Chinese Businesses in Transition to Achieve Greater Success
By Joanna Qiao
Standing still or moving forward? Successful Chinese entrepreneurs refuse to do less and are willing to take risks to change their businesses from serving a single ethnic market to serving the mainstream; they are moving from a mono-module business model to a multi-module business model.
70-year-old Philip Ho has never thought about retirement. Working at his Scarborough factory Forward Signs, he often comes in earlier and leaves later than anybody else. Co-leading a successful Chinese business serving both mainstream and overseas markets, Mr. Ho and his team have made the transition through hard work, persistence and the courage to take risks.
“I work six to seven days a week. Hard work is the most important value to maintain a business. Young people talk about ‘balance of work and life’, or ‘work from 9 to 5’. This is when you work for the employer, not for yourself,” Ho said at his office during an interview with RHMCBA.
Having immigrated to Canada in late 1980s from Hong Kong, Ho started his second and now lifelong career at Forward Signs with his brother Simon Ho in 1987. While it originally started as a small signs brokerage with only five to six people, Forward Signs has expanded from a 2,400 sq. ft. facility to today’s 50,000 sq. ft. factory. It serves mainstream clients such as the LCBO, H&M, Bell Canada, 2015 Pam Am Games and more.
Today’s Forward Signs is not the same after thirty years because Ho and his colleagues have a vision that they want to be 20 per cent of the suppliers that take 80 per cent of the market.
“Doing business in Canada, there is a rule of 20 per cent and 80 per cent,” he explained. What he means is that 80 per cent of lower level suppliers are fighting to get only 20 per cent of the market, while 20 per cent of top suppliers are enjoying their share of 80 per cent of the market.
“The very first thing we changed was jumping out of the Chinese community, going to mainstream markets and serving multicultural communities. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to grow any bigger,” he continued.
One of its bold procedures when it came to going mainstream was rebranding. Forward Signs has abandoned all of its Chinese marketing materials, starting with making English-only names for the company and staff. Concurrently, its team also made cold calls to many mainstream businesses, joining time consuming bidding wars with other major market players, and networking at mainstream business associations.
Recalling one of his most challenging attempts to gain a mainstream bank client, Ho tried for two and a half years by making cold calls, sending emails and faxes, and asking for a chance to do a presentation. With no replies, he went to the bank’s branch manager.
“You have been my money supplier for more than twenty years. Can you imagine yourself as my customer? Please help me get a chance to talk to your construction manager,” he asked again bluntly.
Thanks to Ho’s persistence, Forward Signs eventually got the chance to talk to the bank, sent the bid and won the contract.
With hard work and persistence, leaders at the company made a financially risky decision in 2009 to move to their current 50,000 sq. ft. facility after the global economic crisis at the end of 2008.
“The most difficult part of running a business is to make a decision when facing an uncertain future,” Ho said. Back then, Forward Signs had increasing requests from clients to make signs, both bigger in size and greater in quantity. “I don’t feel comfortable with your floor area. How can you serve me?” was a client’s feedback after visiting Forward Signs’ much smaller facility of 10,000 sq. ft.
“We were really anxious after making the decision to buy today’s 50,000 sq. ft. facility. We didn’t know what would happen with the market.”
By turning obstacles into business opportunities, Ho and Forward Signs’ management team have won hard-fought battles. By transitioning their business model to focus on mainstream markets, Forward Signs is now reaping its rewards.
To immigrants in the late 1990s, David Li’s upscale Cantonese restaurant chains, Ambassador Chinese Cuisine, City Inn Chinese Cuisine, and Celestial Court Chinese Cuisine, were popular choices for weddings, celebrations or Sunday’s dim sum family time.
But Mr. Li didn’t stop over there. Foreseeing a market demand in banquet halls, he made a business transition from a solo module food provider to a multi-module event provider.
He opened the very first Chinese-owned banquet venue, La Rosa Banquet Hall, with a home-based chef specializing in Chinese cuisine in 2003 in Markham. Five years later, he opened another banquet hall, Markham Event Centre (MEC).
Located at Hwy 407 and Kennedy Rd., MEC is the new hot spot for weddings, corporate events, celebrations, and trade shows. It is designed to serve the mainstream market, with additional capacity to make fusion and ethnic cuisine welcomed by the immigrant communities of York Region.
Christina, the daughter of David Li, is the Director of Business Development at MEC. Being the next generation from an entrepreneurial family, she has inherited not only the business, but also her father’s innovation and creativity.
“While searching for an event venue, people often end up at a restaurant with both limitations on time and space. It is rare to find a venue in the area that provides upscale Chinese cuisine and space,” she said.
Understanding young couples’ needs to have a well-decorated and luxurious venue for their big day, Christina and the company strive to provide premier food quality but also create a lifestyle environment that is beyond food and dining.
“What we believe in is the balance between the older generation’s preferences concerning food and the younger generation’s preference for a fashionable venue,” she added.
“The market is always changing. Should we drive ahead of the market or otherwise follow behind? It all depends on how much further we can explore to make our business a trend,” she concluded.
- Philip Ho often comes in earlier and leaves later than other people.
- Christina Li is the Director of Business Development at MEC.