the computer screen showing the flights that are boarding starts to start blinking for our flight. We head down to the terminal gate, get in on the business class line, which though about a tenth of the length of the economy line, still has a good 50 or 60 people waiting to board. The plane we are going to fly today is an Airbus 380, quite literally the biggest commercial airplane in the world.
In due time we file onto the plane and are lead to our seats in business class. Now Korean Air Business Class is different from some other airlines, like Delta. In Delta, for example, you have this magnificent angled bed, but you are absolutely separated from the passenger seated next you. Korean Air is more democratic having business class seats where the passengers can actually talk to one another. I like the Democratic setup because sometimes you find yourself seated next someone interesting.
And in this particular seat it turned out that there was a nice young lady next to me who is a shoe designer for Tory Burch. After the flight takes off we strike up a conversation. This lady is on her way to Hong Kong where she and another designer will be picked up and whisked into the city of Dongguan.
A couple of things about the city of Dongguan…it is a city that I regularly visit. When I first started going to Dongguan it was extremely seedy and depressing looking and there was only one hotel near the factory we were visiting that seemed reasonably safe, that was a 5 star hotel called The Silverland. In 20 short years everything changed. New highways were built in every direction coming in and going out of the city. Extremely well manicured gardens began to appear along each highway. New hotels and giant shopping malls were erected. Pretty soon the city began to have many beautiful sections. In that period, The Silverland became outdated and surrounded by 4 or 5 bigger and more glamorous 5 star hotels. This all took place in the space of 20 years.
Meanwhile, on the 380 Airbus, I had a very nice conversation with the young shoe designer for Tory Burch. It turned out that she had previously been traveling to and working in Italy, Spain and Brazil. So the young lady has gotten around. As things would have it, Tory Burch, the famous company she designs for, decided to move its shoe manufacturing and shoe design facilities first from Italy to Spain, then to Brazil and then to China. Such is the state of modern out-sourcing these days. So this meant that first this lady was going back and forth every 30 days to Italy, then every 30 days to Spain, and she then every 30 days to Brazil.
And now this young lady found herself on the way to Dongguan, via Hong Kong. I did not envy the lady’s ride, having made the same leg several times. The flight today is thirteen and half hours from JFK to Seoul. After that, the young lady must move to the transit lounge at Incheon Airport, and after a two hour layover, she would have to get on a flight to Hong Kong. Of course, flights every 30 days back and forth to Italy and Brazil are no picnic either, so I am guessing this young lady is up to the trials she has to face. Travel requires stamina and it is most definitely a younger person’s game.
The young lady was in her own words, “Living the life.”
In her case, that meant she was living in Brooklyn with her artist husband and they were having a blast. Restaurants, bars, museums, theaters, movies, concerts, designer parties, artist parties. The future was wide open and the city was theirs.
Did she plan to have kids, I asked. Not just yet, she said. She wanted to get a few more years under her belt and then she and her husband would raise the nuclear family.
Anyway, we had a nice conversation. After lunch on the plane, we decided to go back to the lounge area and sit around and chat. My associate, Ryan came in and joined and so did the other designer from Tory Burch, who turned out to be a nice British lady in her forties. There we talked about travel, about changes in China, about Italy, Brazil, China, about shoes, about design, about travel, about the difficulty of explaining travel to people who did not travel.
It was a fun conversation and soon enough we ambled back to our seats, got some sleep and before you realized it, we were landing.
Benjamin Franklin, one of our country’s founders, scientist, printer, businessman, inventor, diplomat and man about town said something about travel that I always thought was quite true. And that was, when you travel, you ended up doing about twelve times more things. It was literally like living 12 years in one. He regarded travel as a kind of extension on life because you met so many people, did so many more things, dropped in on places that you never would otherwise have gone, did things you never otherwise would have done, talked to people you never would have spoken to, learned things you never would have learned.
I think this is still quite true. Today travel starts the moment you leave your home. Almost immediately you are talking to new people, considering new ideas. This happens in a limousine to the airport, in an airplane to a country. You meet people, you start interacting with them and your journey begins.
Now, you may say that the real journey only begins when you get to the country or place you are traveling to, but I think it starts before. I think it starts the moment you begin your journey.
Anyway, about fourteen hours after getting on the plane, I said goodbye to the girl designing shoes and made my way, with Ryan through customs, then down to baggage claim and then out the door into the terminal arrivals area. Sure enough, there was Chris Jung, our factory contact, there to greet us, there to grab my bag and ask if the flight had been satisfactory. Chris is the young Korean guy who manages our account and tries to keep up with our various requests to change products, to make new products, to deliver faster, to improve quality control, and in this case, to drive us to our hotel.
Chris leads us to the P. Diddy van. At least that is what we call it. I am pretty sure Sean John Combs never owned this particular van, but from the look of it, you could imagine P. Diddy and a group of his buddies piling into, drinking Courvoisier and heading out to the club. The van is a fine sight inside, with tinted windows and window blinds to pull down just in case someone was trying to peer in, a righteous stereo, GPS, Internet and a solid selection of action movies, with a movie screen just above the mirror.
Chris turns on the local GI station which seems to want to play an eclectic combination of rap, Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Ed Sheeron, Eminem, Bruno Mars, classic country and pop. Ryan and I feel right at home as we peel out of Incheon Airport and head for downtown Incheon. The idea that Incheon Airport might be next to Incheon City is a quaint one since it is about a 40 minute ride over spanking new expressways and over under passes before we make our way into the actual city of Incheon, but all things considered, after a 14 hour flight, the P. Diddy ride is painless and pretty soon we are pulling up to our hotel.
Just before we arrive, Chris asks the all important question, have we had dinner?
We reply no, since we do not count the dinner we had 12 hours ago on the plane, not to mention, the lunch and breakfast that came 8 hours and 4 hours ago. Riding a plane builds up your hunger. I am convinced of that.
So Chris Jung suggests that we go around the corner to a local Korean barbecue. First Ryan and I check into the hotel, present our passports, bring our bags to our rooms, take a few minutes to wash up, and then head down to the lobby. We walk across the street and about half a block away and within a few minutes we are enjoying Korean barbecue.
For those of you who don’t know, Korean barbecue is where you sit at a table with a charcoal or propane burner in the center of the table. Then a Korean lady brings about 15 little plates of different vegetables, spices, fish and meats. An absolute must among these dishes is Kimchi, which is a kind of sauerkraut that comes in 50 of so varieties. The simplest form of this a kind of cabbage that has been left to marinate in some kind of sauce. It sounds gross, but it is actually kind of addictive. It is a staple of the Korean diet.
As soon as they bring these dishes, you can dig in with stainless steel chopsticks and a stainless spoon. The stainless steel chopsticks are harder than wooden chopsticks, since they tend to be slippery. A couple of points about the 15 different little plates. It is not always clear which of these dishes are meant to eaten as food and which are meant to be spices for other dishes. Fortunately, Chris is there to help point us in the right direction giving a giggle whenever we might try to take a bite out some spice or sauce meant to be combined with something else.
Almost immediately the nice Korean lady brings tea, water and fires up the burner and the middle of the table. Then other plates of raw meats arrive, chicken, steak, pork and shrimp. All of this is delicious and within minutes we are plowing through a wide variety of Korean vegetables, meats and fish.
Ryan and I are having a good time demolishing all the 50 or so little dishes when my brother John suddenly arrives along with Greg and May May.
Now John’s travel story is different than ours. He is about two thirds through a trip around the world. John started about 10 days before us, first going to Berlin, then to a small town in East Germany, then back to Berlin, then on to Istanbul, and two days earlier on to Korea via Abu Dhabi. In Korea, John met with our fishing lure customer (we sell things in foreign countries as well as buy things) one day before we arrived. And then today, before we arrived in Korea, John drove with our Korean lure customer Greg and his associate, May May Kim, down to the middle of Korea to go fishing with some of our Panther Martin lures to see if they work.
John let’s us know it has been a successful fish and they have caught a number of Korean fish. The fish are apparently a small version of trout. Greg, May May and John are all pleased with the day’s fishing. Chris Jung is little bit confused wondering where John and these other Koreans have come from. After a little discussion, some short introductions, everybody gets the jist who everybody else is. Greg takes this opportunity to order some barbecue and we settle in for a kind of second dinner, which in Ryan’s and our case, might be called a fourth dinner since we have been eating nonstop our way from JFK to Incheon.
Anyway, It is a jovial fest. Greg explains what he does – primarily selling cosmetics and clothing into China. Greg has a special love of fishing and has decided that in the future fishing will become popular in China and Korea, even if his present is rooted in selling Chinese girls Korean clothes and cosmetics. It seems that young Chinese ladies are attracted to the hot young Korean ladies living and looking the life on Korean soaps. It is a strange world sometimes, hard to figure.
We finish dinner, Greg and Chris share the tab, and then we walk across the street to our new hotel and say goodbye to our hosts. A big thing with travel is hooking up the various electronics that you inevitably bring. Fortunately, in my room there are two good plugs, conveniently fitted with Western style plug fittings for 110 volts, even if the outgoing electric is 220 volts. Plugs and volts used to be a big deal on travel, but these days it is less of a hassle. I do carry spare converter plugs for different situations, but it seems that on my stay in Korea these will be unnecessary. I do have a double hook up that allows me to charge my cell and iPad at the same time. The second plug I use for charging my Jawbone speaker and iPod alternatively.
I believe in bringing music wherever I go because local Korean TV can be a little difficult and because I get bored with CNN or BBC English language news. Music allows a different mindset, which can be very helpful when making your way in a different country.
Now you would think that I would be a little tired after 14 hour flight and a long Korean dinner and you would be right, but I believe in ignoring time zones and staying up late when you arrive so when you do go to sleep, you really sleep. My brother John is a little tuckered by the Korean fishing and perhaps the ten previous days of travel from the other side of the world, so says he is going to crash. Ryan and I agree to meet downstairs to head out for a walk and a chat at one the local sit down cafes.
So after setting up my electronic paraphernalia, hanging up some clothes in my new closet which is large enough for about 4 hangars and washing my face quickly, I head down to the lobby and stroll outside where Ryan is waiting for a walk and sit-down chat. Now the weather in Korea on this particular trip is quite warm. I would guess the temperature to be in the low seventies or high sixties. So it was quite pleasant to go for an evening stroll.
Within a block of this hotel, The Hotel Koryo, are several brightly lit streets of bars, restaurants and cafes. Ryan and I settle down in one of the outdoor cafes and chat up our experiences on the trip so far, discuss a little of what we will be doing the next day. We are to be picked up at the hotel at 9:30 am and by this time it still relatively early, being around 10:30 pm Korean time. After about 45 minutes of chitchat, we head back to the hotel and our respective rooms. Both of us have been up for about 30 hours straight so it really is time for some sleep.
The next morning, I get up, do a few exercises in my room – I bring a kind of pocket gym with me – a handgrip, a jump rope, elastic arm and leg bands and, most importantly, a hackysack. After my exercises, I head downstairs to the second floor where they serve complimentary breakfast. It is a kind buffet style setup, with sections for American style food, European style food, Korean and Chinese food. A nice touch is that they have guy standing by wearing a nice white chef’s hat ready to make eggs on demand.
I like to stick with an American breakfast because after that I know that will be the last thing that I eat that is remotely American for the rest of the day. Now I do cheat a little bit and throw on some Kimchi and noodles on my plate, but mostly it is eggs over medium, croissants and jelly. This system seems to work for me and provides, I think, a good base for the many varieties of Korean fare that will come later.
When we get down to the lobby and walk out the door, there is the P. Diddy van with Chris waiting to power our chariot on to the new offices. Inside, Bruno Mars is singing about uptown funk. Today we are visiting Woosung, our Korean boat inflatable supplier. We wend our way through Incheon traffic. It is a city of 3 million people, not nearly as crowded as Seoul, which is just 20 miles away and can take an easy 3 hours to get across. That said, traffic in Incheon is crowded and slow, even by New York standards. After about ten minutes and a mile or so, we pull up to the new and impressive offices of our supplier.
When we first began buying inflatables from Woosung, they were quite a small manufacturer with one office and factory in a space of about 30,000 square feet. Like many Korean companies in the last 20 years, they grew rapidly, changed their original factory for another larger factory and then built on to their new factory building, which was originally about 50,000 square feet and then became 75,000 square feet of offices and factories.
Today, they now have a new building for their offices and are still using the 75,000 square feet for manufacturing. The office building is brand new and has six floors and a whole slew of young Koreans working as managers and designers. If you had visited their original space and then saw their new spaces you would be impressed and startled by the many changes. But that does not tell the whole story since Woosung also has two additional factories in China and one in Vietnam. This is a company that has probably increased it sales 30 times since we started visiting it in 1997.
