Globalization The Global Toothbrush

How many employees does it take to manufacture a toothbrush? Forty-five-hundred employees, 10 countries, five time zones. The making of one electronic toothbrush illustrates capitalism's global reach.
Von Ralf Hoppe

It features a pearly white finish and streamlined neck, purrs like a kitten, weighs in at 161.034 grams, and costs €130. Presenting the Elite, the perfect toy for the affluent of our world. The sun never sets on its empire. When it comes to the Elite, an 8 percent market share is too little, some 20 million users not nearly enough. Those who serve this plastic icon must do battle in places like the Philippines. On the outskirts of Manila, for example.

In a little yellow house, for example.

Mary Ann Cole turns off her alarm clock and slips from between the covers. Quietly, so as not to wake her two sisters - Amy and Emelin - with whom she shares her bed.

Mary Ann has about seven minutes.

It's 4:25 a.m., first light. It's her week on the early shift. That means she clocks off at 2 p.m., arrives home by 3, and has time to look after her own small business in the afternoon. Most recently she's begun dealing in blue jeans: investing, buying, selling - it's all very exciting.

She tiptoes to the kitchen. Mary Ann likes this house. They rented it when they first came to Manila, she and her six brothers and sisters, for 8,000 pesos a month, about $140. Their father back home can't understand - a sin, so much money, and for what? Just for a place to sleep?

But the father lives far away on the island of Cebu. He knows nothing of the swing-shift rhythms of the factory; he doesn't know that you must never, ever show up late. He also knows nothing of the new age, in which money has to be earned constantly - only to be spent again. You either swim or sink, Mary Ann's brother said recently. He has now gone into the mineral water business, in addition to his day job at the wig factory in San Pedro. He buys a bottle for 25 pesos and sells it for 35 pesos - i.e. roughly half a dollar. Once you achieve a certain volume, he explains, it starts to make sense. The problem is reaching the breakeven point. There are eight siblings in all. One brother stayed behind in Barangay Guiwanon, their home village, to help their father.

Mary Ann dons a fresh T-shirt, pink with a cartoon dragon, and ties back her hair. She is a slip of a thing. When she laughs she covers her mouth with her hand. Her cheeks are pockmarked with what look like the scars of severe acne. From the refrigerator she takes a bowl of tuyo, salted fish. Adds a spoonful of cold rice and a cup of water. They have a coffee machine, but it is reserved for special occasions.

The house has a small garden, four by five meters. They grow papaya, camote and sweet potatoes. She looks at the sky: clouds are scudding past, lightening flashes behind San Pedro. The monsoon season has begun. Mary Ann hails a jeepney, an inexpensive ridesharing taxi. Time is short.

Mary Ann Cole, 28, is an assembly operator at Integrated Microelectronics Inc., a Philips supplier. She is but a foot soldier in the empire of the toothbrush, one of 4,500 workers of two dozen nationalities. But she understands the meaning of globalization. Globalization means business. And business means competition. Every day, you need to swim. Or you sink.

Is globalization unfair, Mary Ann?

"How so?" She lowers her gaze.

Isn't it unfair, for example, that you earn less than your counterparts in the United States or Germany for doing the same work?

"Unfair?" She fidgets in her chair, and glances toward the interpreter. She is probably thinking: What a strange question. Unfair? What's the point?

"I like my work. It's a very big opportunity."

The globalization process began 600 years ago, when Europeans discovered the world in order to appropriate it - by means of cartography, religion, violence, economics and transportation. What we are now experiencing is the final act of this drama: a world completely conquered, in which commodities, goods and information circulate freely with no place beyond their reach. It is the heyday of the outsider.

38 components, 12 factories

Philips and its suppliers produce the electronic toothbrush "Sonicare Elite 7000" and its sister models at 12 locations and in five time zones. Once or twice a week, some 100,000 fully-functioning circuit boards leave the Manila factory where Mary Ann works. From Manila's cargo airport they are flown via Tokyo to Seattle. A half day's delay can wreak havoc in the entire system, which operates with a minimum of inventory and extremely tight timelines.

