Craig Wolfe's career history includes working with the largest publisher of artwork from television commercials in the world. Wolfe credits his transition into his current role – as president of one of the world's foremost rubber duck businesses – to his long-term partnership with his Chinese manufacturer.
“A friend had this idea at a party to make rubber ducks that look like celebrities. I think most people would have ignored it, except I thought it was a really funny concept," explains Wolfe, who at the time had never tried to manufacture overseas.
“I called [print syndication company] King Features. They own the rights to Betty Boop. I told them I wanted to do a prototype Betty Boop duck, and they couldn't get me off the phone quick enough. They were trying to be polite, and said, 'Do it and get back to us', thinking they'll never hear from me again.
“But I found a US marketing company with a relationship with someone in China and they knew a factory that made me a prototype of Betty Boop as a rubber duck. I sent it to King Features and they said, 'Let's talk'. That was the beginning. I thought, 'It's just rubber duck. How hard could it be?' I'll tell you how hard. You're dealing with a country thousands of miles away, you don't speak the language and you have very different ideas about quality.”
Communication is key when quality control is at stake
Wolfe says the first ducks were horrid. “I did five thousand Betty Boop ducks and five thousand Groucho Marx ducks. They were too big, they were too hard, and they didn't float. It was a disaster. Yet we sold most of them."
Then one day, he was contacted by a local Taiwanese agent who called about handling Wolfe's manufacturing. “He had a relationship with a factory in China and he said he could make my ducks the way I wanted them. That changed everything. I finally had a counterpart who could work with a Chinese factory and hold them accountable for quality control. That made all the difference."
The factory made a duck in the likeness of Philadelphia 76ers' superstar, Allen Iverson, that Wolfe says, “looked more like him than he did."
It was the genesis of the business Wolfe runs today. He subsequently started working directly with the factories that make his ducks and he's now been working with the same team for 20 years. He makes ducks for iconic brands including Harley-Davidson, Sea World and Amazon's Zappos division.
Part of the reason why the relationship has been so successful is because of the quality of the ducks, the high-quality packaging they come in and the attention to detail in the design. Everything is manufactured in China, which helps to cement the trusted relationship between Wolfe and his Chinese team.
“They will do tens of thousands of dollars of work, in advance, before I pay them, knowing I'll pay them. Then, they'll ship it. I don't even have to make a deposit. That's the trusting relationship we have," he explains.
Wolfe says building this level of trust starts by communicating expectations about levels of quality. “If you don't hold your manufacturers to a high standard, they will always do what's easier. If you see something that's not right at your end and don't mention it to them, it won't get fixed. I'm constantly training their quality control to have my eyes without me standing over them."
Win-win means the relationship works for both parties
It's also in the factory's interest to keep Wolfe happy given he's one of its biggest customers. “But it has to be a win-win for both sides; that's how you make it work with a Chinese partner. It can't be one sided," he explains.
Wolfe says the best way to manage the language barrier is for communication to take place via email. “My Chinese partner's written English is excellent, but phone communication is not as good. So almost all communication is via e-mail. Only when there is a real problem do we have to have a phone call." This might include making sure everyone understands how essential it is to meet deadlines for certain jobs.
“But we rarely have to get on the phone; I can count on two hands the number of times I've been on the phone with these people in 20 years," he adds.
Wolfe says he's constantly approached by other factories who want to manufacture his ducks, but he's sticking with his existing team.
“Every day, I get an email from another factory that wants to work with me. I've tried them from time to time, but the others are never as good as my crack crew. They are not the biggest factory, so they have trouble handling my volume sometimes. But I would rather turn away business and do less, but ensure my ducks are manufactured properly, than get involved with a factory that can take more volume, without the same level of attention and quality control I demand.
“I value relationships more than money because in the end, good relationships will produce more money. In China trust means a lot. Things like honour and respect are really big issues. I have that with my people and they have that with me. Like family, sometimes there are blow ups, but they're your family. You always work it out."
The message for CFOs is to focus on building relationships across the business and its stakeholders to get the best result for the business over time.
- Communication is key, especially when it comes to quality control issues.
- The relationship must work for both parties for it to be a success.
- It's essential for there to be respect on both sides.