To get in the building there is a special security card needed. This is helpfully supplied by Chris. Once inside the glass enclosed lobby, there is a display of various inflatable boat models, some of which are ours, that they have made for various customers. To left of the entrance is a mini Mistral Store – this is the French brand that they have licensed to sell clothing, sunglasses and other kinds of sporting equipment under in Korea. As we approach the elevator there is a digital screen a over the elevator scrolling the following message:
“Welcome, honored guests, Cecil Hoge, John Hoge and Ryan Healey.”
It is nice to be recognized as you come in the door.
We take the elevator to the fourth floor. We come out and take an immediate right to say hello to their Korean sales team that has assembled to greet us. This includes Walter Kim (our account manager leader), Larry Lim (head of production), his son Mike, now working in sales, Jenny Park, Kevin Kim, Chris Jung and about six other sales gals and guys. They are all young, thin and you might notice that they have all American fist names and a limited number of Korean last names. That is pretty much the case for the whole country. The American first names are strictly for sales purposes – the theory being if an English speaking person can pronounce your first name he might buy more and Because English is pretty much the official business language in Asia. Regarding last names, Kim, Lim, Park & Lee seem to account for about 80% of the last names in Korea.
After saying hello, shaking hands and half- bowing to the sales team, we about face and head for the conference room, which is located in the opposite direction, just to the right of a room ominously labeled, The War Room. We never got into the War Room so I am not quite sure what goes on there. I imagine, 50 or 60 grim-faced Koreans gathered in the room with Haji Lee, the owner. As soon as Haji arrives, he harangues them for an hour or so on some sales imperative of the day.
In any case, we case go off the big conference room which can sit 20 or so people and place our bags on one side. Outside is a nice view of the city of Incheon. Chris then tells us it is time to go and meet Haji, so we dutifully file out of the conference room, get into the elevator and head up to the fifth floor. There we take a right turn, where we see a sign saying “Oldest and Best Customer”. Below is our company name: Sea Eagle Boats, Inc. with a picture of John and myself.
We are one Woosung’s oldest customers, that part is correct, having first visited their far smaller offices and factory in 1997, during their great currency collapse. In the early years of doing business with them, we did become their best overall customer. That is no longer true. Today, we have been surpassed by many new customers. Woosung manufactures inflatable boats, kayaks and standup paddleboards for a wide variety of customers. Hobie Cat, Naisch, Starboard, NRS, are just a few of their staunch customers. While we are still a pretty good customer, we are nowhere near their best customer. Anyway, it is nice to be honored with a sign.
In the room beyond is Haji Lee’s office. It has a big, wide desk, piled high with papers and documents and a mini conference table also and a great view of city outside. Haji is sitting at his desk, looks up, says, “oh,” or something like it in Korean, jumps up and comes over to shake hands and greet. Haji is vigorous and energetic man in everything he does and he almost seems to approach you on the run.
We shake hands, chit-chat a little on our respective flights, our lack of or presence of jetlag, some discussion on where Ryan and I came from and a little discussion of where John came from. After that is done, we sit down in the very comfy chairs in Haji’s mini conference room. Actually, I call that the quality face time table. Asians seems to like to sit down, ask a few questions, look at each other for about 20 minutes, trying, I guess, to discern some inner meaning, and then after 20 minutes of some tea and mostly quiet saying little or nothing, suddenly get up and move back down to the big conference room on the floor below. It seems to be an important thing to do.
Haji tells us, as usual, that he has a few other things to do before joining us in the conference room. Judging from the stack of catalogs, documents and magazines, that could be a few minutes or several hours. Anyway, we head back down to the conference room. There we are joined by Larry Lim, Walter Kim and Chris Jung.
I do not know how other people conduct their foreign meetings, but in our case, we write up an agenda of points to be discussed and send it to them a couple of weeks before we arrive. After we make up our agenda, Woosung then makes up their agenda, which is half in English and half in Korean. It is not identical to ours, but it does tend to follow our original plan with a little Korean twist and turn here and there.
Basically, in the beginning we have general review of how the year went for us, how it went for them. Then we move on to general hopes and goals. In this part, Woosung usually shows us some videos on new products that they working on, some of which may be related to what we we do and some of which may have nothing to do with what we do. Then we go over problem issues. These can be quality problems, defects issues, payment issues, unresolved issues. Then we review new prototypes, discuss new products and here what suggestions Woosung wishes to make. Usually, we set also aside a day or half a day for boat testing of new models. Last of all, we discuss pricing.
That is the schedule of our meetings in one paragraph, but the reality of our meetings is that it takes 3 full and long days to go over all the various points.
Before beginning, I want to await for the arrival of Haji Lee. To bide our time, an young Korean lady comes in bringing green tea or coffee. When in Asia, I stick with a steady intake of tea, so I am happy to go with the green tea. John and Ryan stick with Western culture and go with the coffee. Shortly after starting to sip our tea and coffee, Haji comes charging in.
I begin by asking what their take on the year is. Haji says it has not been the best. The Standup Paddle Board business, which had enjoyed tremendous growth, now has slowed down. Transom boat business – inflatable boats taking 10 to 40 hp engines – is basically dead. His Mistral brand business, which he started last year, is now up to 12 shops around Korea, is growing, but not growing as fast as anticipated. Inflatable kayaks have been a bright spot (this is good since that is the main business we are in). They have hopes for a new business – inflatable rescue structures – but that business has not yet started. The cow mattress business has been steady, but not growing.
Before going further, I must tell you about Haji’s cow mattress business. It is a little out of the ordinary and perhaps not what you think about when considering inflatable boats. It seems some years ago a Canadian company came to Haji with a strange idea. They wanted to make cow beds for cows. After some interrogation, Haji found out that a comfortable cow is a happy cow and a happy cow gives more milk. At the time, the Canadian company was making cow beds using a fabric bladder with polyethylene foam inside. This seemed to work OK, except after a short time, the cow, weighing up to 3,000 lbs. and having relatively hard hooves, would puncture the cow mattress cover and shortly thereafter the foam would get ground to powder. Anyway, the Canadian company thought maybe inflatable boat material was stronger and better than the truck tarp material they were using for the foam covers.
Haji began to make some mattress covers to hold the foam material. The inflatable boat material did last longer, but the foam did not. This definitely did work better, but the fabric would still burst after one or two years and the foam basically was crushed to dust with two months. That meant they had to replace the inner foam section every two or three months. You might think this was unacceptable to the Canadian cow bed company, but in actual fact they were happy since they were getting longer life than out of the previous products.
Now let me explain something here that might surprise you. The cow mattress business is quite large. I certainly was surprised. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to go out to dinner with Haji, a number of his employees and two of the owners of Canadian cow mattress company. That evening the two Canadian owners gave me a little history on their company and the cow mattress business in general. For me, it was a whole new world.
Apparently, there is a great need to keep cows comfortable. This is because, as mentioned before, comfortable cows produce more milk. In the the history of cows and milk and how to manage that, at first there was mud and straw. This was the prevailing system for the last couple of thousand years, but it was messy and neither the cows nor the farmers liked the mud and straw. The cows because it was muddy and messy and cold and uncomfortable. The farmers because it was muddy and messy and hard to keep clean.
So in the late 20 century, some farmers got the bright idea put concrete and straw down where before there was only mud and straw. This was definitely easier to keep clean for the farmers, but the cows did not like it because, let’s face it, concrete, even with some straw on it, is not very comfortable. Along the way, it was noticed by the farmers that the cows seemed more agitated when sleeping on concrete and, more importantly for the farmer, they gave less milk.
This got the farmers to thinking. Maybe there was a way to make cows more comfortable and stalls easier to clean. So they consulted some experts who suggested using foam cushions. This was about the time the two Canadian guys began to get interested in the cow bed industry. They had been supplying farmers with needed things for farming such as straw for beds, hay for food, milk pales and other cow-milking equipment. It seemed natural for the two Canadians to start providing foam mattresses.
Now you would think that foam mattresses would be pretty durable and you would be right…for humans. However, as mentioned, cows weigh 1,500 to 3,000 lbs. and they have hooves. When they go to their stall, after grazing in the field, they are not real careful how they step on the foam mattresses under them. Two things happened from this usage. The cows’ hooves would break through the cover around the foam mattresses. The second thing that happened is that the cows hooves crushed the foam to dust wherever they stepped on the foam. This process of breaking through the cover and crushing the foam, did not occur instantly, but within two or three months and foam mattress cover would look like it had been shot through with holes and the foam inside would look like it had been ground into fine particulate matter.
Not helping this problem was the fact that the cows came to like to munch on the exposed foam. This made many cows sick and caused some to die. The two Canadian gentlemen were discouraged by this and decided to seek another solution. Perhaps, they could make inflatable air beds for the cows. This is when they suggested this improvement to Haji. Haji, always liking a new and different challenge, and also liking the idea of making the whole product where he could charge more, started making inflatable air beds for cows.
The inflatable air beds did do better than the foam mattresses, but the still got destroyed by the cows after two or three months. It seems that cow hooves and air beds do not get along. Punctures would occur and then the mattresses would go flat. Now the two Canadian guys were still able to sell this product, because while they lasted, the air mattresses were far more comfortable for the cows and that meant they produced 40% more milk. That was a good deal for the farmers. It seemed that farmers, once they got sold on cow comfort and more milk, were willing to pay for air mattresses even if they only lasted 3 months or so.
The business itself began to flourish. At first the two Canadian were selling a few hundred mattresses, then a few thousand mattresses. Pretty soon, they were selling over 5,000 air mattresses for cow beds a year. And this was a pretty good business for Haji and the two Canadian guys. Haji was was selling the cow beds for over $200 each and the Canadians were selling the cow beds to farmers for over $500. In other words, in pretty short order Haji was selling over $1,000,000 of cow beds a year and the two Canadians were selling over $2,500,000 a year. It was becoming a business.
Still, there was a problem of durability. Farmers were getting tired of buying replacement air beds four times a year. This is when a new innovation came along. The two Canadians figured that if they used gel, they might get longer life from their cow beds. And they were right. The inflatable cow beds, now filled with gel rather than air, did last longer, about a year.
On the basis of this innovation, the cow bed business grew rapidly. Soon Haji was selling 10,000 cow beds a year. He did not fill these with gel. Rather he sent them empty to Canada and the Canadians provided the gel. Everybody was happy for a while. Haji and Canadians sold more cow beds than ever, the Cows were more comfortable and gave 40% more milk and the farmers were happy because they bought cow beds less often, they got more milk which they sold for more money. It was a win, win.
But progress never stops. About this time, Haji started working with drop stitch material and starting making Standup Paddleboards with this new inflatable innovation. Drop stitch material is two layers of material with millions of woven threads going back and forth between the two layers of fabric. This allows you to make rectangular shapes because the threads hold the two layers of fabric at a specific width. This material, the two Canadians realized, was perfect for making cow beds. For one thing, you could add layers of fabric top and bottom making the material far stronger. For another, you could have quite high pressures and a flat cleanable surface. This is important when farmers who have to clean up cows after they have done their business. That is because cows do not pay that much attention to where they do their business and that often meant that cow beds became pretty dirty.
Again, the new drop stitch material, with its heavier layers of material and with air inside instead of gel solved a lot of problems and it also lasted longer. It was easier to ship, easier to setup and easier to clean. Even so, drop stitch cow beds did not last forever, but now they were getting two or three years of use. And as the technology improved, so did the sales. Sales were now over 20,000 cow beds a year. So that is a brief history of one the product Haji was producing.
So at this meeting Haji let’s know that the cow bed business is still good and he is hoping to sell another 20,000 cow beds in 2016.
Haji then explained some of the new businesses he is trying to enter. One is a unique rescue product that you drop from an airplane or helicopter and it automatically inflates providing an inflatable structure that 100 or 200 people can hang on to. This product is to be used in life or death situations, when a plane is crashing into the sea or when a ship is sinking. The safety device can be on board a ship or plane or it can be brought to the rescue site by a helicopter or plane or a boat. In any case, it can be deployed in minutes and it is large enough for 100 or 200 people to hang on to until somebody comes to rescue them.
Since this is new product, not yet on the market, I cannot really tell you more other than in the video we saw, it looked like it will really work. Haji and his company have spent two years testing and developing this product. They hope to start selling it in 2017.
Haji went on to tell us about some other new products – inflatable water bike (the bike was not inflatable, just the pontoons holding the bike), an electric moped that they are thinking to sell in Korea and some other products. We watch a video showing the water bike peddling along on water. It looked like it really worked and we immediately said we would have an interest in selling it when it was ready. Haji shows some literature on the electric bike. I am not quite clear why Haji wants to be in the electric bike business, since that seems pretty crowded and not directly related to water bikes, standup Paddleboards, inflatable kayaks and inflatable cow beds. But that is the way Haji is, he is always looking to get into something new and different.