A tour through the precision machine that is "Oral Healthcare Philips" is an odyssey through a globalized universe - a realm almost purged of Europeans with their romantic ideals of justice and ugly, expensive strikes. The relocation to Asia is nearly complete.

The toothbrush is essentially comprised of 38 components. The parts for the energy cell, a rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery, are supplied by Japan, France and China. The circuit board, its electronic heart, comes pre-etched from Zhuhai in the Pearl River delta of southeastern China. The copper coils originate from the Chinese industrial city of Shenzhen, not far from Zhuhai. They are wound by armies of women with bandaged fingers. Globalization is largely a female phenomenon.

The 49 components on the board - transistors and resistors the size of match heads - hail from Malaysia. They are soldered and tested in Manila by Mary Ann and her coworkers. Then they are flown to Snoqualmie on the West Coast of the U.S., the site of the parent plant. Meanwhile, back in Europe, the more complicated plastic parts are trucked from Klagenfurt in Austria to Bremerhaven in Germany. Klagenfurt also supplies blades made of special steel produced in Sandviken, Sweden. A freighter from Bremerhaven takes the half-finished brushes across the Atlantic to Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. From there they cross the continental United States by train. And in Snoqualmie, a 40 minute drive from Seattle, the final product is assembled and packaged.

By this time the components have traveled a full 27,880 kilometers, two thirds of the Earth's circumference.

Philips is a Dutch corporation. But there are only two Dutch citizens among the 120 people on this carousel of cultures and continents. The foreman in Snoqualmie comes from Gambia. Bernard Lim Nam Onn, the boss in Zhuhai, is Chinese, but was born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore. There are Irish, Ukrainians, Indians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Thai. Globalization is carving out new biographies and cross-referencing them around the world. By now Mary Ann Cole is sitting in the jeepney en route to the pickup point where the company bus departs at 4:45 a.m. sharp. Meanwhile it is quarter to eleven in the evening in Klagenfurt - the previous day - and Peter Heindl, an engineer at the local Philips plant, is packing his rucksack for the next morning. Come rain or shine, he rides his mountain bike to work. Four kilometers from Wurzelgasse to Koningsberger Strasse, a distance he covers in less than 15 minutes.

Heindl's wife will be having their baby very soon now, and he himself has the job of a lifetime. He is an excellent engineer. At least that's what his superiors say. He says he has always enjoyed tinkering and building crazy contraptions. So he runs the test lab where they design the machines that measure how often an electric razor can be dropped from a first-story window, or how long a toothbrush will last at the North Pole. Saharan conditions prevail in the "Libya" climate chamber; in the rain forest simulator the toothbrush is exposed to years' worth of tropical humidity. Peter Heindl and Mary Ann Cole have never met. But if Heindl's tests revealed a flaw that could be traced back to the circuit board, the Philippine supplier, Integrated Microelectronics Inc. (IMI), could lose the contract - and Mary Ann would probably lose her job. Meanwhile, her cheap labor enables the global player Philips to hire expensive, creative boffins to staff its R&D and testing facility in Klagenfurt. People like Heindl, who are given license to experiment in the hopes that they will happen upon good ideas.

Sundown in Europe, sunrise in America

When Heindl goes to bed, Wayne Millage is still sitting at his desk in Renton, on the U.S. West Coast. He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt. It is one of those rare Seattle days when the sun is shining. Millage is 47 years old and has intelligent brown eyes; he speaks and thinks quickly.

Renton is situated east of downtown Seattle, a nondescript neighborhood with an industrial park along 27th Street: home to the Allpak/Trojan cardboard and packaging works, named for the ingenious camouflage packaging gag the ancient Greeks used to smuggle their soldiers into enemy territories. It is lunch time, but Wayne, as always, just picks up a large coffee to go from the Starbucks at Pine Lake Mall. No sugar. He pops grapes into his mouth. He saves a couple of bananas for later. That's his noon meal.

Wayne gets up every morning at 5:15 a.m. By 5:30 he is at the Pine Gym for an hour of exercise and muscle training. Shaved and showered, he is at his desk by seven. He supervises 247 employees, eats only fruit during the day, and drinks beer or wine at most on weekends. His father was an air force officer.

