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Execs re-pack their bags for Asia

Jeff Linville, BCST Staff -- Home Textiles Today, June 16, 2003

New York — With billions of dollars in business at stake, retailers and home textiles executives are wrestling with a resumption of travel to China as the SARS epidemic apparently becomes more contained and some health warnings are scaled back.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention downgraded notifications for Hong Kong from a travel advisory to travel alert earlier this month, prompting some executives to pack their bags, while others remain hesitant.

"The CDC says it's safe to go, so that's good enough for me. We are resuming our travel overseas in mid- or late June," said Loren Sweet, president, Carson, CA-based Brentwood Originals.

And last week, Ex-Cell Home Fashions' vp of offshore operations, David Samelson, finally was able to relocate permanently to Hong Kong. He was supposed to move overseas a few months ago but was forced to wait until conditions improved.

"We feel pretty comfortable traveling again," Barry Leonard, president, said. "We have been fortunate in that we have not had SARS creep up on us in our factories or offices."

Ex-Cell owns and operates one factory in southern China and an office in Hong Kong. It also works with several vendors in China.

Richmond, VA-based Ashford Court, last week decided that, unless there's another major outbreak of SARS, "we are returning either the last week of July or first week of August, depending on when we can coordinate our schedules," said Neil Zuber, president.

But just as some have one foot on the plane, others are far less eager.

"It's looking for trouble," said Bud Frankel, president and ceo, The Arlee Group, New York. "It's too soon yet. We'll probably go sometime in October or November."

Frankel has the luxury of postponing his trips to China, he said, because 90 percent of his new products are "already in the works," and all of the company's designs and product development have been completed.

Town and Country Living, New York, is also taking a "wait and see approach," said chairman David Beyda.

"We know the ban has been lifted, but right now we don't really have to go if we don't have to. We have an office in China, and all of our designs are done and our samples are on schedule with deliveries for the fall."

Like many others, Beyda has employed technology, including video conferencing and "many midnight phone calls," he said.

Add to that list teleconferencing, e-mail and a heavy flux of overnight mail services, in the case of New York-based Croscill Home Fashions.

Carl Legreca, vp, merchandising and marketing, bath products and decorative accessories, said he is not ready to resume travel to China. "I'm more afraid of the airplanes than anything else because I don't want to take the chance of being in a confined area for so long with anyone who is sick," Legreca said. "We've managed to get the job done [using other methods], but it's not the same as in-person contact."

Legreca explained that, while production and deliveries have run smoothly, the company has faced some challenges with product development.

"They e-mail us images or send us samples overnight, and then we send them back. We're constantly going back and forth," he said. "But it's definitely harder to get new ideas and develop new lines via e-mail."

Also holding off on travel to China is Boca Raton, FL-based Hollander Home Fashions, which operates plants in China. Jeff Hollander, president and coo, said his company has managed to offset any potential impact by doing "business more effectively through e-mail and phone... If we can't have people going back and forth by October or November, we'll start having a problem, and then we'll start looking at things like broadband and teleconferencing."

Hollander admitted the company has already felt some pains with sampling. "It really slows us up on sampling because overnight mail is now weekly. Everything over there is held in quarantine for a week before it's shipped."

On the fence, too, is Elrene Home Fashions' president and ceo Mark Siegel.

"We're definitely considering going back soon, and our vp of global sourcing is looking to return to China sometime in July, based on what we're hearing from the CDC."

Like its vendors, Menomonee Falls, WI-based Kohl's has continued business as usual via conference calls and video conferencing, said spokeswoman Tawn Earnest.

Dallas-based Tuesday Morning's Kathleen Mason, president and ceo, said it has not had "one single incident, not one delay, not one problem, not yet." For unrelated reasons, Tuesday Morning has slowed down its direct importing efforts and concentrated more on working with its vendors, many of whom import their goods from China.

The Great Indoors, based in Hoffman Estates, IL, also has not experienced any delays or other problems, Anne Poglitsch, buyer, soft flooring.

"I've asked the question to my vendors," she said, "but none have expressed any worries, so I'm not worried. In fact, we have a lot of product coming out of China, and we have not seen any effects [from SARS] at all."

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