14 Mar Creating International Relationships
Behind the scenes with OLC. Creating International Relationships
As we board Air China to jet off to the other side of the world, I am promised this will be an eye-opening experience, something that will change the way I look at Chinese manufacturing and partnerships. Just the fact that I am traveling to Shenzhen China, which is a manufacturing hub, North of Hong Kong, will be eye opening enough, I think to myself. Shenzhen is one of China’s major ports for foreign trade and international exchanges, and China’s earliest special economic zone. As my thoughts return to the present, the cabin door closes, as the exquisitely beautiful flight crew great us with “Nǐ hǎo” and Chinese animation flight safety instructions. This is going to be interesting!
We land in Hong Kong, which means going through customs to get into China. A post-handover, the colony of Hong Kong became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) and for official purposes is a part of China. But, for all intents and purposes, it is allowed to operate as an independent country.
We spend the day passing through inspection points, guarded by surprisingly young men in military garb, and driving along streets crowded with an odd combination of factory trucks, helmetless millennials on mopeds, and crowds of ridden bicycles on the side streets. Rarely, do we pass stop signs or traffic lights. It seems in China, transportation involves getting from point A to Point B in whatever zig zag, go through the crowd, non-apologetic way possible. Surprisingly, no one ever seems to have an accident or have dented cars, so they are obviously very good at it.
The sub-tropical landscape reminds me of the non-resort portions of Puerto Vallera Mexico, with occasional palm trees nestled among tattered metal fences and unruly brush. Temperatures are about 100 degrees in the summer and 85 degrees in the winter, with high humidity. Because the factory workers reside here 11 months out of the year, they live in a cluster of 5-8 story simple concrete dormitories with barred balconies over flowing with clothes hanging out to dry. As we pass the buildings, which are all identical except for slight variations of brick tone, I begin to understand the communist culture of these manufacturing cities. Individuals are protected and nurtured by the government, almost as an omnipotent parent, protecting and housing them, as long as they obey their rules. Cameras can be scene everywhere, flashing as we drive by.
My host, Michael Connack, owner of Furniture Atelier (əˈtel.i.eɪ), has partnered with several factories in the region to produce high quality, aesthetically beautiful, and well-priced hospitality furniture. The French word, atelier, simply means workshop or studio. For the two Founding Partners of Furniture Atelier, it means so much more. Michael Cannock and Jessica Schwarz shared a vision of approaching furniture fabrication differently, and in 2017, set out to make that vision a reality. Their focus was on becoming not only a leader in high quality craftsmanship, but to become a partner in the design process; a different approach to typical practices of other well know Asian factories in the Hospitality Industry. The purpose of this trip is to see the quality of the manufacturing, variety of styles and complexity possible and meet the owners who are seeking a strategic partnership with Michael. Michael’s vision is to create a new team dynamic between designers, specifiers, purchasers, and manufacturers. In this vision we work together from the beginning of the project, collaborating on the design and manufacturing methods to deliver the final product. This transparent process eliminates the bidding wars and questionable quality of workmanship.
We finally arrive at our first factory, driving through the opened security gate which secures the premises. It is an old, non-airconditioned, concrete building with sparse vegetation struggling to proliferate out of the cracks in the building. We are graciously introduced to the owner of the company who uses the factory to manufacture case goods for a variety of American furniture companies. The majority of the factories are actually owned by the government, with the local companies leasing the structure. The American companies who use these Chinese factories, have no owner ship rights. As we enter, I notice the neat rows of materials and components which will be transformed into furniture.
Next to the raw materials are clusters of cutting machines, laminating machines and finishing machines. Beyond these are conveyor belts of finished product heading for quality control inspection and final finishing. The workers, all in matching orange T shirts, work efficiently and precisely operating the machinery which moves and shapes the components. Further down the production line of the factory we see the finished product being crated or boxed for shipment.
We spend the next 2 days visiting upholstery factories, metal working factories, outdoor furniture factories, and, of course, competing factories. I am impressed with the pride and integrity each owner has for their work. As we share tea, which is poured continuously into emptied cups across a beautifully carved tea table, we discuss the value of a team approach and the pleasure it brings to, what can be, an arduous and tedious task.
Anyone who has designed and specifies custom furniture has experienced the miscommunication and lack of consistency in shop drawings and sample submittals which results from the typical bidding/award approach. As mutual team members, we can design, adjust, and refine details as easily as coworkers.
Once back in our respective countries, Furniture Atelier is located in Toronto Ontario Canada, we get to work on putting this vision into action. My client, the Doubletree by Hilton in Denver is requiring beautiful, durable, cost effective furniture for their 560 room property. There will be no model room, so once the modern dual toned, quartz topped mock up furniture is produced, I am off to China again to approve the samples. We can discuss adjustments as a team, and I am able to see newly detailed prototypes during my visit. We evaluate finishes, hardware, functionality, and adherence to specification.
After thorough review with the team, noting every minute detail to be adjusted, we have an opportunity to be tourists.
The result of these visits, hands on coordination and communications? Drum roll please…………. furniture arriving ahead of schedule, amazing quality, and durability beyond compare.