We then went over how our sales have been. Down in Standup Paddleboards, up in kayaks, up in fishing boats, up in transom boats. We go over some of our hopes for the future…large sales of transom boats in India for rescue work (we have already sold over 100 boats to India for flood rescue work in 2016) and we are bidding on several new large contracts. In short, we think this can be a big new business for us. In summary, we mention that 2016 is our best year ever and that we will sell around 2o,000 inflatable boats, kayaks or SUPs in 2016.
By this time, we have already arrived at lunchtime in Korea, so we all evacuate the conference room and head upstairs to the sixth floor. That is where the new company cafeteria is located. There are 40 or 50 people eating there in a dining room off to the left. We head over to the executive section on the right which is a cordoned off table for about 20. Today, we are about 12. Haji has invited some wealthy friend of his to lunch with us and he tells us about some new relaxation device he is hopping to sell a million units. Apparently, this gentleman is very successful in the kitchen appliance business. At the moment, he seems more interested in talking up his new product.
We all try the device which kind of wraps around your neck and stomach. I can see it does provide some support, but it seems bulky and ungainly to me. Haji’s Korean friend enthusiastically explains how they plan to sell one million units, apparently, if I understand him correctly, in the next 6 months. He wonders whether we might interested in selling this in the States. We politely try to explain that it is a little outside of selling inflatable boats and fishing lures.
Anyway, we have a nice Korean meal, with different kinds of Kimchi, fresh fish, tofu, assorted vegetables, some fried eggs, some meats, a cup of rice, some delicious spicy soup and other things I am not quite clear on. Now my rule wherever I travel is to eat whatever is placed before me, so I plow through quite happily. It is all quite delicious and pretty healthy, I am guessing.
After lunch in the cafeteria, it is back down to the conference room. We are still in the introductory phase, not having discussed specific problems, new designs, new orders, shipping schedules, new order plans or a review of goods already ordered and on the sea somewhere. Today is Monday and it is mostly for introductory discussion and review of samples. Tomorrow, we are scheduled to test several prototypes on a nearby waterway.
So after sitting down in the conference room for more general chitchat, we head over to the actual factory, which is about a half a mile away. The traffic makes short distance another 10 minute journey. As we go into the factory, we slip on protective shoe covers that are required and are supposed eliminate or reduce any dirt coming into the factory floor. Putting these elastic foot covers on is not so easy, since you have to balance on one leg. I have developed a tried and true method for this by leaning on a nearby wall.
We start on the first floor where several prototypes are waiting our inspection. Today we are reviewing a fishing kayak, a racing Standup Paddleboard and a new kind of drop stitch transom boat. Since I am in the process of applying for a patent on the new kind of all drop stitch transom boat, I will not divulge too much information on that, other than to say that I am hoping it will be very light, easy to assemble, fast to row and motor. None of that is known when you make a prototype. Basically, the prototype process is a hit or miss proposition. You throw out your best ideas and they either work or they don’t.
I head over to the prototype of the drop stitch transom boat while my brother and Ryan head over to the racing SUP. Both look better than I anticipated. Again, that is something that is hard to know in advance. You make a drawing of something you want your supplier to make and it either comes out the way you think or it is close or it is way off the mark. Anyway, I am happy with the appearance of the new kind of transom boat. We are with Haji Lee, the owner, Larry Lim, the head of production, and Chris Jung, our contact for the Sea Eagle products that they make for us, and several workers and technicians in the factory.
I shake hands with the chubby Korean guy who always makes the first prototypes. He kind of bows. I bow back. I am thinking I must be a very frustrating guy for him because he has been making strange prototypes for us for about 10 or 15 years and most of the time, we end up only selecting just a few of those prototypes to be actual products. And worse, sometimes, I take a very long to decide what features and dimensions a new product should have.
For example, I took 5 years and 14 prototypes to decide what the actual final dimensions and features of our new Sea Eagle RazorLite all drop stitch inflatable kayaks would be. I can imagine that Haji Lee, Larry Lim and the somewhat chubby Korean gentleman who makes the physical prototypes were not very happy with me. But then again, we have now sold our first 1,000 RazorLites in less than two short years and now it is looking like all those prototypes might actually have been worth it.
Now some projects are much easier. The Sea Eagle NeedleNose SUPs (Standup Inflatable Paddleboards) turned out to be a much easier project. I made a drawing on my iPad at the Outdoor Retailer Show in about an hour and half. It came to me in a moment of inspiration that that inflatable SUPs could be made with a rigid bow mold at the front in order to pierce through waves. This, I cleverly called, a wave piercing design.
So, in an hour and half, sitting in my booth at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, amid talking to customers and to Chris Jung from Woosung (who happened to be there), I drew this new NeedleNose design – the shape, the dimensions and bow mold. It was pretty crude because I had just begun to learn the drawing program (which was called iDraw), but it was clear enough for my supplier, who happened to be at the show. So, an hour an hour later, I hit the send button and a PDF of the drawing went to Chris Jung and Larry Lim, both of whom happened to be in the States at the show sitting a few feet from me. That was in August of 2006.
Three months later they had made a bow mold of this new design and we were on the water testing the first prototype of this new model. Unlike almost all prototypes we receive, there was almost nothing to change – a slight movement of a few d-rings, the addition of a large D-ring for a paddle leash, the decision of where to put our logo and SUP safety instructions. Two months later we were selling and shipping this model and I applied for a patent on this design. The rest, as they say, is history. I got the patent and we have now sold over 5,000 of these NeedleNose SUPs.
After looking over the transom boat, I walked over and started asking questions and looking at the racing NeedleNose. It really is the same as our standard 12′ 6″ NeedleNose. It was 4″ narrower in order to increase speed. We were building this new model specifically for young lady in Okinawa named, Marta Hogan. She is an avid SUP racer and wanted to use our board for SUP races around Asia – you can see her picture below.
The board we designed for Marta was not only narrower, it has an American fin box without the two side skegs we usually have and it was missing the stainless steel D-rings we normally have for those who want to use a seat and the nylon D-rings and elastic cord we have to for those who want to be able to stow gear. This was because Marta wanted the board as light as possible and wanted the ability to change out skegs for different racing conditions. Other than that it is essentially the same craft and the same shape, although considerably narrower. The prototype looks beautiful, but I very worried that it will be unstable on the water. Going faster will not help if the paddler cannot stand on it.
We move on to the third prototype which is our new fishing FastTrack. This is a fishing version of our Sea Eagle FastTrack. It features what we call “Crocodile” EVA – this is a 1/4″ thick foam padding on the side pontoons and on the cockpit floor. I decided to put this EVA padding on to protect against fish hooks and fish fins. Of the two, fish fins are far more likely to cause puncture problems, by the way. In looking at the prototype Woosung has made for us, we immediately decide that we should use more of the “Crocodile” EVA since it is relatively cheap, very durable and looks really cool. Accordingly, we tell Chris Jung that we want the EVA to extend further down and around on each sides of the pontoons.
We also discuss whether it is possible to add a fish ruler to one side of the kayak so a fisherman or fisher lady can measure the size of the fish they have caught without having to paddle to shore – this is important, especially if there are regulations regarding the minimum size fish that you can keep. We discuss the various ways the fish ruler can be added. Printing on the EVA – we reject this idea because we do not think the pebbly surface of the “Crocodile” EVA will be very suitable. After several suggested alternative methods, we decided we will print a ruler on fabric and then have the ruler glued on the EVA.
Since we are in the midst of exploring new rod-holders for this model, we hold off further decisions until we finalize our rod-holder solution. And that is where we leave it. By this time it 5:30 in the afternoon and they propose to take us out to dinner. And so, after about 45 minutes of further chitchat, we head out in two cars for dinner – us in the P. Diddy van with Chris and Larry and Haji and Walter and Haji in Haji’s monster Hyundia. The monster Hyundia is South Korea’s answer to Mercedes and Rolls Royce, being slightly larger than a Mercedes and slightly smaller than a Rolls. I have ridden in this car a few times and comfort is its middle name. It comes complete with TV, computer, Internet and video, super plush leather seats throughout, etc., etc.
Pretty soon we are in downtown Incheon with lights blazing everywhere in a section of the city that is clogged with restaurants, bars and cafes, near where our hotel is. We disappear into one and sit down on some compromise Western style chairs. When I first came to Korea, in most of the restaurants, you sat on a seat cushion on the floor with your legs crossed yoga style. I am quite comfortable sitting like this, but my brother and Ryan, being taller and perhaps more Western, prefer to sit in a regular chairs. Anyway, this evening we are comprising sitting almost on the floor, on a chair that is sunken below the table. So the table is only about 10″ above the floor, but because the floor is sunken below the table, you can sit on it like a regular Western chair.
We enjoy another Korean barbecue meal, this time with more fish than meat and about 50 side dishes, including a selection of 5 or 10 Kimchi dishes. It is, as usual, an extremely healthy and tasty meal. I have to say I particularly like Korean barbecue meals since you see it being made right in front of of you and when you snag the food off the of barbecue, it piping hot, dripping with juices and spices. You then dip your piece of fish or meat into the 3 or 4 different sauce dishes. The result is always hot and tasty and hot dripping good.
At dinner we discuss a wide range of subjects, going from market conditions to sports, to Korean politics (their lady President is about to be impeached) to the upcoming American Presidential election.
Haji asks me who I think will be elected.
I predict Trump, saying while the polls show him losing, I think he will win because the people who will vote for him are not the people who talk to pollsters. Moreover, I say I think trump has tapped into a sea of discontent, literally finding a whole population of people who feel mislead, cheated, over-looked and unheard.
Haji finds this difficult to understand. Why won’t Hillary win?
Too much baggage I say.
“Who will you vote for?” Haji ask.
“Hillary,” I say.
“I am afraid of what Trump might do.”
“Because of his campaign promises.”
“Are you afraid he might not keep his promises?” Haji.
“No,”I reply, “I am afraid he might keep them.”
Haji ponders for a moment and then says, “We think Hillary will win.”
That seems to be the end of conversation.
After dinner, Haji tells us it his anniversary is tomorrow and tomorrow afternoon he will have to drive to the country with his wife to celebrate with his wife’s family.
I remember what Haji told me when I first met him.
“Woman is Buddhist, man is Buddha.”
It seems that Buddha will have to go visit his wife’s family. We shake hands and Buddha gets into the monster Hyundia and heads off to his Incheon home while we head off to the local cafe for some more chit chat with Chris Jung and Larry Lim. By 12 we are back at the hotel. I go to my room and put on some Michael Kiwanuka. His debut album is out a couple weeks and I decide this is good chance to take some time to get acquainted before snoozing off. This is my second or third listening to the album and I find myself really intrigued by it.
The next morning – Tuesday in Korea – I get up, do some exercises in the room (leg lifts, elastic arm pulls, a hundred skips, some hacky sack), shower, get dressed, go down and have an American / Korean breakfast – a little Kimchi, eggs over easy, noodles and sausage. Fit and ready for a new day I go down to the lobby to wait for the P. Diddy limo. Today we are heading to a new Korean city some early boat testing.
When I say new, I mean new. Five years earlier I had come and Haji told excitedly about the plans to build 5 new Korean cities close to Incheon Airport. Now they are up and running, brand new and glistening. Near the port of Incheon, the new building are erected of land that used to be tidal flats and now are city streets with waterways interesting the buildings.
We all pile into the P. Diddy van. Chris flips on the local GI station and Taylor Swift comes on tell us she and an undesignated person got problems and she is not sure she is going they are going to solve them. We head into the traffic of Incheon, wedge our way through city streets and city traffic, listening to an eclectic mixture or rock, rap and country, some out in the last few years, other stuff, like Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line recorded 50 or 60 years hence. After about 40 minutes we begin to enter the new city section with new modern building jutting up into the sky.
In due time, we pull behind a bus, park and get out of the P. Diddy van. I know we are at the right place because I see some of the guys from the factory inflating the racing NeedleNose, the new boat all drop stitch boat I am testing and a wierd prototype kayak we had seen in the factory that we asked to give a whirl.
We are not testing the all new green fishing kayak because we already know how that paddles. This is because we have already sold over 5,000 of our regular FastTracks, so our concern with model was features for fishing and appearance, not paddling ability.
The big question market is my new all drop dinghy. Some of the Korean factory guys set that up on a floating dock and pull that off the dock and get in. Immediatiately I am aware that is tippier and less stable than I had assumed. Ooops. The next thing I try is the oarlocks. This uses a wierd system of my device and almost immediately it becomes apparent that the grommets that I thought could make simple and cheap oarlocks do make simple and cheap oarlocks that do not work well. Ooops. I try rowing for about 20 minutes, become disgusted and get out to watch my brother and Ryan try out the new NeedleNose.
