Thought you might like this. Interestingly, it is NOT a story of “guy skirts rules, naively trusts Chinese partner, gets screwed.” It’s “guy does everything absolutely by the book, has reliable Chinese partner who does not screw him, and still gets screwed by changing political atmosphere.” For him to get competition eventually is quite normal, and the competition wasn’t using a trade name similar to his. But the rules were not evenly enforced.
This is the sort of story I both love and hate. I love this sort of story because it is interesting and important. But I hate it because I (and the other China lawyers at my law firm) constantly stress the benefit of following China’s laws to the letter because doing so will protect you. I also hate this sort of story because it reveals the cynical truth that the reality is really more the opposite: if you do not follow China’s laws you will have a problem. If you do follow Chinese laws the odds of your having a problem will go way down, but that is no guarantee. As a foreign company doing business in China you will be a target and this means you must follow the laws to avoid being an easy and legal target but even if you do follow the rules you are still a target. This is China.
Quick aside. Why the Jim Carey clip about “messing with the doo?” Two reasons. One, It’s a great clip. Two, I love soft-serve ice cream and I have fond memories of eating Mr. Softee ice cream when visiting my grandmother in New Jersey. So I see China’s messing with Mister Softee as the equivalent of “messing with the doo.” But I digress.
If you read the New York Magazine article, you will learn that Turner Sparks brought New York’s iconic Mister Softee trucks for the first time to China” back in 2007 and eventually built his ice cream empire to ten trucks and 25 employees in Suzhou. You will also learn the following:
Mr. Sparks did local TV and newspaper interviews and was a fixture at school and corporate events, where he and his team doled out waffle-cone soft-serve to thousands. During one corporate party at Bosch, an international electronics company, he sold $9,000 worth of $1 cones in just two hours.
Competition was scarce, because he essentially invented the Suzhou ice-cream-truck market. “All these trucks were just going nuts, doing really well. Huge lines all the time,” he told me. “Everyone knew Mister Softee.”
He planned an ambitious expansion, and lined up investors to back it: He wanted to quintuple his fleet to 50 trucks, add more storefronts, and move into new territory.
More importantly, you will learn how tough it can be to do business in China, because you will learn that instead of expanding his business in China, Mr. Sparks ended up leaving China “with just enough money to reinvent his life as a New York stand-up comic.” and that “what happened to Sparks is an illustration of how the landscape has shifted for foreign businesses in China since current premier Xi Jinping has taken over the country, and the climate has become considerably less hospitable for foreign business — small ones, in particular.”
The article talks about how things began to change for foreign companies in China starting in 1978 and how Sparks was able to build up his ice cream empire:
They created a local supply chain from scratch, finding vendors for cones, straws and soft-serve mix at a Shanghai food-and-drink expo. Using secret blueprints from Mister Softee, the truck was built in Nanjing by a company that makes telecommunications trucks, armored vehicles, and ambulances. Workers were hired from a job fair, with many long-distance drivers jumping on the opportunity to work locally and try something different. To give the soft-serve the same taste as back home, they shipped the milk in from the U.S.
Suzhou officials worked with Sparks to create a new kind of business permit for their ice-cream trucks, called a Qualified Mobile Vendor License. It let them operate the trucks, but only as “delivery vehicles” for two stores. The license also required they have a staffed office and were restricted to operate at certain spots around the city. The solicitousness of Suzhou officials wasn’t unique. All around China, local governments were inviting in foreign businesses, easing the cost of doing business with tax breaks, and giving them friendly government liaisons to help them navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy.
Then you will learn how the ice cream empire fell apart, for reasons that will likely not be unfamiliar to most foreign companies that operate in China — taxes and thieving employees who go out and illegally and even violently compete:
The first inclination Sparks got that things were changing was around 2012, when a local official called him into his office and accused Sparks of not paying enough in taxes.
“Immediately, I knew it was a shakedown,” he said. “This guy was an idiot. He was like, ‘There’s money, I need some.’”
Sparks declined the man’s offer and left, but says that meeting was his first experience with the corruption he’d often heard about in China. Soon after, two new drivers alerted Sparks to a longtime scam by his eight other drivers. They were quietly making extra soft-serve sales and pocketing the money for themselves. Because Mister Softee was a cash business, office workers would count drivers’ ice-cream cones at the start and end of their shifts to make sure they weren’t stealing. To circumvent that control, drivers bought their own cones. When Sparks started measuring the ice-cream mix instead, the drivers would buy extra cones and mix, too.