His fingers rest on the laptop keyboard. He is reading the monthly report e-mailed by Les, his financial director. They have purchased a new printing machine from the German company of Koenig & Bauer in Würzburg, a Rapida 142 that is three times faster than the Japanese model they have used to date. Wayne is looking to expand.

Wayne sees the big picture; he is a man of vision. His company has grown along with the computer industry. Allpak/Trojan's clientele include Intel and Microsoft, the most demanding customers on the West Coast.

"This toothbrush is not just a toothbrush. And our box is a lot more than just a box," he says. "We now print in seven colors. Besides the four standard shades there are two metallic colors, a laminated coating, plus embossed printing. We make the most sophisticated box in the world. It has to be perfect. Our job is to give the box a voice."

But Wayne, the box just gets thrown away. Sevencolor printing, embossing - why all the fuss?

"Because the world has changed."

How so?

"The supermarkets and department stores don't have sales clerks anymore. Consumers wander down the aisles alone. Shopping habits have changed. In the U.S., 70 percent of all purchases are made on impulse. So who is to know what consumers will buy? And because there are no longer any clerks saying, 'Hey, mister, how about a toothbrush for 120 bucks?' we need the box. So that it speaks to consumers all over the world, and does it in a split second. The consumer either buys spontaneously - or not at all. If the product doesn't get sold, the supermarket chain tosses it off its shelves. And then Philips has a problem, and then I have a problem."

On the outskirts of Manila, the storm has now broken right over the communal taxi that is taking Mary Ann to the pickup point. Rain whips through the small, windowless car. She always brings along a small plastic tarp, and now wraps it around her. Last year she was named "Employee of the Year": never a minute late, never a day sick. Her citation hangs in the room she shares with her sisters. When she stands in front of the certificate, she thinks: That's me.

In the universe of a global player like Philips, with 160,900 employees in more than 60 countries, there are incentives for everyone and a unique language, a newspeak of English, Spanish and Chinese, a mixture of abbreviations, ciphers and military terms.

The "Essence," the precursor of the "Elite," is called "Chameleon"; the code word for the "Intelliclean," the next generation with integrated toothpaste, is "Onyx." The engineers don't like things to be called by their real names. It's a bit like in the CIA.

Battles are raging on the customer front; strategic maneuvers are planned, marketing offensives launched. The corporation is divided into five divisions. Household Appliances & Bodycare produces shavers, electric kettles, vacuum cleaners, irons, toasters, coffeemakers - and the toothbrush. The corps has a clinical-sounding name, "Oral Healthcare," which looks good on business cards. The sales reps have their sights set on the dentists now.

The new fault lines of the globalized world

The language mirrors the mood in the organization. People talk fast, move quickly and constantly "shoot" e-mails, even if the recipient is sitting at the other end of their open-plan office. Japanese-style Kaizen are conducted regularly in four of the five branch offices. A Kaizen is a daylong departmental brainstorming session on how to become cheaper and better.

The competition is fierce, even in the high-price segment: Braun has put out a "3D Excel" which has received excellent reviews; then there are the "Interplak," the "Dentasonic" and the "Waterpik Sonic Speed." Moreover, the trends that influence purchasing behavior are scarcely predictable. Even in a conglomerate like Philips, with annual sales of €30.3 billion, a trivial little toothbrush has to earn a profit.

"If not, the department gets closed down," says a manager.

Philips estimates that some 300 million people worldwide already use an electric toothbrush. That figure could be close to 900 million in five or 10 years. Health awareness is increasing; the product caters to status consciousness; it has high-tech appeal. The difference between 300 million and 900 million defines the mission.

The battle can only be won on a global scale.

The Philips people had a crucial edge when it came to globalizing the toothbrush business. They were newcomers - they didn't invent this product, they simply bought it.

One summer five years ago, Royal Philips Electronics N.V. acquired Optiva Corp., a company in the former logging town of Snoqualmie. Financially speaking, it was as though a blue whale were swallowing a sardine. Although Optiva was well-positioned in the U.S. market, with a workforce of just 600 and modest sales of $175 million, it was not a global player.