Here the story is the opposite. Despite my fears about stability, both John and Ryan try it and find reasonably stable and quite fast. Even Chris Jung gives it a whirl and finds it fast and stable. Their best guess is that the reduced width results in about a 20% faster to paddle board. This is huge, as our now new President might say.
After that we test the wierd new paddling SurfSki that Woosung is working on. It shows promise, but this prototype is too tippy and not that fast. We go on to test my new dinghy with a 3 hp gas motor. Here the results are better, but not ideal. The space in the boat only seems to allow 3 people. When one of the passengers shifts their weight, the dinghy tips to the left or right. It simply does not have the stability of a traditional inflatable boat. It does look cool, it is remarkably light (just 61 lbs.), but it is not ready for prime time. Anyway, we try it it with one, two and three people and it motors pretty well, but even in that use, it does not performs ideally. I decide it is time to go back to the drawing board on that one.
By this time, it getting to be around 1 pm, so we head back to the office and up to the sixth floor for lunch. Haji is there to greet us and ask about about our testing. We tell him the NeedleNose was good and the dinghy was no good. On the basis of this testing I have decided to put my dinghy project on hold. I will ask them to fix the oarlock problem and send the existing prototype, but, for the moment, I am not planning to include in this year’s new models.
After lunch, we begin discussing some our conclusions so far, both from our initial visit to the factory to review the new models and with our testing of two of the models. We spend several hours trying to go over changes to the fishing kayak – we are extending and enlarging the protective EVA foam on the outside – this is to prevent fish fins and fish hooks and fish knives from ever puncturing the boat. We are adding a fish ruler on the top of the boat. We want to have cutouts on the front and rear spray skirts to hold up to 4 fishing rods and to also hold fishing tools and lures in a place where they are safe and easily accessible. There is a lot of discussion about how to do this. We finally say they should wait until we get back to the States and provide them with detailed drawings of how all this will work.
For the racing NeedleNose the path forward is much clearer and more immediate. They will make a second prototype for us. One prototype will go to Okinawa where a very fit Marta Hogen will race it in a Standup Paddleboard race taking place at the end of November. We decide this product is ready for prime time and say we plan to introduce in the spring or summer of 2017.
For the dinghy, I say I will provide them with an alternative idea of how to create workable oarlocks on the existing prototype. I tell them if we cannot figure out how to make it row properly, it will be game over. So again, we postpone a final decision on the final product until we can solve the oarlock problem. In this case, I say once they outfit it with workable oarlocks, The plan would then to either give up on the project or come with a final concept boat for 2018. If we do go forward with some version of this boat in 2018, it will mean we will have to get a final version of the new boat by the summer of 2017 in order to test and verifying it will really work.
Making a new boat is a long process. And as mentioned, some products come far easier than others while some end up taking years. And a lot never get developed at all. That is the process. I wish it was cleaner, simpler, more scientific, but that is how it works for us.
After going over new model issues, we move on to pricing and problem issues. We review different histories on different models they produce for us. Some are very good, some are not so good. Our computer system keeps record of every boat we sell – that is 20,000 a year. Woosung makes about 4,000 of those boats. The quantities are not the greatest of what we sell, but they are generally our most expensive boats, so the sales in dollars of the 4,000 boats is actually greater than the other 16,000. In terms of dollars, Woosung is our largest supplier.
The process of discussing pricing and quality issues is also long and arduous and sometimes quite contentious. Fortunately, we have good data for them to review and they do realize the importance of solving both of these problems. The day before I let drop the fact that we have moved some of our production to HiFei (another supplier of ours and a competitor of Woosung). There is nothing like telling one supplier that another supplier can provide the same quality product at a lower price. It gets their attention.
In the case of pricing, Woosung suddenly has a change of heart. It seems where before it was impossible for prices to go down, a new way has been found and now prices will go down on many products. This is something that I had hoped for, but not something I had planned for. So, naturally this is a big win for us. We do not say much, but inwardly we are most pleased by Woosung’s action on the pricing issue.
We move on to the quality issues. Here the details are everything and we spend literally several hours reviewing different problems, trying understand what might be the issue in each case. We look at detailed pictures which we e-mailed ahead. We discuss individual solutions. When you find a problem, the first thing to figure out is where it came from. In the construction of inflatables, there are many things that can go wrong…seams, material, gluing, welding, fittings, accessories. It is important first to focus on the origin of the problem, then to concentrate on the solution.
Generally, our supplier, is the best producer in the world for the products that they produce. We have 48 years of experience of trying many, many different producers. Woosung’s strongest quality is their fearless willingness to make new designs. Most manufacturers are unwilling to try new designs, preferring instead to stick with what has sold and worked in the past. This is not a bad policy if designs stay stagnant, but designs are always changing and it is the nature of things that better ways are found to produce different shapes and different products.
The problem with someone making a new design for the first time is that your supplier is learning how to make it and it takes times to develop the best way to make an individual product. Woosung is more professional than most manufacturers – making a CAD drawing of what a new product will be, establishing specs for every piece and part that goes into the product. All of that reduces possible problems in the future, but it does not eliminate all problems. The reasons for that is when you make something new you find that there are stresses and problems in the production or the use that you never anticipated.
Unfortunately, this process is further harmed by the fact that I love to design things that nobody ever made before. This means I only find out what problems a new product might have after we start the production. This is normal, but it would be nice if products could be perfect from moment the first one rolls off the production line. The situation is further complicated by the fact that most of our success comes from developing unique new designs. And that comes with the need to resolve and solve any problem that becomes apparent before, during and after the production.
About 5 o’clock Haji gets up and shakes hands and says it. Time for him to get back his wife before Buddha is chewed out by his Buddhist wife. That leaves Larry Lim, Walter Kim and Chris Jung with me, John and Ryan to go over the remaining quality problems. We do that for another hour. By this time the sun is setting in Korea and it is again time to consider dinner.
Off we go for another dinner, this time hosted by several of the Woosung workers. It is a jovial affair, with a long dinner and after chitchat. By 12 I am back at hotel, this night too tired to do anything but crash. We have been 3 days in Korea. Tomorrow, after a short wrap up morning meeting we will head out to the airport for a flight to China. Time to change countries.
The next morning the P. Diddy van arrives around 9am and we head off to the office. In the big conference room, my brother, Ryan and myself sit opposite Chris Jung, Larry Lim and Walter Kim. We run through a general review of all the things we discussed, basically repeating everything we said and did. We are interested to know about some of their future projects such as the water bike they are working on, we are proceeding with the NeedleNose SUP and FastTrack Angler. The all DS (drop stitch) dinghy is on hold until we can figure out what to do about about the oarlocks and how to make it a truly functional boat. We thank them for their price concessions and we ask them to do their very best to eliminate all quality problems. Then we ask for them to give our regards to Haji and wish him a happy anniversary and thank them and all the other folks at Woosung.
All of this takes about an hour and a half and then we go outside, shake hands with the various Woosung folks who are assembled for our departure, bow to them, they bow to us and we get into the P. Diddy van and head off to Incheon airport. In the van, “We know our shit because we good at business and we know our shit” is again playing. I am gathering this is a popular song among the GIs living in Korea. In 40 minutes, we are checking into our China Eastern flight, heading through security, presenting our passports and Visas and finally settling into a very nice airport lounge not far from the China Eastern gate.
Our flight on this day is the polar opposite of the flight coming over Korea. It will not be business class. Fortunately, because we have something called Priority Pass, available through American Express, we get to settle into a very nice airport lounge for about 50 minutes before having mosey over to the gate and to board the China Eastern flight, which is about 124 notches down from the Korean Air flight coming over. The plane is a well worn Boeing of some earlier generation, the seating packed and fully booked.
A characteristic of flights from Korea to WeiHai, the city we are flying to today, is that almost every passenger aside from ourselves is carrying bundle of new bought goods from Korea. Haji has told us the reason for this – duty free in Korea is the cheapest in Aisia and there apparently is a big business in passengers ferrying new bought duty free goods into China. This results in every flight being completely booked and over-crowded because 9 out of 10 passengers are carrying duty free goods.
In my case, I am in the middle seats, wedged between two Chinese guys with duty free goods in their lap, below the seat in front and above in the bag storage compartment. Fortunately, these guys are relatively thin so instead being wedged against fat, fleshy people, I am wedged between cartons of Benson & Hedges cigarette carton, boxes of well-packed bottles of Courvoisier Cognac and boxes of Gucci shoes, Armani shirts. These guys are packing and while they do not take up much space, their goods do.
This would not be much of a problem except that it turns out that the flight is delayed and we have to sit on the tarmac while we wait for smog to clear at the WeiHai airport so it is deemed to be safe to land. Smog is, of course, a common problem in Korea and China. Often flights are delayed by it because it is literally hard to navigate in.
So we sit, wedged in together and I try to start up conversation with one of the guys next to me. He is very nice, seems to know some English, but very reticent about who he is and what he does. I get out out of him the fact that he not just visiting for shopping. Rather he has been in Korea for 12 weeks. When I ask him what he does, his English, which had seemed quite good, suddenly disappears and I realize the conversation is at an end. I have the suspicion that he might be in Korea to do a little surveying from the Chinese government. I have no way to know if this wild guess is untrue or correct.
Once off the ground, the flight to WeiHai is only 50 minutes. So it is a quick up and a quick down. I will say this for China Eastern, they do know how to serve people food in that short time. It comes in heated boxes. Some rice, some pork, some tea. And since our lady stewardesses could not begin serving until we had gotten off the ground and since the pilot is trying to make up for lost time, the lady stewardesses have to zip around, almost throwing the boxes of food at you and then jumping all over each other to serve the 175 passengers and clean up the leftovers of 175 passengers. Because the actual flight turns out to be only about 35 minutes, the stewardesses almost have to run to their seats after the last boxes are collected.
Once landed we begin the familiar experience of going through customs, getting our bags. WeiHai is a relatively small airport serving a relatively small Chinese city. The population is only about one and half million, which almost classifies it as a village by Chinese standards. It has been two years since my last visit to China and right away I notice some things have changed coming through customs. There are video screens above the custom gates. They are playing military music and showing videos of Chinese soldiers marching in formation, of Chinese soldiers practicing unfriendly moves with their bayonets, of Chinese soldiers practicing Marshall Arts. I get the impression that China is getting ready for something. I do not remember seeing these kind of videos coming into WeiHai two years ago. I get the sense that something has changed and that China has decided to be more on the defensive or the offensive – I am not sure which.
It has to be said that whenever you visit any place you usually come away with some impression and since any impression is coming only from yourself, it should be said that impressions can be very wrong. Nevertheless, my impression was that China had gotten a lot more militarized in the two years since I had been there. I know for a fact that this last summer there was a lot of concern about China going to war with the U.S. This was not reflected in our news, but it was passed on to me by Mrs. Zhong, who is our main contact at HiFei Marine, the company we were on the way. She had told me that many Chinese people were talking about the possibility of war with the U.S. because of confrontations between the U.S. Navy and the Chinese Navy around the islands in Pacific Ocean that China was building up from sand spits.
In the U.S. we hear a lot about what we think is an outrageous effort to extend Chinese sea power by literally constructing islands in the middle of the ocean where there were none. China has a different view of that and basically they think that particular area of ocean is theirs and so they feel they have to right to build up and militarize these islands. And if you happen to get into a genial conversation about this, it will soon turn adamant. The Chinese really think they have the right to do this since they have controlled this part of the Pacific Ocean for about 3,000 years.
Anyway, whether my impression on sensing a new militarization in China is correct or not, I do not know. I can only say the patriotic marching music with video of marching Chinese soldiers was real. That said, we were able to cruise through the customs line with little or no trouble.
Once we get out of the security area and start walking into the airport, we see a guy holding a sign with our names on. This must be our ride I surmise. I shake hands with the driver, he kindly takes my bag and we start walking out of the airport into the parking lot which is just across the street from the terminal. In no time, we are seated in a large minivan listening to ethereal Chinese music. Now the WeiHai airport is only about 40 minutes from WeiHai itself. It is a pretty pleasant ride take you through hills and small mountains with ancient China landscapes.
You know you are in the new China when you see Mercedes and BMWs and Maseratis and Ferrarris zipping by on the same road with ancient moped tractors that move at about 8 mph and are loaded with hay or apples. Along the highway you can see old Chinese people with ancient weather beaten faces either picking apples, loading apples, sweeping road with straw brooms or riding bycycles or mopeds with 3 or 4 people clinging to them. Meanwhile, the modern traffic moves along in brand new cars and SUVs, many of new and very luxurious at 70 to 80 mph. In WeiHai you see the new China and the old China on the very same road.
