“Never did the world make a queen of a girl who hides in houses and dreams without traveling.” – Roman Payne
Last week we were in Central America. No luck there. This week we head to Asia. We are almost, but not quite finished with our around-the-world- journey in search of a reliable, reasonably priced shirt manufacturer for our ever-evolving custom logo shirt business. My Grandmother used to like to say “Life is simple. People complicate it.” Was I unnecessarily complicating things?
By the way, Roman Payne, author of this week’s quote, is a very interesting guy. A novelist and poet who writes a great deal about travel. In January 2018, he was released from a two-year detention in Morocco and returned to his native Seattle. This was after a 20-year total voyage modeled on the travels of his hero, Odysseus. This is what he said about his return to Seattle:
“It’s a hallucinatory experience coming here. After two years in one of the world’s poorest countries—to come here to this technologically-advanced, and socially-advanced wonderland. The people here seem like a completely different species.”
Pakistan – Lahore
By 2004 there was essentially no such thing as a US based textile industry anymore. At the time there was a lot of buzz about what was happening with garments in Pakistan, so I reached out to a college friend who lived there. With his family, he too was in the textile business, though in a much bigger way than I was. He recommended a company in his hometown of Lahore. Lahore is an ancient city that was split right down the middle when India was partitioned in 1947 and The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was created. It is the cultural center of the region, and its divided history is reflected in the fact that it was the location for both the Declaration of Indian Independence as well as the resolution calling for the establishment of Pakistan.
Being Jewish, I was wary of going to Pakistan, but my friend assured me it would be OK and that he would personally guarantee my safety to my family. I thought that sounded a little melodramatic when he said it, but I thought, “OK, I have no real idea what goes on over there. I’ll take that as insurance.”
I understood it all a little more clearly when I walked off the plane at the Lahore airport and his driver was literally standing at the foot of the stairs of the plane. His car was on the actual tarmac, just a few feet away. “Do you have a luggage ticket?” he asked me. I gave it to him and he led me to his car. A few minutes later we drove off the tarmac and out of the airport and 15 minutes later I walked into my friend’s house. He showed me to my room, and there was my luggage waiting for me.
Such was my introduction to how things worked in Pakistan.
Lahore is a breathtakingly beautiful city much of which was built from thin red bricks about the same length, but a quarter of the height and thickness of a typical American brick. It was great to reconnect with my friend and his family, many of whom I had met in the US. You could see signs of growth and progress all around the city and my friend talked about his family’s growing interests, expanding from textiles to real estate and other investments. It felt like a city on the move. Seven times a day, where ever you were, you heard the echoing call to prayer. Things stopped, and people prayed. From being in Lahore, I was conscious of the newness of The United States and how compared to how long Lahore has been around, 200 years is not very old at all.
Nothing happened to make me feel threatened, but I was always on my guard. My friend lived in a modest home, but his home was walled off from the street and he had armed guards on duty at all times. It didn’t feel like a social war zone, though, like it had in Peru or El Salvador, so the underlying danger of the place was felt in a subtler way. On Sunday we walked in a nearby park. There were many people strolling and I felt reasonably comfortable. But It was hard to forget the fact that if the people that I was passing on the street knew I was Jewish, many would not be OK with that. The US still had pretty good relations with Pakistan at the time, but they were deteriorating. At a dinner, some of my friend’s friends challenged me on the recent US invasion of Iraq. “What right did the US have?” they asked. It was not a subject I was qualified or inclined to debate and did my best to deflect the discussion. I knew I had to be very careful.
The factory itself was clean and reasonably modern. All the people were very accommodating and pleasant. Interestingly, the actual sewing was mostly done by men. In Muslim Pakistan, men and women did not work together. We all got along, and the quality and prices were pretty good. We worked with that factory in Lahore for a couple of years. Not unlike with our US experience, quality and deliveries were not perfect. They were doing their best, and we were doing our best, but between the two of us, we just weren’t as good at planning and executing as we needed to be, and things felt like they were always just on the edge of being completely out of control. Our relationship was based on a lot of trust. They shipped us containers, we paid them. Sometimes there was problem with production. Sometimes we needed a little more time to pay. Sales and production ebbed and flowed, and we generally had either too much, or not enough product. Considering the many challenges, the relationship really did work pretty well. The country was getting more militant, though and increasingly unstable. It eventually got to the point where I didn’t feel I could go back.
