We made a leap as a company in the late 1980s and early 90s by looking for opportunities to develop beyond North America. One of the emerging markets abroad that intrigued us the most was China. Here was a market suddenly laid open to foreign investment that had for many decades been strictly controlled by a central government; one that potentially contained one billion customers. Here was a monumental business opportunity if ever there was one.
When we first landed in Beijing in 1989, what we discovered a city that was caught in the throes of modernization. Huge discrepancies immediately leapt out at us. We couldn’t help but notice the hundreds and hundreds of contemporary high-rises (with their attendant construction cranes) that dotted the skyline, and how this evidence of economic progress seemed to jar with what we saw in the streets: millions upon millions of commuters entirely reliant upon bicycles to get around the city. The photograph I took of a Chinese worker peddling a bicycle as it towed a series of steel container drums has never ceased to amaze me. It seemed to me that time in the streets was still waiting to catch up with the ambitious pace of the new city skyline. It seemed to me to be a huge opportunity in the making.
We’ve been in business in China for 23 years now. It hasn’t exactly been easy money. We came at a time when plenty of other Western companies were picking up interest in doing business with China, and time and again, we had to carve our niche against fierce competition.
This isn’t to say that we didn’t succeed. In fact, 25-30% of our business now comes from mainland China. Thanks in part to us, that picture of a bicyclist peddling steel drum containers has long-since been replaced by a modern forklift carrying steel drum containers gripped by modern drum-handling equipment. After all that’s been said and done; after all the travel costs, official meetings, and unofficial toasts that we’ve been through in China, we’ve calculated that we’ve added 8% to our bottom line by doing business there, a job well-done by any company’s standard.