I should tell you that WeiHai is quite famous for apples and we happen to be touching down in the heart of the apple season. Along the road you see row upon row of apple trees each laden with an impossibly dense amount of apples. One wonders how the trees can support so many apples. These WeiHai apple trees are not very tall, 5 or 6 feet high and they seem to far wider than tall, maybe 20′ in circumference. I did not try to count the apples on one tree – it would be impossible – I can only say it looks like these trees hold about 10 times more apples than any apple tree I ever saw in America. I am guessing that 3,000 years of growing apples in the same place teaches you a thing or two.
Into the oncoming traffic lurch these little moped tractor trucks – I am not sure just what they are for – they look like a bicycle with a moped motor and a flat bed truck attached and strung together. They are, as mentioned previously, piled high with hay, or corn or, most often, with apples. These moped truck do not go very far. It seems they are designed to motor about 200 feet from the orchard to the side of the road. I am not sure if they are just severely under-powered or just heavily over-loaded or both. Anyway, they seem lurch out into the road with great regularity and apparently with no sense of oncoming traffic and then proceed about 25 feet at 8 mph to a full sized waiting truck with a real motor.
As we pass the ancient and modern Chinese landscape with smoky mountains shrouded in wispy smog, a call comes in to the driver. The driver talks a bit in Chinese and then passes his cell phone to me. It is Mrs. Zhong on the other end. She is at the factory of course. She says she will meet us at the hotel around 7. This suits us since it is only around 5 and we are just pulling into the hotel. I am look forward to laying out my clothes and maybe heading down to the lobby for some chitchat before dinner. So we agree to meet Mrs. Zhong in the hotel lobby.
The hotel is of the Chinese variety. That is to say big. The lobby has a very high-ceiling – least 60 feet or so with quite impressive pillars leading all the way up to the ceiling. We go to the front desk, present our passports and check in. I have been to this particular hotel four or five times. We first came it had only been open for about a month and so it was almost empty. Coming into the hotel this time, it also seems empty. There are a few hotel guests wandering around, but there is no crowd hovering before the front desk waiting to check in. The check-in is fast and easy and a few minutes later, the hotel check-in lady hands us back the passports and our room keys. Without further ado, we head to our separate rooms.
I did notice something in the check-in process and that was that I was assigned a different floor from my brother and Ryan. I am on the 8th floor and they are on the 7th floor. I think nothing of this, happily supposing that the higher the room, the better the room. When I get to the eight floor I sense something is different. I try to guess what it is and then it strikes me that I am smelling smoke in the hallway. I think nothing of this as the bellboy rolls my bag to the room. He opens the door, let’s me in and says something in Chinese which I suppose is enjoy your room. I hand him a 50 yuan note and he departs.
But almost immediately I realize that I do not enjoy my room since I am smelling the leftover residue of smoke. It is at that moment that I realize that I have been assigned a room on the smoking floor. I immediately call downstairs and ask to speak to a manager who speaks English. I explain that I would really like to change my room for a non-smoking. The manager says very politely in pretty good English that that is impossible since all the non-smoking rooms in the hotel are taken. I am not happy with this and ask if can I at least change rooms tomorrow. The manager says, in quite good English, of course, sir, we will be very happy to change your room tomorrow. There is something in the tone of his voice that tells me this is not the first foreigner assigned a smoking room when they probably wanted a non-smoking room. I decide to bide my time and accept this for the moment.
After opening up my suitcase judiciously (I want to relieve only the minimum amount of clothes because I know I may be moving soon), washing up and brushing my teeth, I go downstairs to talk with John and Ryan in the lobby. We sit down for a while and I tell them my plight. Immediately John suggests that I put Mrs. Zhong on the case. So we sit there for an hour or so and wait for the arrival of Mrs. Zhong.
In do course, Mrs. Zhong arrives in trendy jacket and machine weathered jeans, looking, trim, fit and ready to feed us. Mrs. Zhong is an example of the new Chinese power woman. She is successful, she is good at her job and she knows it. She says for this evening she is going to take us to the hotel restaurant since no doubt we are a little tired from our flight. She is right about that. John already has decided to give up on dinner, so it is only me and Ryan with Mrs. Zhong and we quite happily head into the restaurant, which is serving a kind giant Chinese buffet with what seems like about 1200 different dishes to choose from.
After acquiring about 27 of the aforementioned delecacies – it not easy to get 5 kinds of vegetables, 6 kinds of meat, 12 kinds of fish, and some odd things I am not really sure what they are on to one pretty big plate, but I manage it. As soon as I have a chance to get some of the food down, I explain my smoking room plight. Mrs. Zhong is very sympathetic. She explains how happy she was when her co-worker finally gave up smoking and how she came to hate the smell of cigarettes. She then goes on to say that she is furious at the hotel for giving me a smoking room.
I tell her that I already asked for a room, but the said they did not have one.
Mrs. Zhong looks at me for a minutes and smiles, “Well, maybe, that is because you are not Chinese.”
There is nothing like a Chinese person working on a Chinese problem.
Mrs. Zhong calls Ms. Wang, her assistant, who is still at the office, explains the situation and tells her to call the hotel manager and threaten to withdraw all future business if they do not immediately give me a non-smoking room. I tell Mrs. Zhong that I can hold out on the non-smoking room until we finish the 22 dishes left in front of me. Mrs. Zhong barks some instructions to Ms. Wang and then she turns to me.
Ms. Wang will call the manager and straighten out the situation, she tells me. In the meantime, I have some clams, some crabmeat, some pork, some chicken, some spinach, some sweet potatoes, some shrimp, some broccoli, and, as mentioned, some other things that I cannot actually identify.
A frown passes over Mrs. Zhong’s face. You have to eat more she tells me and Ryan. I had thought I was doing pretty well, but Mrs. Zhong is clearly worried that we are not eating enough. She calls over a waitress, barks out a bunch of instructions in Chinese and the waitresses goes bustling off towards the 20 or so buffet tables. This is a huge dining room, about the size of a hockey ring. In the distance I can see the waitress piling unknowables on top of two plates. Within minutes she returns to take away our old plates and replace them with two fully loaded new plates. So, now round two of dinner begins.
In round one, I was pretty careful to stay away from things I did not recognize. I round two the Chinese waitresses brought a whole new selection 20 or 30 untried delicacies. In travel, I have a rule – eat whatever that is put in front of you. I can tell that Ryan, while doing his best, is clearly avoiding some of the items on his plates. And indeed, some items can look a little unsettling, scorpions, for example, but at least the ones on my plate were not moving and so they did not present any danger of biting you. I munched away gradually reducing my plate to about third of it size. It was mostly delicious. I particularly like the eel and what looked liked robin’s eggs.
I thought I could safely say I was done, but no, Mrs. Zhong had the waitress bring over a plate of round scaly things. They reminded me of larvae from moths or some other insect. It turned out I was right on the money.
“One of these provides more protein than 3 eggs.” Mrs. Zhong said. She quaffed one down to show me that it could be done.
Since I had just had two robin’s eggs, I was not sure I needed more protein. Of course, they were only a quarter size of a regular eggs, so I guessed I could have a few of these brown, scaly things without overdosing on protein.
I picked one up and chomped into it. It was kind of milky and dense tasting. Not bad, I thought, as I felt my protein level rising.
“Oh, you should have more,” Mrs. Zhong said.
And so I downed a second one. I was beginning to like it.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Silkworm,” was the reply. Well, I had always thought that silkworms were highly valuable and here we were having some as an appetitizer. This must be a pretty rich country to eat silkworms I thought. Anyway, the silkworms were pretty good. I am still not sure whether they were cooked, warm or raw, but whatever, they were tasty and I could feel myself getting stronger by the minute.
That made me decide that maybe I was ready to go out and do battle with the hotel manager. I was dubious that I would have much success by myself, but with Mrs. Zhong along and the silkworms in my belly, I was ready.
So Mrs. Zhong kindly paid the bill and we went off to do battle with the manager. It did not take long. Mrs. Zhong snapped some hard Chinese at the ladies at the front desk and they bowed and kowtowed and a manager appeared. Mrs. Zhong barked some more sharp and hard Chinese at him and he bowed and kowtowed and then a new room key and a bellboy magically appeared.
We shook hands with Mrs. Zhong, thanked her again for dinner. I told Ryan I would meet him downstairs in the lobby in 30 minutes and I went off with the bellboy to retrieve my bag from one floor and move it down to another. Happily the room was as advertised – smoke-free. This gave me some time to hang up some of my clothes, set up my Bluetooth speaker, go on-line, brush my teeth, comb my hair and head back down to the lobby.
Ryan and I sat down there talking about the day, the flight from Korea, the differences between China and Korea and about some of the points we would have to go over. About an hour later we both headed up to our respective rooms. I took some time in the room to listen to some old Rolling Stones music – Exile on Main Street. Yeah, I was an exile in WeiHai! But I was definitely not on Main Street.
In the morning I did some exercises in my room, went downstairs, had a kind of American/Chinese breakfast of eggs, croissants, bacon, noodles & Chinese spinach. I love that Chinese spinach, it is not leafy like our spinach, more long and stringy. Around 9:30 Mrs. Zhong’s Cadillac Escalade SUV arrived with a company driver and John, Ryan and myself piled in and we were whisked away to the main factory and office.
HiFei is a pretty large company by my standards. The main factory and office were two buildings – maybe they accounted for about 150,000 square feet. Nearby, they have 6 other buildings for additional production, storage of materials and aluminum hull production. Maybe, those buildings added another 200,000 square. I am not sure. It is hard to tell when the two main buildings both had 5 floors and the other 6 buildings were generally one or two floors with very high ceilings – maybe 30 or 40′. The company has about 330 employees, making it relatively small by Chinese standards, but quite large by my standards. We have, for example, only about 30 employees and 24,000 square feet, although we have also use two logistics warehouses – one on Long Island, one in Nevada, to carry our inventory of boats.
After driving about 20 minutes from the hotel, we arrive at the new factory and offices. I say new because these buildings were only finished about 5 years ago, but already the buildings are showing signs of aging. There are cracks clearly visible on the front wall of the 5 story building. They build in fast in China and usually the speed of their endeavors takes a toll on the longevity of the building. Inside, the building is still in good shape, almost new condition, although some of the marble steps leading up to the third floor where we are going are showing signs of minor chipping. Perhaps, Chinese marble is not the same as Italian marble.
We first plop our biz bags in Mrs. Zhong’s office. This is very spacious, surrounded by glass walls. After some tea, we move to the conference on the fourth floor. Before doing so, we pop into Mr. Wang’s office, and say hello. Mr. Wang is the big boss. He is fairly tall, 6′, I would guess, somewhere in his forties, a young and successful Chinese business, sporting a short leather coat, an expensive looking knit shirt and some expensive looking Chinese jeans. In China, it is important to look rich, casual and sporting all at the same time.
Our contacts at HiFei are two Wangs, Mr. Wang, the big boss, Ms. Wang, Mrs. Zhong’s assistant and the lady directly in charge with our account, and Mrs. Zhong herself, the able administrator, 2nd boss to Mr. Wang, wearer of many hats.
Mr. Wang is full of cheer and broad smiles. He jumps up to greet us, we shake hands, gives us a hug and starts talking.
Almost immediately, he asks, “Who will be your next President?”
Consistent with my predictions in Korea, I voice the opinion that it will be Trump. My brother John chimes in for Hillary. The voices of reason will overcome the clamor of the masses, he says.
Mr. Wang is clearly disturbed by my prediction of Trump.
“Trump,” he says, “That’s not good. He doesn’t like China. What do you think?”
I tell Mr. Wang I think Mr. Trump is hard to read – it is hard to tell if he means what he says and it is harder to tell if he will do what he means. I guess if he gets elected, we will just have to wait and see, I say.
Mr. Wang does not seem particularly happy with my answer, but the conversation soon drifts to the general economy, thoughts about next year and our hopes for our two businesses.
I tell Mr. Wang it has been a good year for our boat business, not so good for our lure business. Mr. Wang is familiar with fishing since he first started in the fishing business, so he asks what is wrong with the lure business?
I tell him our largest customer, a wholesaler who services WalMart, is having some financial difficulties, taking less goods than in previous years and perhaps having some problems with WalMart itself, who, to put it mildly, is a difficult customer. I also explain that some of this wholesaler’s customers went bankrupt this year and that did not help. I go on to explain that overall our two companies, when taken together, had a solid increase for the year, even though the lures were down about 5%. This is because the boat business is the far larger business these days and our increase in the boat business was in the double digits.
Mr. Wang seems happy with this. He says he has some work to do, but he will see us for lunch. We go off to the big conference room. It is a pretty large room, maybe, 30′ X 60′ with a nice open space at one end and a large, mahogany conference table at the other end. We drop our bags on spare seats at the large mahogany table.
