American executive: '100 percent, I got held for ransom' by Chinese workers

An American executive detained for nearly a week inside his Chinese factory said his freedom came with a half-million dollar “ransom” paid out to the employees who held him captive.

“I got held hostage, or held ransom, for severance pay,” Chip Starnes told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie on Friday, surrounded by family members as he spoke. “One hundred percent, I got held for ransom.”

His company paid out about $500,000 to $600,000 to resolve the issue, but Starnes, currently in Florida with his family, said he fully expects to return to China.

“We have significant investment of millions of dollars over there. That equipment is important to us, and we have to figure out how to put our hands back on that and get back over there,” he said.

Starnes, 42, is the president of Specialty Medical Supplies, which has operated a plant just outside of Beijing for the last decade.

The company recently laid off about 35 workers from that plant after it decided to move part of its factory to India to reduce production costs. Each laid-off worker received a severance package, but Starnes said remaining workers soon began demanding similar compensation deals, even though they were still employed.

That led to the six days of captivity for Starnes, who was barred by dozens of employees every time he tried to leave the plant.

“Some false information got out. I guess it spooked a lot of people in the factory, that the whole factory was going to be moving, not just one division of it. At that particular point of time, the whole entire factory turned against me,” Starnes said. “I guess they thought that I was going to pick up 100,000 square feet of machinery, carry it out it in a backpack and not pay anybody.”

A deal ultimately was reached Thursday between Starnes' lawyers and the employees, but his departure from the plant included changing his escape cars twice.

Previously, Chinese union officials said the dispute involved unpaid wages for current employees, but Starnes adamantly denied those claims.

“That’s absolutely false, 100 percent false,” he said, insisting he did nothing to provoke employees into detaining him. “Everybody was paid, and at the end of this, yesterday morning before last, they all got paid a lot more than they should have.”

Starnes said he wasn’t sure when he would return to China, but said that other key company officials, including his chief financial officer, were taking care of the plant.

“We have counsel over there in China right now, that’s communicating with vendors,” he said. He also claimed several employees also were interested in returning.

Until then, he will enjoy time with his wife and three children at home.

“I’m just looking forward, quite honestly, to something simple, going and grabbing a pizza, having a drink this evening, and just letting things settle down a little bit,” he told Guthrie.