“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.”