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Ben Zhang, Founder and CEO of Greater China, Advises Entrepreneurs to ‘Think Big’

“If you discover someone’s pain – what makes him sleepless – you’ve made a sale. When you find a solution for that pain, you’ve gained a customer for a lifetime. When you focus on meeting someone’s needs, you don’t just make a sale, you gain a friend.”
-Ben Zhang, CEO, Greater China

Ben Zhang is CEO and founder of Greater China. Ben holds an EMBA from Cornell University and Queen’s University. He is also a University of Washington and Harvard University Alumni.

Greater China is a manufacturer and importer of custom OEM product. The company sources product needs as simple as printed toy stickers, to as complicated as detailed injection molded OEM components used in manufacturing. Since its inception in 1995, Greater China has enjoyed steady growth and demand for high-quality, high-value import services.

Q: You have an amazing story about how you got started in business. Please share it with us.

A: In 1989, my cousin, who had studied in the U.S. for more than a decade, encouraged me to go to college in the U.S. I enrolled at Lincoln University in San Francisco, thinking that since it had a famous president’s name, it would have a huge campus. It was one building in downtown San Francisco. I later learned that I had mistaken “Lincoln University” for The University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

My cousin told me about another, larger university, Fresno State. I spent 13 months there in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program and improved my English. One of my roommates at Fresno State got accepted as a computer science student at the University of Washington (UW). He told me Seattle was a beautiful place, the UW was a great school, and he encouraged me to apply.

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I applied and moved to the Seattle area, but my English as a Foreign Language test scores were not high enough, and I didn’t get accepted. So my friend suggested that I go to South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia. I went there for two years and studied Accounting. Then I went to the University of Idaho in Moscow, ID for a semester. I did very well there, so I re-applied to the UW and got accepted.

During my last quarter at the University of Washington, I took a course in Business Entrepreneurship and wrote a business plan for “Greater China.” I submitted my business plan to my professor Shannon Hauser and he gave it a “C” grade!

A few months after graduation, in 1995, I rented a 10’ x 10’ corner booth at the Washington State Convention Center for the Seattle Gift Show. I had $770 in my bank account, and I spent $580 of it to rent the booth. I brought product samples from the business plan competition – promotional items such as tape measures, rulers, pens, gadgets, gift items… chotskies.

During the first three and a half days of the Gift Show, nothing happened. People stopped by and asked, “What do you have? What’s the price for 20 of these and 40 of those?”

I was so disappointed. The fourth and last day of show, I got a copy of the Seattle Times newspaper and started looking for jobs. I was getting ready to take down my booth when four people walked up. They started picking up items from the table. I said, “There are more here,” and I pulled out boxes of samples and put everything on the table.

They picked out about ten items and asked, “How much?”

“What’s the quantity you’re looking for?”

They pointed to items and said, “One hundred thousand of this item. A quarter million of that one. And a half million of this one.”

My jaw dropped. “I beg your pardon? Why do you need so many? What are you going to use these for? Do you have a business card?”

They handed me a business card and explained that they sold advertising for promotional products to a large bank. “We put the bank’s logo on these items. When customers come in to do their banking, they give them baseball caps and pens and the like that promote their brand.”

While we were talking, the Gift Show closed, so I told the customers that I would have a price quote ready for them the following Monday, after confirming the production costs with my manufacturers in China. (I had contacts with five factories in China that had supplied the samples for my business plan.)

Two weeks later, my first and only customer issued me a deposit: seven purchase orders for $65,000 each. I went from having $190 in my bank account to having $455,000.

My customer didn’t know if they could trust me, so they checked my references. On my list was the UW professor who had given me a “C” on my business plan. They called him and asked, “What’s your experience with this student?”

The professor told them he thought I had integrity and was dependable. He added, “If for any reason, the deposit you pay Ben is not returned, come and collect it from me.”

That professor believed in me. He called me and said, “I heard you’re conducting a half million dollar transaction with your client. Make sure you deliver nothing but quality, and deliver their product on time. You’re not only representing yourself and your company; you are representing me and the University of Washington Business School. Once you deliver these projects, I’ll let you come in my class to share the experience with my students.”

You can bet I delivered quality products, on time.

Q: Do you still abide by that same business philosophy?

A: Yes. We ask our customers what their needs are. We assess their requests, look at the risks and benefits, and if we can make it work, we do it.

We care about developing long-term relationships with our customers. I believe that if you discover someone’s pain – what makes him sleepless – you’ve made a sale. When you find a solution for that pain, you’ve gained a customer for a lifetime. When you focus on meeting someone’s needs, you don’t just make a sale, you gain a friend.

Q: How has your company grown over the years?

We have clients all over the U.S. and some in Canada, and we continue to grow. We sub-contract with Chinese factories to manufacture eight categories of products, including Cut & Sew (bags, caps, clothing, uniforms), Custom Plastics, Custom Metals, Drinkware, Small Electronics, and more.

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We have sales teams in Bellevue and Shanghai. We are opening a sales office in Philadelphia in September 2013. In the next two-to-three years, we will open sales offices in Texas and California.

Q: What advice can you offer young entrepreneurs in China who are considering attending university in America?

A: America is such a land of opportunity and freedom. My advice is to dream big. Have a goal. If you come here to study, particularly to study business, an American education offers lots of practical knowledge.

Q: What would a person from China find appealing about the Bellevue/Seattle region?

A: This area is unmatchable. I studied in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Canada. The Seattle area is so beautiful. The climate is mild and has many natural resources. During our long, rainy winters, people aren’t tempted to go outside like they are in California. So they stay inside and think. As a result, a lot of creative, entrepreneurial people live here.

Geographically speaking, Washington State is the closest state to China, and it is the only state out of 50 that enjoys a trade surplus with China. Ocean vessels coming from Shanghai to Seattle can get here in as few as 10 days, which is excellent for importing and exporting. Hainan Airlines and Delta both have non-stop flights from Beijing or Shanghai to Seattle.

The business climate here is incredible. We have Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, PACCAR, Starbucks, and Costco. There are hundreds of aerospace technology companies, biotech companies and e-commerce pioneers here. There is a reason why those companies are headquartered here. Bill Gates could have chosen anywhere in the world to live, but he chose to live here.

The education system in top-notch. I wish I had known about Bellevue College when I first moved to America! The University of Washington is one of the top-10 best public universities in the U.S. Several high schools in Bellevue are ranked in the top 40 in the nation.

Q: What is the secret to your success in business?

A: I’m a hands-on CEO. I work closely with my people in supporting them to succeed, and I don’t micro-manage. Nobody wants to be micro-managed. I trust my staff and, like a family, we support each other – they work for me and I work for them.

A lot of companies put the company’s interest first; they don’t put employees first. I believe that’s a mistake. When companies put employees first, they not only survive, they prosper.

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