Mattel Official Apologizes in China
Mattel, the world’s largest toy maker, apologized to China today over its recalls of Chinese-made toys this summer at a meeting with China’s product safety chief.
Press accounts of the meeting in Beijing said Thomas A. Debrowski, Mattel’s executive vice president for worldwide operations, had apologized to China for harming the reputation of Chinese manufacturers. That prompted criticism from American politicians and others that Mattel was kowtowing to China, where the company manufactures 65 percent of its toys in partnership with dozens of Chinese vendors.
But Mattel countered those press accounts this afternoon, saying they had mischaracterized Mr. Debrowski’s remarks. Mattel sent Mr. Debrowski to the meeting to apologize to consumers in China, not to manufacturers there, a spokeswoman said. His remarks were not intended to address harm that has come to the reputation of Chinese-made products as Mattel and other companies have recalled millions of toys, she said.
“Since Mattel toys are sold the world over, Mattel apologized to the Chinese today just as it has wherever its toys are sold,” Mattel said in a statement.
Nonetheless, Mr. Debrowski’s comments created a furor in the United States.
“It’s like a bank robber apologizing to his accomplice instead of to the person who was robbed,” Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said in an interview. “They’re playing politics in China rather than doing what matters.”
Mattel released a copy of the draft of remarks that Mr. Debrowski planned to make at themeeting with Li Changjiang, China’s product safety chief. In those remarks, Mr. Debrowski clarified that many of the units recalled this summer were magnetic toys that, though produced in China, were recalled because of a design mistake by Mattel.
“Mattel does not hold Chinese manufacturers responsible for the design in relation to the recalled magnet toys,” Mr. Debrowski said, according to the copy of his planned remarks.
A spokeswoman for Mattel said she had not seen a video or heard a recording of the meeting to confirm what Mr. Debrowski had in fact said.
Press accounts from Beijing quoted him as saying that the “vast majority of those products that were recalled were the result of a design flaw in Mattel’s design, not through a manufacturing flaw in China’s manufacturers.” Mattel said when it recalled the magnetic toys in mid-August that those recalls were not caused by a Chinese vendor. That made those recalled items different from the more than 80 other styles of toys that Mattel recalled because they were tainted with lead paint.
Press accounts from Beijing quoted Mr. Debrowski as saying the lead-related recalls were “overly inclusive, including toys that may not have had lead in paint in excess of the U.S. standards.” That was not inconsistent with previous remarks by Mattel executives, who said throughout August that they had recalled more units than necessary because they were being conservative.
But some critics today said Mattel should not have lumped the magnetic recall in with the lead-paint ones.
“They really mixed these issues,” said Dara O’Rourke, an associate professor of labor and environmental policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
Mr. O’Rourke said that Mattel has been more focused on public relations rather than fixing its problems. He said that Mattel used China as a scapegoat for its own problems and that the toymaker is now paying the price for that.
“There’s no question that Mattel is still completely committed to operating in China and needs those factories,” he said. “There was a lot of scapegoating China, but I would argue that this was caused by a system that is designed to push down costs and speed up delivery. There are root causes and Mattel is behind those.”
Management experts said that Mattel is in a tight position with the messages that company executives have to deliver to keep its partners happy.
“They have relationships with suppliers, they have relationships with customers, they have relationships with governments and with investors,” said Steven D. Eppinger, the interim dean and a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But they cannot give them different messages.”
Mr. Eppinger said it is more difficult maintaining good relationships with vendors abroad, and that communications can be misunderstood more easily.
Marshall W. Meyer, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said that Mattel’s legal counsel might not be so happy with the remarks attributed to Mr. Debrowski in the face of the lawsuits.
“I’m no lawyer, but my reaction was this was plaintiff’s Exhibit No. 1,” Mr. Meyer said. “Did the corporate general counsel weigh in on this?”