Mrs. Zhong and Ms. Wang come into the room. We discuss some general points. What parts of the inflatable business were up this year, what parts were down. In the case of HiFei they have several sections of business. They make small, portable transom boats that take wooden or aluminum floorboards or inflatable drop stitch floors. They make large inflatable rib boats with outside inflatable tubes around a fiberglass or aluminum hull. They make some kayaks and they now make quite a few inflatable Standup Paddleboards.
The transom boat business apparently is enjoying a recovery. It had collapsed because of the economic woes starting in 2008 and because of the recent problems of the Russian ruble. Since their two biggest customers were from Russia, the last several years was a problem for them. It was the more recent problems of the Russian Ruble that had really cut into their business because orders from Russia just ceased to come for about a year and a half. But now, apparently they are seeing some recovery in Russia, and a rise in general, especially for Europe in transom boats. Their kayak business is small and not important, but their Paddleboard business is healthy and growing.
I contrast their experience with theirs, telling them our transom boats sales had been in collapse every since 2008, but we’re enjoying some resurgence, thanks mostly to the Government of India who had ordered 100 transom boats for flood control work this year. Standup Paddleboard sales for us are now down, from a not too impressive total of a 1,000 units a year, fishing boat sales were stable and growing slightly, kayak sales were growing strongly.
So, if our difference experiences did not exactly match, it seemed that both of our companies were doing pretty well in a not so easy marketplace. We go on to discuss where we see the future and where HiFei sees the future. HiFei seems to be thinking that Standup Paddleboards are going to continue to grow, we are somewhat dubious, seeing our own sales hurt by an enormous influx of competition. I say that I think a good place for us is to concentrate on fishing kayaks and fishing SUPs. For this trip, I have sent the, designs of two new products we want them to make…a small fishing kayak and a fairly large fishing SUP. My brother thinks the future will be in the fishing kayak and I think the fishing SUP maybe the better product.
In the conference room, before going to review the two new products, we did go into a detailed report on how the products they made for us have done in the last year and how we think they will do. For the last several years, HiFei had made just two of our fishing boats. A small solo fishing boat and a little bit larger two person boat. Both models had done well, with almost zero defects, and a very high customer satisfaction level. During the year, because of this successful experience, we switched the production of a larger two person fishing boat to them and although we had only sold a 100 of these new fishing boats, we told Mrs. Zhong and Ms. Wang that we were pleased with their quality and with the sales so far.
Because of this experience and in addition to the success with the fishing boats, we also switched the production of another series, the Sea Eagle Explorers to them. By this point in the year, sales had been pretty good, with these models being up 36% for the year. HiFei had made their first production of these kayaks only a couple of months before, so our purchases so far only represented a small portion of our sales of these kayaks this year, roughly two hundred of the one thousand units we had already sold.
At that particular moment, they were making an additional 100 kayaks of a smaller size. Since we had not seen the smaller size kayak or the newer fishing kayak that they were making in the same size, I asked that samples of both be brought up to the conference room along with a sample of the original model they were making it from from – this is to compare and see if indeed the two models are identical. Ms. Wang got on her cell phone, barked a couple orders in Chinese and in about four minutes, three kayaks were brought in by four technicians and were laid out together.
So now we had an original production model kayak that we had sent them and a new production model they and the prototype of new fishing kayak.
The first thing that caught our attention was how good the new fishing kayak looked. This new model featured green EVA foam over the areas that might get punctured. They had decided to use a special green camo pattern and it did look good. Very professional, with sharp colors that I thought would appeal to fishermen everywhere and still look like a serious fishing kayak. But as I looked closer I noticed a couple of other problems.
On both of new kayaks made by HiFei the pontoon tubes were slightly larger than the original tubes and the cut-outs were slightly smaller. The oversized tubes was not a great problem. For our standard whitewater kayak it actually had some advantages. It would be more buoyant and more stable in whitewater because the tubes were larger. For the fishing kayak it would be more stable for fishing and casting, but it would also be slower to paddle on open water. That was because the HiFei kayaks with the wider pontoons were about 3″ wider than the original kayak.
The problem of the smaller floor cut-outs was more serious for the standard kayak, since that model was mostly used for whitewater. The smaller cut-outs in the floor meant that it was hard to reach and unscrew the drain valves where the cutouts were. This is important because you want the drain valves open when you are in whitewater and closed when you are on flat water – so the kayak drains water in white water and is dry on flat water. We discussed and hemmed and hawed over the two problems for about 30 or 40 minutes. Finally, we decided for this production of the 100 units of the standard kayaks being made, we would accept the slightly larger pontoons as long as they corrected the too small cut outs in the floor. They agreed to do and the crisis of the moment passed. That meant that they would have cut out larger cut-outs and remake 100 drop stitch floors. It amazing what you can do with a pair of scissors and some glue in China.
Since the the fishing kayak was only a prototype, the problem of the wider pontoons and the smaller cut-outs could easily be corrected in the actual production.
By this time, the lunch hour had arrived and, in China, as elsewhere, they do stop for lunch. So, we knock on Mr. Wang’s door, he says he will meet us downstairs and we trundle down the marble stairs, go outside and pile into Mrs. Zhong’s Cadillac Escalade SUV. Mr. Wang follows us in a rather exotic looking BMW. Chinese cars are not very popular with owners and managers of Chinese companies. And because cars are relatively new in China, it seems important for Chinese Owners to have very snazzy cars. Two years before Mr. Wang had a LandRover, but maybe that was not sporty enough, so now it is onto the Beamer.
Today, we head out to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. There is fish soup, some pork, some chicken, some Chinese spinach (a favorite of mine). Of course there is rice. Mr. Wang is wanting to know more about the SUP market and so he asks questions about who is the biggest seller, where the majority of SUP products are sold.
I tell him this is not our best expertise since we are more known for kayaks than SUPs. I posit that the market it still growing overall, but because there are many new entries to market, it is very difficult for the individual companies to grow. I tell Mr. Wang, it is the big surfboard companies that have had the best sales – Naisch, Hobie, Starboard and also, strangely, NRS, a company specialized in river running equipment.
Mrs. Zhong says that the market seems to be divided between the low-price sellers and the bigger brand names. I tell her that it is my opinion that is the big brand names, surf companies in particular, who sell the most boards.
After our general SUP market discussion and lunch, we pile into our respective cars and head back to the factory. After lunch, we head down to the factory floor, which is on second floor of the building behind HiFei’s general office and administrative building. There I spot my new fishing SUP. It is a kind of strange design that both Ryan and John are not too sympathetic about.
It takes only a short glance for me decide that this is a good new item. I particularly like the EVA camo foam. Now I have asked them to put green EVA foam on, but they have chosen the same camo pattern they used on our fishing kayak and I like it immediately.
The reason I like it and the reason I am excited is that I can see what it will be. Now, the board we looked at in the factory was not exactly the board you see above. The motor mount – the board at the back – had not been attached and the way it had to be attached had not been decided. We discuss the problem of how to attach motor mount. My original idea was to have 2 grommets (one on each side of the board with a bolt going through plastic dowel inside the grommet on each side.
We try that and immediately I see it is not rigid enough. We try two grommets on each side in front of the board and we find that is not rigid enough. Finally, after pulling out my iPad and drawing various solutions, several of which do not work, we come upon the solution shown above. That is a grommet in front of the board on each side and a grommet behind the board on each side with an inner plastic dowel and bolt and nut going to enclose and secure the motor mount board. It takes about and hour and half of going back and forth to get to this decision.
My brother, though not enthused with particular product, thinks it is interesting and jumps in several good suggestions, some off base, but with one that solves the problem. John’s solution is that is to have a simple grommet front and back of motor mount board. Of course, because these changes take time and implementing them takes more time, we do not actually get to see the solution finished. That is because they have to remove and replace the grommets, change the width of the board, drill large holes in the board, paint it, find the right size bolts and then glue the grommets in place. In truth, we will no get to see the final product for about four weeks, after it has been remade and flown over to us.
The next thing I go about is trying to explain to Mrs. Zhong, Ms. Wang, several of their technicians just how this strange looking board will work. This is a pretty big inflatable SUP – 12′ 6″ long and even stranger, it is 40″ wide. Most SUPs are only 30″ wide, but I wanted the extra width for stability because it is my theory that most fishermen do not want to contend with keeping their balance. Standing is great – you get a much higher line of sight and it is easier to cast. Nevertheless, most anglers do not want to have to worry about falling in while they are casting or pulling in a fish – that is my theory.
I ask where the swivel seat fishing rig is. They produce it after a couple minutes. There it is, still in the box, un-assembled, left untouched after I had sent it to them by air three weeks ago. I guess they figured that I would assemble for them when I got there. They figured right and I did assemble it and the first thing I realized was that my drawing put the 6 D-rings too far apart – in my drawing they are 30″ apart when they should have been 24″ apart. This is unfortunate because now my beautiful swivel fishing cannot be easily tied down. So the first thing I tell them is that in the next prototype they have bring the D-rings closer together. I tell them do not bother with this one because we first need to test on the water anyway. So fix the motor mount and decide to have the existing prototype sent as is.
In the meantime I assemble the swivel seat with the two rod-holders, place it on the fishing SUP and show them how the swivel seat will work after explaining about the D-rings. Suddenly, everyone, my brother and Ryan, Mrs. Zhong, Ms. Wang and the various technicians begin to understand why this may be a good product. Below is a picture not of what it looked like in the factory that day, but a picture of the final prototype before going to production.
When the swivel seat was assembled on the board, my brother John, Ryan, Mrs. Zhong, Ms. Wang and some of the factory technicians began to understand how this strange shaped SUP would work. It was a FishSUP, hence the name, something you could sit on in the swivel chair and fish, something you could stand up and cast and fish from. Something you could paddle and something you could motor with a small electric motor.
I was very happy with the way that the prototype came out. Of course, it still remained to test this craft on the water and see what it could do. Three weeks later, back in States, we did just that and, as I expected, it was very stable, paddled well, was easy to stand or fish, and motored really nicely. Of course, in WeiHai I did not know that. I only knew the prototype looked good to me.
We spent the rest of Thursday afternoon going over the small fishing kayak wandering up and down factory floors and then going over to the other 6 buildings and walking around them. I can tell you after a day of walking up and down concrete or marble steps and all over 8 factory floors, it can become tiring. Nevertheless for me it is always an interesting experience. Since I had not seen these buildings for about two years, it was interesting to see that the half empty, half built buildings I had seen two years ago were now all built and fully used. HiFei, like Woosung, is a company that has grown greatly in the last several years.
Mrs. Zhong says that tonight John, Ryan and myself will go out to dinner with Julian, their French rib sales guy that works from HiFei and Mrs. Zhong and Mr. Wang. Tonight we will be going to a Japanese restaurant. So after our meeting, we pile into Mrs. Zhong’s car and head out to dinner.
This proved to be excellent and a nice compromise between Korean and Chinese meals. We chow down on shrimp, steak, pork, vegetables, oysters, clams, veggies, sitting at a table with a built in griddle with a Chinese Samurai chef standing in front of us slicing, dicing, chopping, flipping knives, cutting up veggies, dumping various spices on them, throwing pepper shakers and other spice shakers in the air, using his knife to shovel food on to the hot metal griddle, chopping food up, down and around and then scooting mini size servings of shrimp, fish, steak, spinach, pork, chicken, or whatever to our small plates.
When these little plates in front of us became to crowded with leftover debris they were swooped away by waiters hanging behind us always ready to replace our dirty empty plate with clean little plates soon piled high with more little servings. During the small intermissions between arriving and departing plates, I get to talk to Julian about the state of the rib business. Julian had originally worked as an Asia sales manager of Penel e Flipo. By a strange coincidence, Penel e Flipo was the second company we imported boats from in France. I remember visiting their office in the seventies many times.
Julian is a young French guy in his late 30s, thin, dark, handsome, with long hair that occasionally flopped over the side of his face. It was Julian’s task to develop inflatable ribs for HiFei, which they sell under the trademark name of Highfield. Originally these ribs were primarily fiberglass hulls using Pennel e Flipo’s legendary hypalon inflatable boat material. Julian has now worked in China for HiFei for 6 years and has concentrated on the development of large aluminum ribs using the same inflatable boat material.
Now a lot of time has passed between my first visit to Penel e Flipo and the time that Julian had worked for the same company, but some things still remained the same. They still were a leading producer of inflatable boat material. At the time I used to visit them, they were supplying of Zodiac’s hull material. Zodiac, at the time, was the most famous inflatable boat company in the world.
How the times have changed. Today Zodiac has gone through many permutations, becoming first and foremost a supplier of military equipment throughout world. The recreational inflatable boat side of the business kind of collapsed, except for the business of selling big ribs to industry and national governments, mostly for rescue and military purposes. Today, Zodiac still exists, but the inflatable boat side of recreational use hardly exists and has been sold off to various corporate players who do not seem to know to do with it.