We had some meetings in Dubai to try to work out some things, but trust was starting to wane. Dubai was another amazing place that I was able to see a very interesting side of. I had another friend from school who was wheeling and dealing over there and what a world he lived in! Boy was the money flowing back then. This was before the Great Recession and there was a building boom in Dubai unlike the world had ever seen. At one point I think they were using something like 90% of the world’s building cranes! We had a couple of pretty wild nights in Dubai, but ultimately, regarding Pakistan, it became clear it wasn’t a good long-term strategy to do business in a country I was not comfortable visiting which was quickly veering out of the orbit of the international community.
India – Tiruppur
We had ceased our US sourcing a few years earlier, but I had stayed in touch with some of our old suppliers. One day, one of our old cut-and-sew contractors reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in seeing what he was doing in India. As it turned out, he was working with the guy who made the original Lacoste shirts in North Carolina before those factories closed. It was so interesting to see how people adapt to change! This was the exact same guy who made the first shirts we ever sold.
For those of you who missed some of the earlier blog posts, when I was in college I had a friend whose father was a salesman for a few of the big textile mills in North Carolina. Lacoste was one of his accounts and he was selling a lot of production to them.
For his expenses, instead of giving him money, my friend’s Father gave him “slightly irregular” Lacoste shirts. My friend was new to the US, having grown up in Rhodesia, in Africa. He had come to New York to go to school when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe (another African connection!). He didn’t know anyone and knew even less about what these alligator shirts were all about. I had friends at schools all over the country and we sent them these shirts to sell on their campuses. We had a nice little thing going, but the limits were obvious. “Wouldn’t it be great” I thought, “if you could get that same great shirt with any logo or design you wanted.”
Oh, how the world turns! Now the guy who made those original shirts – he was an almost mythic figure back in those first days – was now trying to win my business! It really didn’t mean much in the greater scheme of things, but when I put all these pieces together, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I felt like in some small way, I had arrived. Plus, at the very least, I could be confident he knew how to make the shirt!
One of the many amazing things about India was how incredibly friendly and welcoming the Indian people are. All the Indian vendors we met really knew how to make a buyer feel special! The people in Pakistan were very nice, but they were extremely practical and stuck to business. In that way, they were very similar to our US suppliers. The Indians seemed to understand service in an entirely different way. I came to learn that amongst each other, they were extremely distrustful, but with Americans in particular, they were very eager to do business. After much training in keeping one’s guard up, and trying not to reveal too much, the Indian way of honesty and transparency took some getting used to, complicated by the Indian custom of moving one’s head from side to side when one agrees or is trying to be agreeable, which is the way most of the rest of the world signals disagreement or displeasure. How did that happen!?
Being the cynical (ex) New Yorker that I was at the time, at first, I did question the sincerity of the Indians we worked with. I quickly came to trust, however, that the behavior was genuine. To this day, just about every Indian I have met has been an extraordinarily nice, and caring person. They have also been very hardworking and love technology, but also have a very spiritual side and an uncanny ability to keep things in the proper perspective. The Indians we have worked with over the years have been very ambitious, but ultimately it was never just about the money. It was a very nice change to begin working in that environment. I learned a great deal from it, and it has made me a much better businessman and person. I hope this is not a quality that gets sacrificed at the altar of globalization and progress.
Much of the knit textile business in India is centered in the Southern part of the country around a town called Tiruppur. In our first visit there around 2006, it was still a very poor area, and the factories were not modern. Elephants, cows and chickens roamed through the dirt streets and people got around on foot or sometimes on motor bike.
Billy and Hayward, my American contacts, were running production in India the same basic way we had run it in the US. They bought yarn, had it knit at one factory, dyed and finished at another, and then cut and sewn at a third. That was a difficult process to manage in the US, where roads were paved, and the electricity stayed on 24 hours. It was a little tougher in Tiruppur, where untouchable, sacred elephants often blocked the muddy streets.
Through an endlessly evolving series of connections and relationships, Billy and Hayward kept production going in and around Tiruppur and did a great job for us. There were still issues on an almost regular basis, but they primarily managed them, and considering the length and breadth of our manufacturing journey, we had made considerable progress. It was the most consistently high quality and dependable results we had achieved to date.
On our next trip to India, about a year and a half later, you could recognize the old Tiruppur, but barely. The roads were now mostly paved, many more cars and motorbikes were starting to jam things up, and a few glass buildings – mostly banks and auto dealerships – were sprouting up. The hotels were cleaner, had better food and reasonably reliable Internet. More factories had also opened, and many of them were very modern, well maintained, and were being run with an environmental and social consciousness that was obvious. This was my first view of industry as a potential source for more than just economic good in the world. From all the other factories I had seen over the years, I understood that wages were the most important economic development component of the process, but to see the Indian entrepreneurs valuing the work environment, health and education of their workers as well as the environmental impact of all they were doing was a real eye-opener. What made them so smart? They were not doing it just to impress their customers. Could business really be done differently, and better?
