Can Billy Sims Revolutionize the Way the U.S. Sells Food to China?

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The company conducted a media campaign in China that drew tons of press, Sims said, and helped make him a household name. (Sims claims he’s more famous in China than in the United States.) He used that notoriety to get his foot in the door with potential backers.

“When Billy Sims comes to China to talk about joint ventures, and we’re the first ones talking about anything like that, it’s news,” he added, saying that his is the best-selling football jersey in the country. “You can be rich and nobody wants to meet you, but people want to meet a so-called star.” Sims said he plans to reach out to former NBA basketball star Yao Ming to be part of future ad campaigns.

After securing his initial Chinese partners, Sims is now on a quest for stateside investors. The company is meeting with U.S. venture capitalists and private equity firms, while also—to sweeten the deal for Chinese investors—pursuing an EB-5 designation, a visa category created in the 1990s for immigrants willing to invest at least $500,000 in an American business or project that creates at least 10 jobs over three and a half years in a targeted area like Detroit. Sims has also gotten pledges of support from the governments of Michigan and Nevada, and that’s where he plans to locate the first food hubs, though there are no specific sites yet. After the first hub is built, Sims said it will be up to his Chinese partners to determine what products are made at future food hubs.

Sims is also working on bringing an “amazing group” of Chinese businesspeople and agriculture officials to the U.S. for an informal trade mission. He clearly feels that Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, snubbed him on past state-sponsored trade trips to China.

“A lot of companies in Michigan would like to sell to China, but the doors are closed,” he said. “The governor only picks certain people to go on these trips, and the only real progress China has made so far in Michigan has been in [Gov. Snyder’s hometown of] Ann Arbor. Our mechanism opens the door for farmers and producers who want to sell to China.”

Sims seems determined to understand and accommodate Chinese culture and the way people do business. He tells a story he heard from his Chinese contacts about a visiting delegation from one of the biggest dairy corporations in the U.S. They came bearing green hats and gave them to their Chinese hosts, promptly kicking off one of those “needle scratching across the record” moments. In traditional Chinese culture, green hats are considered taboo—to wear one means you’re either a cheater or a cuckold. After that faux pas, the dairy conglomerate’s dreams of doing business in China came to a halt.

“We want to take advantage of all the mistakes others have made,” Sims said.

It certainly won’t be easy. As he waits for a U.S. investor to materialize, the Billy Sims/China Food Group, which has 11 employees and is based in Michigan, is moving ahead with its plans. Sims is confident that the market demand in China and his innovative idea for jointly owned food hubs will eventually pay off.

“The Chinese are very warm people, and once they say yes, they say yes,” he said. He employed a sports metaphor to describe his company’s progress and the work yet to be done: For an old running back like Sims, getting the ball down the field for the first 80 yards is mostly a game of catch—the real action comes once you get close to the end zone, he said. “Then, for the last 20 yards, we have to play some football.”

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