Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wahaha v. Danone: Who Will Have the Last Laugh?

The Wahaha and Danone dispute appears to have been kicked into high gear.

Following Danone’s lawsuit in California state court against a subsidiary company of Wahaha, the former board director of the Danon-Wahaha Joint Venture, Zong Qinghou, announced on June 13, 2007 in a press conference that he would submit the dispute between Wahaha and Danone to arbitration in China. Specifically, the dispute involves a trademark transfer agreement Wahaha and Danone. The venue of arbitration is the Hangzhou Arbitration Commission.

In order to follow the development of dispute, which has gone global literally, it is better grasp the chronology of the relationship between Wahaha and Danone.

First, the occasion warrants a brief intro of the players. Danone is currently one of the world’s leading global corporations in fresh dairy products and bottled water, and its production and sales spans around the world. Wahaha is a bit more complicated. Wahaha Group consists of three large blocks of corporate entities. The first is the original Wahaha Group Ltd., and the City of Hangzhou owns 46% of the stock, and the rest of stocks of the company are unevenly distributed among Mr. Zong, the management, and employees (before 2000, Wahaha Group was a solely state-owned enterprise). The second one is the Wahaha-Danone Joint Equity Venture Group. Wahaha Group Ltd. Controls 49% of the shares, and Danone holds 51%. The third bunch is a host of non-joint venture companies established and operated in essence by Wahaha Group Ltd. and Hangzhou Wahaha Food Products Ltd.

Second, the following is the chronology of the relationship between Danone and Wahaha.

1. 02/29/1996-----Joint Venture Agreement between Wahaha Group Ltd. and Danone, including trademark transfer agreement, non-compete agreement, and confidentiality agreement

2. 03/28/1996-----Wahaha Group Ltd., Danone, and a Hong Kong enterprise agreed to form five joint ventures in China.

3. 04/1996-----Mr. Zong became the chairman of board of directors of the said five joint ventures.

4. From 1996—2007, the original five joint ventures evolved into 39 joint ventures, and everybody made a ton of money.

5. Problems began to surface in 2000 after the reorganization of Wahaha Group Ltd., which became a private entity with the Hangzhou government holding 46% of its stocks. The reorganized Wahaha Group Ltd. began to establish its own joint ventures and separate subsidiary entities, which totaled 17 entities in a span of six years. Apparently, Wahaha Group Ltd. used the Wahaha-related trademark in violation of the Wahaha-Danone Joint Venture Agreement.

6. Danone kept quiet with respect to Wahaha Group’s use of the trademark and apparent breach of the non-compete agreement inherent in the Joint Venture Agreement.

7. In late 2006, Danone initiated an offer to buy all of Wahaha Group Ltd.’s companies which are developed outside of the Joint Venture Agreement, and Wahaha Group Ltd. rejected the offer. The dispute went public in early 2007, escalating into a full blown fight over the ownership and usage of the Wahaha trademark.

8. 05/09/2007, Danone Asia submitted the disputes with Wahaha Group Ltd. with respect to the Joint Venture Agreement to the Stockholm Arbitration Institute.

9. 06/04/2007, Danone sued, in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Ever Maple Trading, a company based in the British Virgin Islands, and Hangzhou Hongsheng Beverage, as well as two individuals related to these companies. The two companies are believed to have ties with Wahaha Group Ltd. and Mr. Zong.

10. 06/05/2007, Mr. Zong tendered his resignation as the chairman of the board of directors of the Wahaha-Daone Joint Venture.

11. 06/13/2007, Mr. Zong announced his plan to submit the trademark dispute arising out of the Joint Venture Agreement to the Hangzhou Arbitration Commission.

As can be seen, the facts of this dispute are complicated and convoluted, and both parties are engaging in interesting tactics to gain procedural advantages. I am trying to get my hands on the Joint Venture Agreement to see exactly what they agreed to in 1996. Tomorrow, I will blog about the thrust of both parties’ contentions in their respective arbitration, trial proceedings.

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