Eventually, he instituted random checks on drivers and fired several on the spot when they were caught with more mix in their trucks than they had at the start of the day. Soon after, his tires outside his apartment were slashed. Then a fired driver showed up at Mister Softee’s office and threatened to kill the workers there.
Things got more bizarre. In early 2013, just a few weeks after they were fired, Sparks’s former drivers resurfaced with their own unlicensed ice-cream trucks, with knockoff names including Baby Bear, Snow Princess, and Mr. Big. These drivers would park along Mister Softee trucks’ routes to poach customers. Plus, they didn’t have the special city license, which allowed them to operate without having to open storefronts or an office, and they could sell wherever they wanted.
Conway was too far away to help out as problems started cascading. Cai, meanwhile, had moved to the suburbs about an hour away and was starting another printed circuit board business, so had no time to lend a hand.
Perhaps the slashed tires and death threats were unique to Mister Softee, but local officials’ deciding to yank support was downright typical of the changing times.
For the record, nothing that happened to Mister Softee in Suzhou is “unique.”
The article then goes on to rightly note that foreign companies that bring technology or know-how that China hasn’t developed on its own are still very much welcome in China, but the others not so much. “One in four foreign businesses are scaling back in China or say they plan to, and most say they feel increasingly unwelcome, according to a 2018 survey from the American Chamber of Commerce in China.” What the article does not mention is that foreign companies with technology and know-how are welcomed because there is always a belief that China will be able to steal that technology and know-how or at least walk off with it at a ridiculously low price. This is China.
The article extensively quotes Anil Gupta, professor of University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business, “who’s been researching and writing about China for 25 years” and who has this to say:
Gupta added that blatant knockoff enterprises are so common in China that it’s almost a wonder Mister Softee’s easily replicated business wasn’t copied sooner. Plus, local officials and courts are more likely to back the local knockoffs to support Chinese businesses — to hell with the permits.
“With 99 percent confidence, I would say this was destined to happen,” Gupta said of Mister Softee’s fate. “I would say that God couldn’t even save this business.”
What or who exactly killed Mister Softee? China:
After receiving one-year permits for his trucks without fail from 2007 through 2012, Mister Softee’s permits were withheld without explanation and Sparks couldn’t reach government officials for months to clear up the issue. When Sparks finally heard back from government officials in mid-2013, they told him they would figure out a way to regulate the new trucks. Nearly a year later, with Sparks still operating without a new permit, officials proposed holding a lottery to dole out Suzhou permits to Sparks and the knockoff trucks. Around that time, police started ticketing Mister Softee trucks for parking illegally in spots they’d been working for years.
By 2015, it became clear the lottery would never take place and Sparks’s new round of investment crumbled.
“Part of it was a relief, to know it was over,” Sparks told me. “You feel, obviously, helpless.”
Over the next year, he wound down the business, paid his remaining staff and sold off the trucks so some others could spread the gospel of neighborhood soft-serve to nearby cities.
In early 2016 on a Friday, Mister Softee’s tumultuous foray into China quietly ended with Sparks, his lawyer, and accountant filing liquidation papers and figuring out who they still owed money to. Sparks had already sold off the office furniture to his ice-cream cone supplier.
Ignoring for a minute whether any deity could have saved Mister Softee, was there anything it could have done to survive China? Maybe. Were a company like Mister Softee to come to me today, I would likely recommend that instead of going into business in China, it seek a licensee in China for its name and its ice-cream know-how and its trucks’ look and feel. Indeed, my law firm a few years ago did a licensing deal on behalf of a regional American ice cream company that has worked out very well for the American company. I constantly find myself trying to steer clients away from what I call “theoretical massive profits” that can allegedly be realized by going into China as a WFOE or a Joint Venture in favor of a licensing or distributing deal. See Forming a China WFOE: Needed or Not. See also my Forbes Magazine on this: Want Your Product In China? Try Using A Local Distributor.
Welcome to China 2018 people. Welcome to a country that will suck you dry and then gnaw on your bones. Welcome to a country where small mistakes can mean the end of your business. This is China.
Update: Literally minutes after I wrote this I received an email from a China lawyer friend who said I should have talked about how Mister Softee could have prevented “at least some of its problems” by having made its employees sign non-compete agreements. I don’t think those would have worked because China’s courts generally do not enforce those against any but high level employees and I do not think ice cream truck operators would qualify as high level employees.