Saturday afternoon in Adrian Kuypers's Chinese factory, four women are labouring over unfinished door panels piled beside the silent production line.
The wooden sheets are scarred by small defects, rendering them unfit for export to markets in Europe and Asia. But the women painstakingly examine the panels and fix them by hand -- an act of labour intensity unheard of in North America.
"In Canada, they'd just dump these panels," says Mr. Kuypers, the Canadian executive who commands this 30-year-old factory filled with modern fibre-board technology.
The factory, in a shambling industrial area of this northeastern Chinese city, discards almost nothing -- mainly because these casual labourers work for 600 yuan a month, equivalent to less than $100 (Canadian).
Mr. Kuypers, the plant's tough, affable general manager, says that if not for his plant, the women probably would not be working at all. Even his full-time workers earn just $200 to $250 a month, which in Shenyang is a very good wage.
The powerful appeal of this economic formula -- excess labour, low wages, strong work ethic and the latest Western technology -- has kept Mr. Kuypers in China despite the torrent of trials that has befallen him and his employer, Innovative Board Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Ont.
Since first contemplating a Chinese factory a decade ago, the 61-year-old executive has seen one joint venture fall through, several financings evaporate and thousands of dollars spent in transactions not authorized by the company's board.
He has quarrelled at times with his major Chinese partner, Shenyang Heavy Machinery Group. He has battled managerial favouritism, engineered two executive coups, coped with quality-control problems and faced down the threat of factory disruption by terminated employees.
"We've really toughed it out, I tell you," Mr. Kuypers says, in what qualifies as a classic understatement.
And yet he has remained committed to China, and that's finally paying off. In April, 2003, his joint venture with two state-owned partners finally started producing moulded door panels, known as doorskins, at the 185-employee plant. By the end of this year, Mr. Kuypers hopes to eke out a positive cash flow.
"I'm disappointed with the length of time it's taken, but I can't pin it on Adrian," says Mr. Kuypers's boss, Ken MacDonald, who, as the owner of IBT, has invested $9.5-million in the venture. "He's a significant optimist and one of the hardest workers I've ever met."
The joint venture, called Shenyang Shendor Wooden Co., embodies the things that can go wrong for Canadians in China, and why, despite it all, they are often willing to stick it out. Part of the lure is the huge potential payoff. There is also the sense that, after investing so much sweat and cash, it would be painful just to walk away.
"There are always good reasons not to be in China," Mr. Kuypers acknowledges. "But I'm afraid that we will do all the hard work and miss out on the fun."
Mr. Kuypers, who was born in Amsterdam and emigrated to Canada as a 22-year-old, did not get into this as some fresh-faced innocent. A seasoned forest-products executive, he has been back and forth to Asia during the past 25 years, building and managing fibre-board plants. He undertook his first Chinese project in the early 1980s.
In the early '90s, Mr. MacDonald approached him about developing a Chinese factory that would be a showcase for the work of engineering companies that the entrepreneur controls in southwestern Ontario.
Mr. MacDonald, with Mr. Kuypers as his hired gun, would come in as a minority partner working with local and international investors, build a model plant with worldwide sales and use his cut of the cash flow to seed other fibre-board and door plants across China and elsewhere in the world.
Canadian contacts drew Mr. Kuypers to Shenyang, a city of seven million in China's northeastern rust belt with a reputation for decrepit state-run industries and corruption. But there was also the promise of financing and a new wave of public officials intent on burying the region's infamous past.
At the first Team Canada trade mission to China in 1994, Mr. Kuypers and Mr. MacDonald were among the many Canadians who announced deals with Chinese firms. But the original partnership to build a fibre-board plant quickly collapsed, Mr. Kuypers says.
The dream was shelved for two years, until new partners emerged in the form of two state-owned enterprises, including Shenyang Heavy Machinery Group. Mr. MacDonald took a 25-per-cent interest in the new project to make door panels using pulp chips harvested in northeast China forests.