India, Tiruppur and the world was changing before our eyes. The speed and breadth of the change was dramatic and, in many ways, took your breath away. And things were speeding up. Keeping up was not going to be easy.
India, Tiruppur, Part Two
And then, just like that, the whole thing shut down. Despite all the progress, apparently many of the Tiruppur dyers had not updated their waste treatment processes sufficiently. Dying is a very difficult process. It traditionally uses a great deal of water, and the waste is very difficult to clean. It is almost impossible to do economically in an environmentally friendly way. There are sites around our office in North Carolina that are still trying to clean up dying related environmental problems from 25+ years ago. The government in Tiruppur had shut down the non-compliant dyers and despite the history of rampant corruption, on this matter, no one was budging. We could get material knit, cut and sewn, but we couldn’t get anything dyed. The environmental bird had come home to roost.
And yet once again, we got lucky. Without our knowing anything about it, around this time a long-time but very small customer of ours in Chicago had lunch with his friend, Rajiv. Knowing Rajiv was in the business, he started bragging about his Queensboro shirt. “You should really get in touch with these guys” our customer told Rajiv, “They are great to work with and make a really high-quality product.”
Rajiv, who also had factories around Tiruppur called me and immediately apologized for bothering me. He very rarely called new customers, he explained, because he was so busy with his existing ones. He told me about his lunch with our customer, and more out of a courtesy to him than anything, he wanted to reach out.
I had never heard such a laid-back sales pitch!
As it turned out, he called at a good time. Not only was our production stuck, we had very little hope or options to unstick it any time soon.
“I know” he said when I explained the situation to him. “All of our competitors are really struggling with that right now. Fortunately, we own one of the few certified dye houses in the area that have been able to continue working.”
It turned out that not only did Rajiv’s family own a dye house, but they also did their own knitting and cut and sew. This was always a huge plus. Rajiv was excited about our business because we basically ran the same product, with little change, repeatedly. That is a garment factory owner’s dream! No changing hem lines and hot and cold colors in our business!
Rajiv’s father, who had started the business, had come to the US to study engineering when he was younger and worked in the US for many years after he graduated. Rajiv grew up in Chicago, where he now lived full time when he wasn’t in India. He got his BA and MBA in the Midwest and was as American as I was. He was a huge Chicago Bulls fan, and loved the fact that we were in Wilmington, NC, The GOAT Michael Jordan’s home town. He said he couldn’t wait to visit us!
His family factories were not brand new, but they were very clean and well lit. His Father had designed a very innovative waste water treatment process at their dyeing factory, the effectiveness of which was proven by a grove of palm trees planted on factory property. If any of the trees died, they knew the process wasn’t working. They took great pride in the health of these palms. They all looked great.
On our third trip to the area to visit Rajiv’s factories, we saw even more progress. We were able to stay in a 5-star hotel, ate great Chinese food, and rode in brand new cars. Everything was fully air conditioned. We couldn’t have been more comfortable. Rajiv and his team were the best yet to work with. We had a few issues with dye consistency and deliveries but were easily able to work through anything.
China – Be Careful of the Plum Wine.
To this day, we continue to work with Rajiv and his family and are very happy with the relationship. As the company has grown, our sourcing has expanded and while we were always wary of making polos or t shirts in China, we did start making some jackets, button downs and hats there and went over to take a look.
By the time we visited China, around 2010, the country was well on its way to becoming the colossus it has become. Arriving first in Hong Kong, and then going to Shanghai, the sheer size of those cities, filled as they were with very busy people and huge buildings, was overwhelming. When we were there, Shanghai alone had 24 million people. Google tells me they are now up to 26.5 million.
While Chinese apparel quality and reliability was never considered the best, the fact that the prices were always so low, and their ability and willingness to do just about anything so extreme, they never really got pushed too hard on the relationship side of things. That, of course, is a somewhat roundabout way of saying they were never all that nice, which was our experience. Communications could be difficult at times. It is said that there is never a problem communicating with a Chinese factory until there is a problem with an order. It is just a question of time with any factory until there is a problem with an order. You can’t go to China or do business with China without being in awe of China. It’s just massive but still seems to function. It’s a scary place less for what it is, than for what it might become. Is it possible to control all those people? It doesn’t seem like it could be, but they are apparently trying very hard. It’s a different vision of progress than what I have seen in my other travels. I am hopeful the more humanistic view will prevail. They fought hard for, earned and delivered on the business they have won, so for that they deserve a lot of credit.
