The following is an excerpt from a story in USA Today story outlining niche market camper builder SylvanSport’s loss of sales due to Chinese “copycat” manufacturers. To read the entire story click here.
SylvanSport founder Thomas Dempsey learned last summer that a product similar to one he’d patented was being made in China when a customer sent him a link to a Chinese company’s website.
On the website, Dempsey found a recreational camper trailer that looked eerily like the one he designed and patented and sells through his 8-year-old Brevard, N.C., company.
“We were shocked,” says Dempsey. “We thought at first that what we saw was our product, but as we looked at some of the video and photography, we realized that this is tooled up from scratch.”
It was the beginning of what would be a nightmare for any small-business owner. Since then, distributors in South Korea and Japan have opted to market the Chinese company’s product instead of Dempsey’s. A Japanese distributor mistakenly thought it was buying products from SylvanSport’s Chinese factory, says Dempsey. Confused consumers have also e-mailed SylvanSport, asking about its affiliation with the Chinese product, owned by Wuyi Tiandi Motion Apparatus, a maker of dirt bikes and camping gear in Jinhua City in eastern China.
These problems have left the promising U.S. upstart, whose camper trailers retail for about $8,000, in a precarious position. While SylvanSport expects a “break-even” year, with sales around $3 million — more than double 2011’s — business could suffer in coming years if distributors keep fleeing to the Chinese competitor, Dempsey says.
In 2011, SylvanSport got about 15% of its sales from outside the U.S. and about half of that from South Korea, Japan and Australia. Dempsey expects 30% of 2012 sales will be international.
“Our politicians, when they describe the companies that are necessary for the economic recovery, (they are talking about) companies like ours,” he says. But because of SylvanSport’s lost sales, “There’s a very real chance that the Chinese company could be the survivor here and we could go out of business.”
Legions of imitators
The “shanzai,” or copycat, culture is thriving in China. A Google search for “shanzai China” produces references to Dolce & Banana, KFG fried chicken and the HiPhone, imitations of Dolce & Gabbana, KFC and the iPhone. You might even find a reference to the Goojje search site, whose logo once closely resembled Google’s.
China isn’t the first developing nation to struggle with a copycat business culture. Most nations — even the U.S. — faced the same issues during the last century, says Cai Jun, a professor in the industrial design department at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Developing nations imitate the more advanced technologies of other countries in order to learn, says Cai.
Yet in Asia, “The Western idea of intellectual property seems not yet fully established,” says Peter Zec, the founder of the Red Dot Institute for Advanced Design Studies in Essen, Germany, and a former president of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.
The severe copycat problem in China and other Asian nations exposes foreign companies, big and small, to copyright, patent and trademark infringement issues, legal experts say.
China is the “factory to the world, so you’re going to have good stuff produced and bad stuff produced,” says Joseph Simone, a partner in the intellectual property practice group at the Baker & McKenzie law firm in Hong Kong.
In the past, it was “fairly common” for Chinese factories that produced legitimate products to be used at night to make counterfeit goods using the same raw materials, says Leon Perera, chief executive of Spire Research and Consulting, a Singapore firm that specializes in emerging markets. Today, what’s more common is for Chinese companies to reverse engineer a product, or take it apart to figure out how it’s made, then order parts to produce a similar product, according to Perera.
That’s what Dempsey believes happened in his case.
He says that in late 2009, a man in the Los Angeles area ordered a SylvanSport GO, an 800-pound aluminum camping and travel trailer. The customer wanted the product shipped to China but insisted on arranging his own shipping. That raised a red flag, but “as a small business struggling to get going, every sale counted,” Dempsey says.
SylvanSport describes the GO on its website as “more versatile than a Swiss army knife.” It folds to a trailer that can be used to carry boats and bikes on top then converts to a camper with a self-inflating mattress and a tent that sets up in minutes.
To read the entire article click here.
Brevard, N.C.-based SylvanSport LLC has learned that Wuyi Tiandi Motion Apparatus Co. Ltd. (TDR MOTO), a manufacturing company operating out of Zhejiang, China has begun manufacturing and selling counterfeit versions of the popular SylvanSport GO, according to a press release.
Designed and manufactured entirely in the U.S., the SylvanSport GO is a lightweight, reconfigurable, camping and utility trailer that has been widely praised for its innovative design features. The GO “was copied down to the color scheme and even the marketing support materials,” said Tom Dempsey, founder and president of Sylvan Sport.
Sylvan Sport said that “this is an unusually blatant example illustrating the increasing problem of many of China’s most accomplished companies achieving their success by pilfering the intellectual property of other industrialized nations.”
The company claims that in the case of SylvanSport – whose three original reconfigurable US travel trailer patents (566623, 566624 and 566625) were filed in 2007 (along with a subsequent PCT[i]) – a customer purchased a GO camper from the North Carolina factory in 2009, shipped the unit to Los Angeles and subsequently dispatched it to mainland China, where it is now being manufactured by the Wuyi Tiandi Motion Apparatus Co. The reverse-engineered “TDR Camper” is currently being offered on Alibaba.com – a Hangzhou, China-based retail Internet business (HKSE: 1688).
Sylvan Sport said that China remains on the United States Trade Representative (USTR) Priority Watch List. The latter currently includes 12 U.S. trading partners – China, Russia, Algeria, Argentina, Canada, Chile, India, Indonesia, Israel, Pakistan, Thailand, and Venezuela – who are deemed to be providing an inadequate “level of IPR protection or enforcement, or market access for persons relying on intellectual property protection.”
To speak with SylvanSport about this or any other questions, contact Kyle Mundt at (828) 883-4292 or firstname.lastname@example.org
SylvanSport, the North Carolina-based maker of mobile adventure gear, recently engaged Silver Steep Partners to serve as its exclusive financial adviser and to review the company’s strategic options, according to a news release.
The company designs and manufactures a line of outdoor adventure/utility trailers. The company’s flagship model, the SylvanSport GO, is a mobile camping trailer and gear hauler for outdoor enthusiasts. The award-winning GO can also be customized for military and law enforcementand non-governmental agency work such as forward operating posts, crime scene command posts, medical stations and disaster team recovery sites.
Tom Dempsey, founder of SylvanSport said, “We have had significant growth, even through the recession, but continue to be limited in our ability to execute those growth plans to the fullest based on the current, post-financial crisis lending market. We’ve asked Silver Steep to help us better understand our options and to help in either finding growth capital or a partner that can provide such growth capital.”
Nathan Pund, president of Silver Steep Partners, said, “SylvanSport is a wonderful company with a capable team. It has developed unique products that tap into durable market shifts. This has positioned the company well for future growth through a growing worldwide customer base. And it doesn’t hurt that their products are a lot of fun.”