The French and Chinese may be poles apart in terms of language and culture, but Jean-Baptiste Dabadie, a French businessman based in Hong Kong, has been able to break down the barriers. Running a team of 200 mainland Chinese staff at his Shenzhen packing business has helped.
Dabadie came to Hong Kong in 2001 to work as an intern at Asiapack, which was then owned by three French businessmen. The business had a 50,000 square feet factory in Shenzhen.
The six-month internship ended up as a career, and Dabadie has adopted Hong Kong as his second home for his wife and two children. He became the 100 per cent owner of Asiapack three years ago.
Dabadie, who does not speak Putonghua or read Chinese, has ably managed his 200 staff, who are mainly local Chinese. The key to success, he says, is to treat his staff fairly and to have good communications.
His company manufactures packaging materials and offers co-packing services for brands covering cosmetics, mobile phone accessories, toys and other retail products. Clients are from Europe, the US and Asia-Pacific.
In his office in North Point, he spoke with the South China Morning Post to explain how he broke through the language and culture barrier.
You do not speak or read Chinese. How do you communicate with your staff?
I personally have to rely on the local Chinese who can speak English to communicate with me to run the factory for me.
All foreigners recruited by Asiapack speak Mandarin and all local staff speak good English. This is a must and is now easier to find.
We speak other languages such as French, Spanish and German, but we always use English with customers so that local staff can follow all steps of the project.
I believe that direct communication between local staff and Western customers maximises employee responsibility and devotion in delivering what the customer expects. Eventually instructions are translated to workers. Communication is most important in running a factory.
Many factories can offer packing for their products, so why do customers still need to hire you?
Companies usually have many suppliers. Packing all under one roof is the only way to ensure consistency, a "must" for any brand. Companies can also have several brands and sell to different countries, multiplying the packaging requirements.
My factory offers turnkey solutions from warehousing, quality control, late customisation, packaging design, kitting, and co-packing up to ready-to-sell displays.
Do people have any specific requirements for packing?
The environment is a key theme. Many customers would like simple and lightweight packages which cut down transport costs and reduce wastage on packages.
Another key concern is about theft. Some customers require the packaging to not be too easy to open to prevent the products from being stolen at the stores.
Many people say they found it hard to find workers for their factories. Do you have the same problem?
It is true that in the past, workers were queuing outside factories, and now we have to look for them and retain them. But still, we can hire sufficient staff to work for us. Whenever we need staff, we put a notice up at our factory so other staff can find their friends to work for us. This works well - if friends come to work together, they tend to work longer and be more stable.
Do you need to offer high salaries and incentives to attract people to work for you?
We follow the minimum wages requirement of 1,600 yuan a month in Shenzhen and we give them a 50 per cent premium for weekday overtime if we have a lot of orders to do, and double salary on Saturdays. We also offer them good meals free of charge. There is also some accommodation for the migrant workers if they need places to live.
Overall, they are happy with the working conditions and the turnover rate is low. Chinese New Year is a sensitive time of the year. We talk with workers to find out how many of them do not want to return. All workers get their annual bonus before the New Year holiday and those who have said they would return all come back on time.
How do you find being a French person setting up a business in Hong Kong? Is it difficult?
It is easier to set up a career here as Hong Kong companies hire you and do not require you to have work experience. In France, many companies require you to have working experience before they give you an offer.
In terms of setting up a business, I think Hong Kong is a good place as the rules and regulations are very stable.
The office rent is very expensive though but luckily it is so close to the mainland where we pay cheaper rent for the spacious factory area. As such, I can be based in Hong Kong and go to my factory about once a week to meet with local management and workers.
Do you arrange any French cultural activities for your Chinese staff?
We do arrange activities and yearly trips, but nothing very French. You are challenging me and I like it! I shall organise French cinema sessions in China for all employees and replace the Chinese wine for Bordeaux wine for the next annual dinner! Eventually we should arrange some staff visits to France, enhancing mutual understanding.
Do you enjoy any Chinese cultural activities?
I love Chinese culture, which even after 12 years here is still a whole new world for me. I like to observe how people enjoy traditions in this modern city, like building temporary but extraordinary bamboo theatres for Chinese operas. I enjoy visiting the Chinese opera backstage more than the opera itself, I like to feel the atmosphere, the sincerity that traditions can offer.
My son is joining a local lion dance course. The energy and the rhythm of this traditional dance is, to me, the symbol of Asia: culture and dynamism.
Some say Chinese labour is getting too much protection. Do you agree?
French labour law is very restrictive too which means in both mainland China and France, it is not as easy as in Hong Kong to fire staff. As employers, we do not want to fire staff, we want to retain dynamic and dedicated staff. I believe if we can provide a good working environment, fair payment and proper training for them, they will enjoy their work.
As a French businessmen, do you think the Hong Kong government offers you sufficient support?
I hope the government can maintain the business-friendly atmosphere. I think I received more support and information from the French Chamber of Commerce, which offer a lot of information and useful contacts.