We did have some very interesting meals in China, and two were particularly memorable. The first was a lunch with a particularly non-communicative factory owner near the city of Ningbo which is a garment center about an hour outside of Shanghai. The restaurant was in a traditional Chinese inn. There were many carp swimming in a little pond under a bridge heading into the restaurant.
We were told the area was famous for its local plum wine. Not wanting to be the bad guests, we tried it. It was ok and didn’t taste too strong. We had another glass. We also tried most of the other local specialties we were offered, some of which were vaguely recognizable, but a few of which weren’t.
Many of the meals we had in China were served on a Lazy Susan – a big platter that spins on the table that makes it easy to pass dishes. We were using one at the inn, and at one point a particularly unappetizing looking dish was soon spun in front of me. “Were those huge cockroaches?” I immediately thought. “Maybe they were prawns.” My mind started to race “Were they seeing if I would eat them? Was it a joke?”
I tried to play it cool and bide my time. I looked at the dish again, and then at my Sourcing Manager who was travelling with me. Our eyes met and there was a flash of understanding. “Are you seeing what I am seeing here?” my eyes said to him. “Yes, and good luck with this one, Boss” his eyes were saying back to me. The plum wine had hit us. Hard. We both started giggling. Soon, we were completely out of control. We couldn’t really laugh because it wasn’t that kind of a thing. That would have been much easier. All we could manage was a high pitched, awful sounding giggling.
I could feel the tears start to come. They were not tears of joy. We were both struggling with every ounce of strength in our bodies to gain some measure of composure. It was impossible. Our hosts were dead pan cold faced. Neither betrayed one ounce of emotion. They continued to eat as if we were not literally dying right there in front of them. Of course, that only made it worse. We saw them sitting there, apparently totally oblivious to us, and we just giggled more.
I don’t know how we stopped. Eventually we did, though, and no one ever said anything about it. We finished our meals in silence. I definitely needed a drink after that, but I wasn’t drinking any more plum wine. We never did any business with that factory. I am sure they tell stories about us to this day.
The second memorable meal in China was the breakfast buffet at the Hotel Shangri-la, in Shanghai. President Obama stayed at the Shangri-la when he visited China. I think it was a good choice. It was a really nice hotel, in a great area, and it had great views of the old city from across the river.
The best thing about the Shangri-La was that it was only about $135 a night, and that included the breakfast buffet. I have been out to Las Vegas a couple of times since then and have seen some impressive buffets, but to this day, I have never seen anything that compared to this. I think there were 7 big rooms of food, each dedicated to a different region of the world. They had sections for South America, Central America, Japan, Korea, Russia, all the different countries of Europe including Scandinavia. It was exhaustive in its scope, and all of it was good.
Thankfully, each dish had a sign in front of it, so we knew exactly what we were eating. That was a welcome relief. The buffet alone was worth the price of the room. We stayed there a couple of nights, and what a contrast it was to those early sourcing trips. I thought back to the run-down Motel 6 we stayed at in my first sourcing trip to North Carolina, and the not-too-clean country restaurant in Lumberton that didn’t even serve alcohol but looked the other way when you brought in your own bottle in a brown paper bag.
Sure, my business had grown and was becoming more successful, but more than that, the world was changing. 10 years before, the Hotel Shangri-la didn’t exist in China, nor did all the big shiny buildings. Except for in the big cities of Europe and the United States, there were no big fancy cars, skyscrapers, fancy restaurants, or 5-star hotels in places that made garments, including in The United States. Somehow, as I went about my business for the last 30 years, the world was growing up. Where was it all going?
I was hoping to finish up the sourcing/travel narrative this week, but I’m already into seven pages on this post, and still haven’t even gotten to Africa yet.
And on Roman Payne again, this is what he had to say about The United States on his return:
“I am grateful for my life. I am grateful to the king of Morocco, and I am grateful and overjoyed to be in America today. Today I love my country. I always preferred Paris, however, and I would probably have returned to France when the judge declared me innocent, if it weren’t for three American diplomats in Morocco who became my dear friends: Saïd, Najiba, and Merica. They were the most generous and gracious people, they protected me and defended me to the Moroccan government; they made regular trips to Marrakech to see to my well-being. They showed me just how powerful the United States is, but also how generous and protective America is of its citizens exiled abroad. If it weren’t for my friends at the consulate, I wouldn’t have moved back to the United States; but they showed me how beautiful American people can be.”