Monday, July 16, 2007

Wahaha & Danone Dispute: “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”

To my fellow Texans, “the good, the bad, and the ugly” may mean the University of Texas at Austin, the Texas A & M University at College Station, and the University of Oklahoma, depending on where your loyalty lies.

To those following Danone’s dispute with Wahaha Group, this unique expression bears extraterritorial meaning.

Back in 1996, the Danone + Wahaha joint venture (“Marriage” as the Chinese media puts it) seemed rosy, promising, and “good”. Danone had the capital, international management know-how, a world renowned brand name, and much more; Wahaha Group, on the other hand, had an evolving Chinese brand, the local market, and Zong Qinghou, Wahaha’s charismatic chief. As expected, the joint venture grew into something quite respectable, 39 sub-joint ventures and controlling market share in China’s beverage business.

A lot of “bad” surfaced ever since early spring 2007. Arbitration claims have been filed by both sides in China and Sweden; Danone sued Wahaha in a state court in Los Angeles. In response to attacks from Danone on both sides, Danone threatened to sue three foreign board members on the joint venture board, alleging breach of fiduciary duty.

The “ugly” is coming in like waves in this growing international show of will and force. First, responding to Wahaha’s arbitration petitions in the Hangzhou Arbitration Commission, Danone has filed counter claims. [full report here] According to Danone’s attorney Randal Lewis, so far
“there has been no circumstance or event that is sufficient to result in the termination of the rights and obligations of the parties under the Trademark Transfer Agreement.”

Second, Danone’s litigation lawyer in the case pending in Los Angeles, which is against Ever Maple Trading and Hangzhou Hongsheng Beverage Co, said that Danone has a witness who can testify against Zong. [full report here.] The witness, named Chen Zhonghua, claims that Zong forged Chen’s signature to set up companies overseas that compete against the Danone-Wahaha joint venture. If the “marriage” metaphor about the joint venture has any merits, this would the stage of the divorce where parties dig out as much dirt as possible against each other. [by the way, as of July 13, 2007 based on this Chinese report, Zong’s wife and daughter sued individually in L.A. have refused service of process.] Boy, this is getting ugly or what.

Third, Wahaha has joined forces with another party in another lawsuit against Mr. Qin Peng of Danone in the Intermediate People’s Court in Shenyang, Liaoning Province. [read about it here.] Wahaha Beverage Ltd. and Shenyang Lingdong Shiye Development, Ltd., respective shareholders of Wahaha Group, filed derivative suit against Qin Peng for breaching his fiduciary duty by serving on the board of other companies competing against the joint venture. They base their complaint on Article 149 and 152 of the Company Law of the P. R. China (2005), which provides shareholders a right to file a derivative suit against board members for breaching their fiduciary duty to the company.

More dirt out there?

Wikipedia has a pretty good entry on this dispute.

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