Giving China A Second Chance

Jan 31st 2012

I remember the first time I ever heard about China.

I was six, digging a hole in my backyard, when Steve Peake said, ‘if we keep fighting, we’ll eventually get to China’ – that’s how far away it was.  Then, at age 12, an adopted girl from China who moved in two blocks away became the “new kid in town.”

Outside of Kim and digging holes, China was only covered infrequently in world history classes: the massive Red Army, ethics of Confucius, old world dynasties. But it never was a big part of my thought process until 1999, when me and my childhood friends from a middle-class Louisville neighborhood called Hikes Point, were trying to build a pizza empire called Bearno’s that we bought with my money from old paper route savings, first communion money, and a creative SBA loan, scrapping our limited capital so we could buy out one of our best friends’ father who founded the famed ‘Mama’ special.

It was great days, we were cruising along making money, opening a couple dozen new stores in just three years, thinking we might be the next Pizza Hut.It was 24/7, but we sped into the top 100 pizza chains in the U.S. while operating from my basement corporate office…making some decent money, selling our franchises way too fast, and living the American dream. Then it happened…

A call from Chinese partners who ate our pizza and loved it sold us on naively expanding way beyond our backyard (Ky and Indiana) by joint-venturing a 40 Bearno’s store restaurant deal throughout mainland China. We could be first for once, even  before some of the big boys…

The U.S. partner had some national experience, and the Chinese partners were the best by everyone’s account, but remember the Internet was almost non-existent in 2000? What did we know, really.Heck,  we were in our late 20s going on our early 20s in maturity, and most of team had never been out of the country.

Was this our chance for fortune and fame? Were we going to be the one out of 1,000 to experience the American dream as childhood friends from an eight-block section of Hikes Point?

We signed the deal, I invested money I really did not have, like usual, that I promise you I never saw again. But we saw a different world of ethics, protocols, and heritage that made us rethink everything. We learned to source product internationally, even developed some Australia partnerships…but in the end, it was that we learned the three most important elementary business lessons we all need to remember…

  1. Really know your partners intimately
  2. Ask hard questions that you discern – even if you piss everyone off
  3. If it looks too good to be true, it always is

Don’t get me wrong, we were the talk, initially. We had grand openings with huge crowds, TV, USA Today coverage, peace doves released into the China skies during a parade while my neighborhood team all went to Beijing to temporarily live because this was it. Half our team had not even been to Florida yet, but they showed up and opened the first store by Tiananmen square with great reviews…

We opened the second store three miles away and knew we were going to be rich. Then the spy plane fiasco that rocked relations for two years killed our momentum and made many China nationals reconsider supporting western business concepts. Officials who welcomed us became difficult, many members of the Chinese management team left with our proprietary concepts, some loyal customers boycotted due to political themes, and we were wiped out of the Beijing landscape, where our stores became Chinese-operated pizza stores and the dream became a nightmare…

After vowing to not return to China anytime in my lifetime, I am now in back in China, starting again over a decade later, dreaming of a healthcare partnership to develop new campus models, manufacturing and distribution partnerships back in our home state, and maybe even getting a few bucks back in the process…

As the visit momentum builds, we headed to the LaJeune Business Club with heads of 10 huge conglomerates – rock stars who have prospered off China’s rapid ascension in the WTO – in  wealthy Hangzhou looking over the West Lake, talking about a big deal that could make dreams come true for many. The hospitality and history overwhelm your inner spirit. So here we go…with camera clicking, fresh tobacco in the air, and the best green tea that ever touched your lips, we gave our presentation for a new healthcare campus to warm faces and engaged eyes hoping we were the one. The partners went back and forth for an hour and then said, ‘We like it. Let’s celebrate.’ And we drank and ate a dinner made for the Gods….could this really be the one?

Why? It’s a different day, the world is changing, and all of us need second chances, which is a sacred tenant of our organization. Maybe  my team did not do our best work last time. Either way, I’m a different person today and dignified aging is important to everyone. We want to always believe in a more connected world, something bigger than any one of us.

I think it’s going to work this time. Keep us in your prayers!

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