BUSINESS

Broward businessman recalls captivity in China

 
 
Chip Starnes in his Parkland home the morning after returning from China following a six-day stint as a hostage.
Chip Starnes in his Parkland home the morning after returning from China following a six-day stint as a hostage.
Shadi Bushra / The Miami Herald

ysavchuk@MiamiHerald.com

A Broward businessman who was held hostage for nearly a week at his Beijing factory spent his first day back home questioning whether he’ll keep doing business in China.

During his captivity, the company lost up to $1 million, said Charles “Chip” Starnes, and had to pay up to $600,000 more for his release.

He arrived home early Friday, greeted by more than 50 friends and relatives holding signs and balloons.

The first thing he did was eat some Chinese food.

“It was good to see everybody, good to be back on friendly soil, see some faces that you know who are on your side,” said Starnes.

Since his return, Starnes said, he hasn’t slept, despite being sleep deprived during his confinement.

Safe in his gated Parkland community, Starnes, co-owner of Caribbean Medical Brokers Inc., which does business as Specialty Medical Supplies, looked back on the events leading up to his being held hostage for six days.

Starnes, who visits the factory several times a year, arrived in Beijing in mid-June to relocate the company’s injection division to India. About 30 workers were being laid off and were given severance packages.

“It was supposed to have been simple,” he said.

Disquiet began the morning of June 19, when around 50 workers from the company’s alcohol prep pad division went on strike, sitting on equipment bound for India. Many of the “alcohol prep girls,” as Starnes called them, wanted to quit and get severance packages similar to the ones given to the workers in the injection division.

Tension escalated June 21, when a chartered engineer arrived from India to audit the company’s assets for import and workers realized he was evaluating equipment from all divisions. The company asked the engineer to examine all fixed assets for financial reasons and had not announced any plans to move the rest of the plant, Starnes said.

Rumors were further fueled by the fact that the company had recently cut down all trees on factory grounds to prevent pollen from contaminating sterile products, Starnes said. A “bad seed” among management also helped spread misinformation, according to Starnes.

There were also complaints that the company owed the workers back wages, which Starnes said was untrue.

By the afternoon of June 21, a worker whose arm had been injured by an injection molding machine more than nine months earlier came to Starnes’ office asking for compensation due to arrive that day. He told Starnes that if he didn’t get paid, he wouldn’t let him leave.

“I kind of brushed it off a little bit,” said Starnes, who said the payment was late because a wire was delayed. Starnes said he offered the man a check, but he demanded cash.

As Starnes grabbed his briefcase and left his office, he saw four trucks pull up near the entrance to the executive wing. Out jumped nearly 150 workers — most of them women — from the alcohol prep pad division and the warehouse, cooks and cleaners. They shut the gate, blocked the exits and occupied the wing, refusing to leave until everyone got a severance package.

“This is surreal, and is it real?” Starnes wondered at the time. “As it led into the night, it became very real very quick.”

By 10 p.m., local government officials and police arrived, and pressured Starnes to capitulate, he said. They went back and forth for nearly eight hours.

“You can’t give people severances for when they still have jobs,” Starnes protested. “You’re committing business suicide.”

Starnes signed compensation packages that night for up to 30 percent of the workers to ease tension, but later stopped, he said.

Throngs of workers trailed Starnes as he moved and sat on the desk and chairs in his office, he said. When he tried to sleep on a small couch, they banged on the windows and shined bright lights in his face.

“Try to picture just a mad mob scene with 70 percent smoke in the room and just complete chaos going on. I knew at that time I was in trouble,” he said.

He had no food or water for more than a day, but his office had a bathroom and shower.

Starnes spent the night on the phone with business partner Leslie Capella. The next day, workers cut the Internet cable. The day after, they cut his office phone line.

Starnes held his ground, spending the next days speaking to the media from his office window and talking to family and Capella on his mobile phone.

Once the media caught wind of his plight, Starnes started getting three meals a day, and the U.S. Embassy made sure he got drops for an eye infection, according to his wife Cecily Starnes.

“I was like OK, they’re not going to hurt me, they’re not putting their hands on me, so it’s just to kind of see who can outweigh who.”

On his sixth night, Starnes’ attorneys agreed to a settlement.

“I knew that I wasn’t going to get out of there if I didn’t pay for my release,” he said. That amounted to at least $400,000 going to the workers and more for legal and other fees.

After he was freed Wednesday, Starnes said he feared for his physical safety after being threatened by one of the company’s local vendors. He switched cars twice as he was driven from his hotel to the airport, and his lawyers announced a news conference as a diversion, according to his wife.

Starnes said workers’ actions were a total surprise. They had gone on strike in 2008, but quickly returned to work when the company increased salaries.

“Quite frankly, it never crossed my mind anything like that would ever happen,” he said.

Starnes’ company, which sells medical supplies to major brands around the world, opened the plant in the Huairou district on the outskirts of Beijing more than a decade ago to take advantage of abundant labor, economic incentives for foreign companies and a favorable exchange rate.

Now costs are rising because labor is scarce, workers’ rights have strengthened and currency is more expensive. “It’s a business killer,” Starnes said. “I wouldn’t advise going there for new investments for sure.”

Still, Starnes said his company had only decided to close one division until now.

“Everything else was completely fictional and made up, but became true, unfortunately.”

The company has rehired more than 10 of the workers who held Starnes captive, and machines may be running again as soon as Monday. But Starnes said the ordeal has changed his perspective on doing business in China, and he isn’t sure whether the plant will remain open.

“We’ll have to see,” Starnes said.

Even though he still hadn’t slept, on Friday afternoon he planned to go to the office. His goal is to regain confidence of vendors and investors and make sure the machines are OK. “I’ve got to get the business up and running again.”

And, he added: “I’m looking forward to getting a pizza tonight.”

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