Anyway I am interested to learn more about building of inflatable ribs. For those of you who do not know, an inflatable rib is a boat inflatable section around a rigid hull. The hull is usually fiberglass and sometimes aluminum. In a way, it is the best of all worlds. You the great ability of rigid boats to cut through large ocean waves combined with the safety of having inflatable section to stabilize it on sharp turns and give inherent buoyancy so you do not sink.
You might think that the inflatable pontoon going around a rigid fiberglass hull is the weakest and most easily damaged part, but you would wrong because it is generally harder to damage inflatable air chambers than a rigid fiberglass hull. Aluminum is something of a different story. It really depends on the thickness of the aluminum being used. If the aluminum is quite thick, it is far stronger than fiberglass. If it is not so thick, then it is susceptible to dings and damage from impacts. Generally an inflatable pontoon can better withstand impacts because they tend to give. That is true as long as the impact is not into a really sharp object. Then, you can have a puncture, but since inflatables usually have multiple air compartments, there is still plenty of flotation left.
So I spend most of the dinner querying Julian on HiFei’s inflatable rib business. This is a growing part of HiFei sales and a part of the business that has become quite significant. We stayed out of this section of the market because we could never figure out how to ship inflatable ribs. Our business is based on selling things over the Internet and shipping them by Fedex or UPS. Selling $50,000 boats, which a rib often costs, is a hard sell on the Internet and shipping 800 to 1500 lb. boats is even harder for FedEx or UPS.
HiFei has been making inflatable ribs for about 1o years. At first they started with fiberglass ribs, but they found out that these could be easily damaged and the competition in that part of the part of the market was fierce. Then they started making aluminum ribs. There was far less competition in that kind of inflatable rib, so they quickly established themselves as the market leader of inflatable boats with aluminum hulls. Julian tells me this is the part of the business that he had the most impact on, having personally helped with the design of these models. Julian likes aluminum ribs over fiberglass ribs because they are far more durable generally and because the competition is far less. In the last few years, they have become the market leader for high end aluminum ribs.
We have a nice conversation between Julian, John, Ryan, Mr. Wang and Mrs. Zhong in between the endless plates of cooked and chopped shrimp, fired eggs and rice, sashimi (raw fish), chicken, steak, pork, fish, vegetables. In short, we did not go hungry and all was delicious at the Teppanyaki restaurant. After dinner, Mrs. Zhong drove us back to our hotel while Julian and Mr. Wang peeled off in there respective cars.
Back at the hotel, we talk a little bit downstairs, plan to go for a group walk down by the river in morning and talk about our upcoming visit to HiFei’s new SUP factory which is located about 30 minutes away. By ten, we are back in our respective rooms. I listen to some Black Eyed Peas to get in the mood for the SUP factory visit and nod off to sleep shortly.
The next day we meet downstairs for our walk around WeHai. The day before Ryan has taken this walk along a river canal that runs through town. He tells us it was very interesting so off we go. After crossing the street from the hotel, we take a right turn, walk two blocks and then come to a stairway that leads down to the river that runs through the city. This river does not have a natural river bed, rather it has a pre-made canal path. How old that path is I have no idea. It could be 50 years, 100 years, 500 years. It sure is pretty with a series of little bridges going over it. So the river flows straight and is about 75 feet wide. I gather it is tidal, or just very shallow. I am thinking it is tidal and it gets a lot deeper when the tide is in, but I do not really know.
As we walk along the river, I am struck by several sights. There seems to be a group of older guys and gals practicing Tai Chi up on hill among some trees. Now we are in the middle of this city with one and half million people, but somehow there is this quite open space with trees on a hill, the city buildings hang in the background, the city sounds can still be heard, but there they are practicing Tai Chi moving in slow motion, in tune with some different reality.
Along the river walk I see a guy with a giant bamboo pole dressed in what looks like a blue suit – it is sashed around the waist, the short is loose, the pants are loose, it is a Kung Fu exercise suit, I guess. I am pretty sure he could take out John, Ryan and myself in one smooth stroke, but he does not and I am grateful for that. Nevertheless, I take care to give the gentleman a wide berth. There is an old lady walking in sneakers, apparently out for a morning jaunt in the city, with chiseled face that looks like it was etched out of a pale white stone. I can see the muscles of her face wriggling and alive, yet there is another reality of her face, it is ancient, out of a different place from a different time.
There are joggers and walkers and one wierd guy who was practicing walking with his arms sideways on a stone wall. The walls have two inset grooves, each about 2″ deep, so there is something to grip upon. And while almost all of the strength needed for this strange sideways crawl is provided by his two arms, I can say that occasionally he uses a foot to stablilize his body when changing hands and more bring himself forward. Imagine a crab in human form scuttling along a wall and then you have the picture of this guy. I can only think that he was in good shape and also another good candidate to give a wide berth to.
We walked briskly along the river for about a mile breathing in the early morning air as the sun was rising and providing its muted glow. Because it is in WeiHai, China, of course there is no direct view of blue sky. Rather there is a gray hazy overhead with a dim sun providing the fact that it existed, at least in the background of the gray, yellow haze. WeiHai residents are out by the river by the hundreds. This is a vibrant and beautiful Chinese city, pollution aside, and the residents of WeiHai are taking full advantage of their beautiful city this early morning.
Just about then Ryan said follow him and we took a sharp left up a narrow stone walkway. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the middle of a farmer’s market right in the middle of the city. And this farmer’s market had everything one could want, raw oysters, cut up goat legs, alive and bustling scorpions ready for frying, blankets, radios, computers, live chickens, silkworms ready for whatever, wrapped crabs for Longshan Lake, lobsters, dogs, Chinese vegatables, Chinese fruits, WeiHai apples and much much more.
We walked through this market, amazed and thrilled and maybe a little horrified, by what we saw, but it was all there, and it was all Chinese and John, Ryan and myself were happy we took that stroll. The rest of the walk was rather prosaic, walking again on city streets, threading our way through the throngs of people now on the next few blocks, nevertheless, over the course of the walk I had the feeling that we had walked in and walked out of the real China. The walk itself was quite invigorating and even the somewhat polluted air felt good.
At the hotel, we went back to our rooms, showered and prepared for the new day to come. This was the day that we going to the SUP factory, so bang on time, Mrs. Zhong showed up with Ms. Wang, aka, Shirley. We piled in and off we went. The trip to the SUP factory was in a different direction and it took a good 50 minutes to get there. We drove by hills and valleys, mostly filled with WeiHai apple trees which were in the process of being picked and loaded to mini-moped trucks. As the trucks would put along for about 200 feet to where a real truck was parked and then the apples were off-loaded from mini-moped trucks to real trucks. It was October in WeiHai.
In a short time, we pulled up to the new SUP factory. This was an interesting visit for me because I had visited this same factory two years ago and at that time it unfinished. They did have little area in the factory then that was up and running, but most of the factory was either empty or not operating. When we arrived this day all had changed. I could see, even from the outside, that all had changed. There was a testing pool outside, now empty, but I presume it was full a month or so before. I not sure what they would learn from this testing pool. It looked about two feet deep and seemed to about 30′ X 70′. I would guess by the second or third stroke your board would be crashing on the other end.
The most visible evidence of this was the multitude of workers walking and milling around outside. Apparently, they were on some kind a break and 30 or 40 people are talking and milling around outside, some sitting, some playing some basketball around the one hoop they had standing watch over the factory yard.
It was evident that there were more people inside and that activities were going on. We went in, put on the regulations shoe covers to protect against dust in the factory. We were then given a kind of tour. Walking through the factory floors (there were several), looking at cutting machines, printing machines and various inflatable SUP manufacturing equipment, almost all of which busy producing SUPs for various customers. Mrs. Zhong explained that they had enjoyed substantial growth this last year. In particular, they were having good luck with both large and small customers in Europe.
We wandered up and down stairs, from one floor to another. We watched some of the workers putting together seams, a difficult hand gluing process that must be done with great care with both the humidity and temperature (F) between 60 and 75. We watched their printing machine as it spewed out hundreds of side panels with different customers names on it. We watching drop stitch material being cut into pre-programmed patterns. We walked past several hundred inflatated SUPs as they were being checked for air tightness. We walked around new and different designs they were working on.
I could see that everything had been changed and the factory was now up running. Mrs. Zhong explained how they were going to have to move their present factory – the one we had visited yesterday – to another location. Perhaps, she said they would move the factory to this location. They were waiting to hear from the local Chinese authorities just when they would have to move. The city of WeiHai was planning a whole new city right where their present factory was. Perhaps, tomorrow, Mrs. Zhong would take us to a museum that had been setup to show the plans of this new city.
I explained that John and Ryan probably could not go since they were going to visit another factory the next day, but I said that I love to go and se the plans for the new city.
As usual the drive to SUP factory and the tour of the SUP had taken more time than anticipated. We drove back around 2:30 in the afternoon and Mrs. Zhong took us to a new mall in WeiHai where we went to a fancy restaurant that served lunch in pots. This ended up being a mixture of foods, kind of part soup, part meat, part fish, all lunch. It proved to be delicious.
After lunch, Mrs. Zhong gave us a choice. We could head back to factory for more talk or she could drop us off at the hotel for some well-deserved rest. We opted for the well-deserved rest and even wimped out on an invite to dinner, saying that we would get something at the hotel and take the night off. And that is what we did.
Now the next day Ryan and John were headed to another factory that had invited us to visit. I opted to go HiFei to have what we call a wrap-up meeting. All of us decided to crash early and meet the next day at 7am in the lobby for a morning walk. It was not to be. When I got up, I could see it poring rain. So that morning I took the picture that is at the front of this blog story, did some exercises in the room, went downstairs for breakfast and met Mrs. Zhong around 9:30 am for the wrap up meeting.
We drove off to the factory while Ryan and John headed out to the other factory. I had a nice wrap up meeting with Ms. Wang and Mrs. Zhong, going over final changes to the next production, changes to the two prototypes and reviewing our hopes for the coming year. It was all pretty straight forward stuff and pretty soon it was lunchtime.
On the way to lunch, Mrs. Zhong me took to a museum that was displaying architect plans and a scale mockup of the new city the Government officials were planning to create in the next five years. By chance, one of HiFei’s former employees was working at this museum, so Mrs. Zhong called and they let us in. It seems the museum was not quite open to the public, we got a sneak peek anyway.
A lonely guard comes to the door of museum, let’s us in, leads us to a giant room where the mock up of the new city is and then turns on the video, so I can get the full impact of what is going to happen here in the next 5 years. Of course, the video is in Chinese, but from the pictures and from the mock up I can see this is going to be a big deal. Not only are they planning apartment building, shopping malls, restaurants, bars, they are also planning lakes, rivers and boating marinas and, like many a Chinese highway, all this area will be “gardenized.” That means they plan to landscape and pre plan everything, including, bushes, lawns, hedges.
This may seem normal to you, but you have not seen the area surrounding the museum where they plan to put up this new city. It is not exactly finished. Here’s a view of some of the surrounding area with some of the first buildings going up.
The lone guard in the museum is very kind while I wander around, taking pictures with my cell phone, asking Mrs. Zhong questions about the new city. He decides he wants to have my picture taken with him. So Mrs. Zhong takes a picture with his cell phone of me and the guard, arm in arm. He seems generally happy that someone has taken interest is the new city he is standing guard over. I am guessing he has been a little lonely in his new job, standing guard over a museum that is yet to open.
After seeing the video and wandering through the new museum, Mrs. Zhong and I went off to Koreatown for lunch. I should explain that WeiHai is quite close to Korea and so there is a large contingent of Korean companies in WeiHai. This includes Woosung, our Korean supplier who also has a factory here. So, Mrs. Zhong takes me in here Cadillac Escalade SUV to Koreatown to have a Korean barbecue. We had a nice lunch, chatted for a while about the changes coming in China and then she drove me over to the hotel where I would get a welcome another break. This is my last full day in China. Tomorrow, I fly back to Korea and then the day after fly back to The States.
Mrs. Zhong dropped me off around 4pm and said she would be back by 7 to pick all of us up for dinner. When I get back, I head up to my room to rest and gradually gather my stuff for the next day’s ride to the airport. Pretty soon I get a call in the room from Ryan, telling me they have returned and to me meet downstairs in the lobby. I head down, my bag almost fully packed and ready for the next day’s flight, and talk with Ryan. Apparently, they have had an interesting meeting. The supplier they met is promising to make SUPs for a far lower price than we currently buy.
This is a common softy in China. You meet a new supplier and often their price is very low. It is also a danger sign because often it is just a lot wall price to pull you in. Often a new company will actually sell goods at a loss, on the theory that once they get you, they can raise the price at a few production runs. But we have seen this before and I am concerned that the new price is just a come-on. Anyway, Ryan and myself and eventually John sit in the lobby discussing the ins and outs of new suppliers in China.
At 7 promptly the Escalade rolls up and we are whisked downtown.
