The factory offices have no walls, the scaffolding is made of metal, but looks like bamboo, and not a single carpet tile plant worker has been hired. But on this October morning the main concern is getting them fed.
Nolan Howell, Shaw’s China director, is surrounded by contractors in what will one day be the plant’s canteen. Rectangles and squares, painted in white to represent tables and chairs, cover the concrete floor beneath their feet. Nearby is a dim empty space where stoves, sinks and refrigerators will soon be installed.
Even though the opening of Shaw’s carpet tile plant in Nantong to serve customers across Asia is months away, the details have to be ironed out now, down to where hundreds of pairs of chopsticks are to be stored. “You put it on paper but when it comes to life it’s a totally different experience,” he says.
Howell and the contractors spend the next few minutes huddling over a clipboard, Howell’s eyes reviewing the life-size blueprint sketched out on the floor. Although there are no lights, they can easily see each sketch by the daylight shining through the huge vacant gaps in the wall, which will be filled in with glass.
“We don’t want the canteen to be a dark hole,” Howell tells me. Big windows are not just a physical design element but part of building an empowering corporate environment. “We value our people, and we expect them to invest in the company. If they’re going to work here we want them to be happy,” he says.
Most factories in China give little thought to the happiness of their workers or the quality of their leisure time. They are built with one goal in mind –productivity. The typical Chinese worker gets few if any days off and works such long hours he is often too tired to do anything but go to bed. Shaw has a different mentality. It all goes back to the company’s values – honesty, integrity and passion – ideals Howell strives to live by as he goes about building the plant and hiring the people who will make it successful.
He then makes his way into the dim space that will be the kitchen, where a doorway leads into the plant. Given the amount of traffic that will flow back and forth each day – the canteen can hold 282 people – the doorway seems rather narrow. Howell asks, “can we make this bigger?” The contractors confer in Chinese and then translate an affirmative answer. Even though the walls are thick, nothing is set in stone.
Satisfied, he steps through and takes stock of the factory floor, a three-story, 22,000 square meter behemoth big enough to fit the Grand Central Station main concourse inside. Howell and I head up the stairs and emerge on a landing with a view of, as he puts it, “the whole operation.”
It’s hard to believe just how fast the building has risen.
Search Google Earth for the Shaw carpet plant, and you’ll find satellite images of farmland. Just two months ago, the construction site was mud, gravel and grass. Since then, 120 workers each day have laid a steel reinforced floor, with 2000 pilings driven deep into the earth; fitted skylights; and cut hundreds of pipes in different colors – red for fire protection, blue for cooling and yellow for natural gas.
Satellite image of the Shaw plant in Nantong and the Sutong Bridge
Howell looks out at the empty space, and it’s clear to me he can see and hear the impending hum of production – yarn to tufting to backing to cutting – laid out in his mind’s eye. Given the speed with which the factory has taken shape, it will be no time at all until we can see it too.