Friday, June 15, 2007

Wahaha v. Danone: Partnership at Grace’s End

When Danone Asia Pte Ltd. (“Danon Asia”) and other Danone subsidiaries located in Asia submitted the dispute to arbitration in Sweden, things between the two partners have turned from the good, to the bad, then to the ugly. And Danone has hired the British law firm Freshfields to represent it in the Swedish arbitration deal. As a side note, Article 26 of the Joint Venture Agreement stipulates that disputes between the contracting parties, if unresolved, are to be arbitrated in the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce.

My research reveals some of the details of Danone’s contentions and complaints in the arbitration. The plaintiffs/petitioners are: Danon Asia, Jinjia Investments Ltd., Myen Ltd., Novalc Ltd. The defendants/respondents are: Wahaha Group Ltd., Wahaha Shiye Ltd., Hangzhou Food Ltd., Hangzhou Wahaha Investments Ltd.

The pith of Danone’s complaints is that Wahaha Group and its non-joint venture companies violated the original Joint Venture Agreement (“Original Agreement”) between Danone and Wahaha Group, and that such violation consequently resulted in the infringement of the trademark transfer clauses of the Original Agreement. Danone alleged that the defendants, without approval from the joint venture companies, manufactured products that are same as those of the joint venture companies. These products competed against the joint venture companies’ products, injuring the interests of the joint venture companies.

In addition to the corporate defendants, Danone also joined Mr. Zong, the former chairman of the board of directors of the joint venture companies and the man behind all the non-joint venture companies, as a defendant in the arbitration. Danone, expectedly, complained of Zong’s violation of the non-compete agreement (“NCA”) and non-disclosure agreement (“NDA”). And it also alleged that Zong created conflict of interests, violating his duty to the joint venture company as a board member.

In an attempted strategic move, Zong submitted the same case to the Hangzhou Arbitration Commission on Wednesday (June 13, 2007), hoping to capture a little bit of the home-court advantage. He avers that the trademark transfer clause in the Original Agreement is void for violation of the Chinese law at the time of contract in 1996, and that Danone fraudulently induced Wahaha into the contract.

From a legal stand point, Zong is caught in a tight spot. First, his choice of venue for arbitration is against the express provisions of the Original Agreement, notwithstanding his “need” of a friendly forum. Second, the disputes have already been accepted by the Stockholm Arbitration Institute, where Zong and the other four non-joint venture companies are defendants. So, whether the Hangzhou Arbitration Commission will dismiss the petition remains a very curious legal and possibly political riddle.

And then, to make thing a little more uncomfortable for Mr. Zong, Danone lit a fire in his back yard where he could not even get to. Danone’s lawsuit in Los Angeles against Ever Maple Trading Ltd., Hangzhou Hongsheng Beverage Co Ltd., and Zong’s daughter & wife really added “insult to injury.” Zong’s immediate response to this suit is to resign his position on the Danon-Wahaha Joint Venture board, which demonstrates how enraged he might have been. Aside from making him comfortable, Danone’ choice of forum in California could not have been better since here Danone is immune from the heat of nationalism manipulated by Zong, local politics in Hangzhou (the city is a shareholder of Wahaha Group, remember?), and unpredictable courts.

Good move, Danone! Smile…

[Tomorrow, I will talk about what I think Danone did wrong. Don’t laugh yet.]

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