Tonight we are heading to Chairman’s Mao’s favorite restaurant. The name of the restaurant is the The Great Wall. I do not know if it actually was Chairman Mao’s favorite restaurant but it definitely dates back to the time of civil revolution in China and the time of Chairman Mao. I have been to this restaurant several times in my visits to WeiHai. It is an old style restaurant from the Communist era. You could say that China is still in the Cummunist Era since they are still in power, but I would suggest that there have been so many changes since the time of Chairman Mao that it is in fact a different country. I may or may not be right about this.
In any case, the Chairman Mao restaurant is interesting in itself. You come in on the ground floor where you order your dinner before going upstairs to receive it. On the ground floor various kinds of food are on offer. Fresh seafood is kept in 3 concrete boats. Fish, eels, lobsters and many other kinds of living seafood is on offer. Next to the open boats with water and live seafood in them are platforms loaded with other different kinds of seafood, this time not moving. So on these platform tables were wrapped crabs, lobsters, clams, chilling on ice, ready to be cooked. Around the outer walls of this room are selection of meats and vegetables. The way all this works is the a waiter comes up and talks to someone to gives orders. In this case, the waiter ends up talking to both Mrs. Zhong and Mr. Wang while we wander from boat to boat, table to table, and the outer perimeter of the room. We are not so certain what to pick. It is kind of like Pin the Donkey where you throw darts blind-folded and you hits what you hits.
So we pick and choose, pointing to various kinds of food we think we might like. We are somewhat at a disadvantage because we do not actually know what we are picking out. In some cases, of course, various kinds of fish, swimming or laying out on an iced tray, are easy enough to get an idea of, but there are also a lot of things that either we have no idea about what it is or no idea of what it might taste like. In the end, we have to lean on our hosts, Mr. Wang and Mrs. Zhong.
After picking and choosing what we might like, we go upstairs and are lead into a room. Mr. Wang is not very happy with the room because he does not find it suitably big enough, but there is no helping the situation. It seems that all the bigger rooms are occupied. Chairman Mao’s favorite restaurant is very popular this evening. Tonight, not only Mr. Wang and Mrs. Zhong are present, but also Miss Wang and three other workers. One of the workers is the production manager, another is specialized in marketing and a third is a technician working on making new prototypes. Two or three waiters arrive bringing food and drink for the table. So with John, Ryan and myself we are a group of 8. And while the room could be bigger, it easily fits all of us.
We start out simple with peanuts (not so easy to pick up with chopsticks), veggies, some fish, some bits of pork, some fried scorpions (ah, so tasty and crispy). It gets more complicated from there with waiters bringing more and more servings to our room. This kind of feasting is very popular in China with those who can afford it and it is pretty obvious, Mr. Wang can afford it. So we dig in big, battling our way through plates of oysters, fish, steak, chicken, pork, Chinese spinach, and lots of other vegetables and servings of things I cannot quite identify. It is big, glorious Chinese feast and we go with the flow.
Our conversation covers many points. We discuss SUP design…the prototype manager and the productive and production manager are surprised that I, an old man, am using a drawing program and an iPad to make designs. Yes, I tell them. Originally, I taught myself to make drawings on a graph pad where I gave a measurement to one square, for example 6″. This would allow me to draw and calculate the exact dimensions of some future product. However, drawing with a pencil on graph paper is pretty slow and not very beautiful the way I did it. So, about 5 years ago, when I got an iPad, I also invested $8.99 in drawing program called iDraw. That was an Apple product and while a lot less sophisticated than Adobe, it was simple enough for me to learn and actually produce drawings that not only looked better, but were very accurate regarding dimensions.
So I explain all this to the prototype and production managers. It all seems very strange to them, an older man making drawings on an iPad.
“Who does your website,” asks the marketing manager, “we all admire your website.”
I explain that John does that and he started the website in 1996. In other words, 20 years ago. That seems like an impossibly long time to the HiFei technicians to have had a website.
John comes in on the conversation. He goes through the fact that we did not even have an order cart when first went online – all we had was an 800 number to call if you had any questions. He relates how we were surprised to find out that we had sold over $50,000 the first year. Then it dawned on us maybe it would be a good idea to have an order cart. We still worried, John related, whether anyone would use the order cart, especially at night. And then when we found out that most of the orders came at night, we finally realized that this had the makings of a business.
All the HiFei guys listened although they did not understand a word of English. Then Mrs. Zhong or Mr. Wang would translate what John said. This started a spirited discussion between all the HiFei people who seemed to discuss and argue about Web based marketing. The HiFei marketing guy, who was pretty young, was very enthusiastic about Web marketing. Then the conversation drifted on to e-mail marketing.
We had a discussion that some things were not possible in China since China had basically either outlawed or blocked most American social media. We explained that we thought YouTube, Facebook, WordPress, InstaGram all offered great ways to get information out on your products to your customers, but that could not be done in China because all were blocked.
I explained that when you looked at our website in China whole portions of it was missing. All the videos linked to YouTube, for example were just missing.
In fact, I pointed out rather cutely that if you want to seewhat our website actually looks like you have to go to Spain. This was actually a clever reference to the fact that Mr. Wang and Mrs. Zhong had just come back from Spain. So then Mrs. Zhong came, in on the conversation and began to relate what our website looked like when she was in Spain.
The three HiFei workers seemed very surprised to learn that various parts of our website were blocked in China.
Anyway, our feasting and conversation carried on for a good two hours and I felt good about it because we got to know each other better. I was particularly struck by the enthusiasm of all the workers. Our conversation drifted over many topics…the economy of China, the U.S. Presendential election coming up…I again prediicted Trump would win. We talked about life in China, the high prices of real estate, the never ending building of new cities and the never ending thrust of China into the future.
During the conversation I showed some pictures from home. Mr. Wang looked at some my pictures showing blue skies and open beaches and just said in English one word “Unbeleivable.”
I knew what he was talking about: what was unbelievable to him was our blue skies and the open waterways that we had access to. You see in WeiHai they rarely have blue skies…most of the time the sky was a yellowish gray. It often looked like it was about to rain. Sometimes, it was about to rain. But many times were no clouds in the sky to rain out of…just a dull yellowish gray.
Now WeiHai and the surrounding area are quite beautiful. The city itself has a strange European influence since it was occupied by Germans and, at times, English. They left some European style buildings that still stand. And some newer buildings also echo that style of architecture. The city is quite pleasant with wide streets and a wonderful road that passes a long waterfront park. The city is full of optimism. An example of that is a statue of two hands holding a concrete picture frame that might be 15′ high by 30′ wide. The picture frame is open and before you is the Yellow Sea stretching out into the distance. The future is wide open and for every citizen to make, that’s what I think the statue says.
And there are beaches and places you where you take a boat. I can vouch for that because we have tested boats in WeiHai on several occasions. Still the beaches in China are mostly crowded, the highways full of traffic and the sky a yellowish gray.
After dinner, we shook hands with Mr. Wang, Mrs. Zhong, Ms. Wang, and three other HiFei employees and Mrs. Zhong ferried us back to our hotel room. That evening I listened to some Elvis Presley and to Michael Kawanuka in my room. I was getting to really like Michael. My trip was coming to end. In the morning I only had to worry about getting to airport, getting on plane to Incheon, spending the night at the Grand Hyatt at Incheon Airport and then, finally taking a business class flight the next day back to JFK.
It sounded simple, but it turned out, like Odysseus, there were a few twist and turns to take before my final arrival home.
So all went well the next morning, at least until I got to the airport. Mrs. Zhong showed up around 9am to drive me to the airport. We had an exhilarating talk on the way to the airport, going over the different points of our meeting, the possible business ahead, the state of China’s economy, why she thought HiFei was positioned to grow in the future, why there were so many apples on a WeiHai apple tree (it turned out Mrs. Zhong had no idea – it is just that they always had a lot of apples), and several other topics before dropping me off at the front entrance of the airport.
Inside, things did not go quite as planned. It turned out they were not going to open my gate to accept passengers for an hour. After an hour passed, the gate did open and I filed in, presenting what I thought was my passport to a rather sleepy looking Chinese guard. I went in and found out that I had to wait another hour for China Eastern airline customers to present their passports and tickets. So, after the allotted hour, I waited in another line, happily talking to some German guy who was also flying to WeiHai. He was ahead of me and he got stopped for having a suitcase with more than 50 lbs. of stuff in it. He got thrown off of the line while he had took out his excess clothes and had to carry them in separate laundry bag. I felt sorry for him and self-satisfied for myself, since I knew about this regulation and planned my baggage accordingly.
Then I confidently walked to the ticket counter, handed the pretty Chinese girl my passport and my e-ticket papers. She started scanning the computer and a frown passed over her serene face. She could not find my name on the passenger list. I confidently pointed to my e-ticket papers and that was when she said “I do not understand, your name does not match your e-ticket.”
It was then she passed back my passport. The only then that I discovered that it was not my passport. It was my brother’s passport. I do not know if I can impart the shock and awe I felt when saw my brother picture and name on what I thought was my passport. Let’s just say I was not a happy camper. It meant, quite literally, that I could not leave China.
I did not take long for me to figure out what had happened. When I had checked into the Bliss Hotel four days before that lady who gave back my brother’s passport and my passport, simply reversed the order and gave my brother’s passport to me and my passport to my brother. It did not help that neither my brother nor I thought to look at the passports being handed back to us to see if indeed they belonged to us. I will not make that mistake again.
Unfortunately, that still left me on the line wit wrong passport. I now had to make way for the German passenger who had now replaced his bag and he, quite justly, had the same look of sad contempt at watching fellow passenger fail in the ins and outs of international travel. So, I had to turn around go back through where had come, explain to the sleepy guard who did not speak English that I needed to get into the airport. That is not as simple as it sounds because technically I had already passed through the first barrier out of China. Fortunately, another guard, not so sleepy, came over and waved me back through.
Back in China, I then had to call my brother. His phone did not answer. I then tried Ryan. Fortunately, his phone did answer. I explained plight and told Ryan that I not only needed to get John to bring my passport, but I needed John to get me a new flight to Incheon, since by this time, it was obvious that I would miss my flight.
Well, as they say, it darkest before the dawn. I settled in to the Airport Restaurant, munching down some kind soup stew – not so easy with chopsticks – fortunately, they also provided a spoon. In due course, I got another phone call from Ryan saying that my brother had booked a new flight for me, this one for 5pm on Asiana Airlines and that they would be at the airport and hour or so. They had to be at the airport because they were flying on to Shanghia and certainly John would need his passport just as much as I needed mine.
After more Chinese stew soup and several cups of green tea, Ryan and my brother did arrive, John and I did exchange passports and, in due course, after waiting a couple of more hours for the flight gate to open up, I did go through. The ticket lady at Asiana was polite and there were no problems with my passport or my bag and so it was not too long before I was actually on a plane headed to Korea. Of course, being on plane is not necessarily the same flying plane. It turned out that there were traffic problems at Incheon Airport, so we were not allowed to take off for about two hours.
Anyway, the Asiana flight going was far better than the China Eastern coming – all 35 minutes of it, not counting the two hour wait on the Tarmac. Going through Korean customs was pretty smooth, getting on the Grand Hyatt bus to hotel was relatively easy and by about 9:30 pm I was actually in my room. That left me about a half hour to go downstairs and get hamburger – I was due and after, I was now at a place that I could was almost home, ensconced in big hotel in big airport a mere 14 hours from home.
After dinner I wandered around the big hotel to get an idea of the facilities. You never know when you might passing through Incheon so I thought it would be a good idea to reconnoiter. Most of the hotel was empty. Restaurants, bars, stores, all were closed or empty. I passed by a Casino. It too was empty. Enough of that, I thought. I went back to my room and set up my speaker and listened to some old Eagles’ music about the Dalton Brothers. Two men come to town, only only one man leaves, something like that. I was almost back in the States.
I will not bore you with many details of the rest of the trip. It was pretty routine. I woke on time, I got to the airport on time. I got on the plane on time and I landed on time. In a mere 14 hours I flew 8,000 miles and landed at JFK. There I was greeted by Julio, the limo driver, who ferried me through the heavy traffic, even though it was only about 12:30 pm. In less than two hours, I was home. Home with my wife and son. It was good to be back.
In looking at this blog story, I realize it is my longest. And yet, the last half of this story is devoted to one my shortest overseas trips. I guess it a good thing that I did not try to describe a long trip. Ryan and John, by the way, continued on for another seven days, doing the second leg of the trip that I would normally go on.
I believe travel changes you and travel changes your perspective. I think Benjamin Franklin was right – you see more and do more when you travel. More importantly, you see things and hear things that you never would otherwise. And if Mr. Franklin is right that travel greatly extends and enriches your life, then I have lived 5 or 10 times longer than most humans.