The sardine was owned and managed by a certain David Giuliani, a man with cunning eyes and millions in the bank. A man who would still drive to a plumbing outlet to get a washer for a nickel - and take pleasure in that bargain for days. The Optiva toothbrush he invented represented an innovation, because it dispensed with the standard motor to power head rotation. The Optiva uses an induction coil. Electricity flowing through it causes two small magnets to vibrate; the vibration is transmitted to the brush head by two laser-cut steel plates to the sonorous tune of some 31,000 oscillations per minute.

Giuliani was reputed to spend a lot of time on the assembly lines in the production hall; he knew his 600 employees by name. But of course he didn't hesitate a second to sell them to Philips - allegedly to invest the millions in a new project.

Philips beefed up the workforce and went on the lookout for cheaper suppliers - outside the U.S. The scouts fanned out. They found IMI in Manila, which trumped all other competitors with the lowest price per circuit board. PI Electronics in Shenzhen was chosen for the copper coils. An efficient marketing system was put into place.

The town of Snoqualmie remained the headquarters. Its traditional heart along the main street is still charming and sleepy: 102 years old, with patchouli-scented souvenir shops and a railroad museum dedicated to the plucky, bearded pioneers of the past. A few minutes' drive uphill, on SE Center Street and all around the Philips plant, everything is squeaky clean and spanking new. There's even an Italian espresso bar. The real estate prices have exploded; the pioneers of the future work here now.

A few months before Philips bought the factory, the Gambian Mamadou Kolley landed a job there. He was 38 then, but felt older. His life had been hard, a catalog of disappointments. He saw the opportunity at Optiva as his big chance. The Philips takeover frightened him.

Gambia is a diminutive country, at least by African standards. A narrow strip of land on the Atlantic coast, along the Gambia River, surrounded on three sides by Senegal. Kolley is the son of a peanut farmer in the village of Dimbaja, south of the capital of Banjul. He was lucky. By the time they had their tenth child, his parents had recognized the importance of education. They sent Mamadou to school and later to college.

He was a model student. In 1980 he won a scholarship to study in the U.S., initially at Laurenburg, North Carolina. By day he attended classes, by night he toiled in printing plants, grabbing sleep on the bus. And he was terribly lonely. But he had grasped the fact that the world was changing, that learning to swim today meant not sinking tomorrow. He faithfully prayed five times a day to Allah, and never touched beer or cigarettes.

After the Philips takeover, Mamadou advanced to foreman, overseeing shifts of between 45 to 75 women who operated the laser saws or mounted the circuit boards in the brush handles. These are truly workers of the world, and Mamadou is a global foreman. He thanks his Russian staff with "Bolshoi spassiba," greets their Korean colleagues with "An yong shimny ka." And for anyone who is from Ghana or Nigeria, he also speaks Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Yola and Serere. He owns a house in Kent, on Highway 18. His wife Senabu also comes from the Gambia. They have two daughters. He has made it. Indeed, Kolley's world is wonderful.

But he is not happy.

The man who fled from poverty to the United States, who is like an alien from outer space in his home village and a star to his nine older siblings, wants to return to Africa. He has bought property in the city of Serekunda. The house will cost about $50,000; one of his brothers is handling the arrangements. A few weeks ago Mamadou packed a container with 28 aluminum windows and doors, along with modular kitchen units and bathroom fixtures, and shipped it off to Serekunda.

Mamadou, how many toothbrushes leave the plant each day?

"The number varies. Including spare heads, between 10,000 and 27,000."

Do you have one?

"Oh yes. I do, so does my wife, and even Bintou, our eldest daughter, has one. The toothbrush is great, really."

And in your home village?

"There it's the joke of the century when I talk about it. We don't even have electricity."

Why do you want to go back?

"What America does to people isn't good. Everyone is lonely. Everything revolves around the dollar. Capitalism and globalization are not good for people."

Mamadou's house should be finished in two and a half years. When the house is built, he wants to abandon the system he was determined to embrace 25 years ago. America has become harder in this quarter century, he says. Perhaps Mamadou has become softer too, especially now that his 28 doors and windows are on their way to Serekunda.

In the two and a half years he has left in Snoqualmie, he and his coworkers might well witness production being progressively farmed out to China. A worker in Mamadou's team earns between $9 and $14 an hour, depending upon her position on the assembly line. A Chinese worker  brings home about 1,000 renminbi a month - i.e. $120, or roughly $0.75 an hour. Just over 5 percent.

The new fault lines  of the globalized world no longer run between capital and labor. They run between labor and labor, between capital and capital, and perhaps even between Philips and Philips.

Next month most of the production of the lowercost "Essence" model will be shifted to Zhuhai, where electric razors have been assembled to date. Supposedly, the workforce in Snoqualmie won't be reduced - but it certainly won't be enlarged. "We have to cut costs," says a manager.

Opportunity knocks in China

For Bernard Lim Nam Onn, who has headed the Zhuhai factory since July, the new production work presents an opportunity.

While Mamadou Kolley is preparing his night shift, a hard day at work is ending for Bernard Lim Nam Onn. As Quan, his driver, pulls up, Bernard Lim Nam Onn climbs into the back of the mid-sized Buick and opens his laptop. He was in Shenzhen today, at PI Electronics, the plant where the coils for the toothbrushes are made. The visit included a KE, or key event, and a lengthy QAM, a quality assurance meeting. Quality control currently commands HP, high priority, among the Chinese engineers and managers. How will they cope with testing the quality of the circuit boards themselves? Until now they have only worked on the production end, leaving evaluation to others.

"But we aren't satisfied with that," says Bernard Lim Nam Onn.

He is a short, slender man with a colorful silk necktie and a youthful face at 41. Like Mamadou, he is a product of globalization. A Protestant, he was born in Malaysia, studied mechanical engineering in Glasgow and wrote his master's thesis on hydraulic systems. With a sigh he confesses that he might have preferred majoring in philosophy - but he was burning with ambition and a desire to acquire marketable skills.

He has now spent three years in China. He conscientiously imitates the customs of American executives. He plays golf, although it does not come naturally, and goes "casual" on Fridays after wearing a tie from Monday through Thursday. The ringtone on his cellphone is Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," and when he interviews job candidates, he asks them about their main goal in life, as prescribed by management textbooks. He met his wife at Philips. She was a secretary then; now she spends a lot of time decorating their small apartment. He spends 10 to 12 hours a day at his desk.

Why do you work so hard, Bernard?

"I do it for the sake of my career - and my country. It is very, very important that China gets ahead."

Do the Chinese want to dominate the world? He looks as though he might want to say yes, but the question puts him on his guard.

"Dominate? I'd prefer to say that we want to play a more important part in the global concert."

The ride from the factory to his home takes half an hour, time enough for him to write up a brief report on his visit to PI Electronics and draft half a dozen e-mails. In his apartment on Nam Ping Street on the outskirts of Zhuhai, Bernard showers, slips on shorts and a T-shirt, sits down in his study, and sends off the mails. His wife has cooked supper: fish, beef, vegetables, a salty soup as a beverage. After the meal he helps clear the table. Then he goes out for an hour-long stroll with his wife. Afterwards he reads the electronic versions of the Financial Times and the Straits Times, Singapore's English-language newspaper.

It's the same procedure every day.

"You work best when you establish a routine," he says.

Unlike his counterpart Mamadou, Bernard Lim Nam Onn never has a moment's doubt about the blessings of globalization: Every day he witnesses how the cities are mushrooming, sees how satisfied the people are because they have a job, a purpose in life. And this in the China where memories of the last famine still linger. Bernard Lim Nam Onn wants to leave Philips at 45, start his own business and become really rich.

Why is globalization taking over?

"It's an economic law. Just like evolution is a natural law," Bernard says. "The best quality - the best price - always wins."

Are the Europeans the dinosaurs of the globalization age?

"Oh, absolutely not! I admire European technology and engineering. There's still so much to learn." But he smiles. Perhaps the idea of a European fearing China appeals to him. The world is changing.

Four and a half hours later in Manila, it will be time for Mary Ann Cole to get up. Quietly, so as not to wake her sisters, with whom she shares her bed.