A captain of industry demonstrates the spirit to carry on.
Several years ago, on a panel at chinafest, an annual festival of Chinese culture at the University of Richmond geared toward better understanding between the citizens of both nations, I listened with rapt attention to Ting Xu, a pretty Shanghai-born woman in her early 40s, as she told the audience her story of coming to live in America in 1986.
I was on the panel to talk about the 30 intrepid women who, in 1934, had walked the Long March with Mao Zedong, 4,000 miles across China and up the Tibetan Plateau, the subject of my book Unbound. In my research, I had interviewed the last female survivor of this extraordinary journey, Wang Quanyuan, who had been a bold teenager when she set out on the trail with the dream of changing the way women were treated in China. Like Wang, Ting had come from humble means, but seized the opportunity to change her life.
Because of wage controls in China, recounted Ting, who held herself proudly but spoke with a soft voice, her family was on food rations—despite the fact that both her parents were engineers—and three generations lived in a two-bedroom apartment. Her grandmother had all of her grandchildren take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to see who should receive the family’s scarce resources, and when Ting did the best, the whole family helped pay her airfare so that she could accept a scholarship at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
In a few years, she had earned her master’s degree in computer science. She landed a job with the state health department and moved to Richmond with her fiancé (and eventually husband) Frank Qiu.
After Ting’s parents retired and immigrated to Virginia, Ting was looking for a way to set them up independently. She saw an opportunity while visiting a family that were making decorative flags on their apartment floor. They worked 10 hours a day, but only made two or three flags. Ting told us it was not “a viable business model,” but she had an idea.
She went to the retailer and said, “Why don’t you give me a big order, and I’ll see if I can make them overseas?” They bit, to the tune of 400 flags, in four designs: a sailboat, a snowman, a hot air balloon and Santa Claus. Ting had to deliver them in two months. She had never made a flag before.
But her mother was an electrical engineer and was “good with processes, figuring things out,” Ting says. Right away, she started making patterns, dissecting production stages, and streamlining wherever possible. She bought a sewing machine and made flags step by step. Ting flew to Shanghai and started networking. She met with clothing manufacturers, bought fabric and thread and found a partner. When she returned to Richmond with the 400 flags ahead of the deadline, fate dealt her a twist: The business that ordered the flags was having financial trouble and couldn’t pay for them.
That did not stop Ting any more than the hardships of the Great Snowy Mountains had slowed, but not stopped, Wang as she marched forward to free Chinese women from domestic bondage. And that’s what I most admire about both of these women: the spirit to carry on, even in the face of withering odds and when things go wrong.
Ting learned that the state fair was coming, signed up for a booth and sold all the flags. Before long, she had started a company, Evergreen Enterprises, and soon opened holiday kiosks in malls in Richmond, Petersburg, Fredericksburg, Charlotte and Raleigh. She always took the time to talk to her customers. “I was learning from them, asking about choices, sizes and packaging,” she says. They wanted more choices, including floral and Halloween flags.
Halloween? Ting went to the library to learn about this unfamiliar holiday’s symbols—black cats, witches and jack-o-lanterns. Her mother scoured coloring books and other sources to come up with new designs. Her father, a civil engineer, did the manual labor, building displays and converting their garage into a warehouse. In 1995, as the wholesale business picked up, Frank sold his insurance company and came on board as CEO. Ting’s brother, James, who also studied computer science at ODU, joined in, creating a sophisticated system to manage orders and inventory.
Thanks to ingenuity and acquisitions, Evergreen grew from two to 10 to 20 to 300 employees. In 2002, Ting established a logistical facility, housing quality control and product development teams, in Ningbo, China. Evergreen bought other businesses specializing in house and gardens products, and then, in 2003, it converted a deserted Richmond shopping center into its headquarters and warehouse.
In 2010, Evergreen bought Plow & Hearth from 1-800-FLOWERS.COM Inc. for $17 million, and expanded its bricks-and-mortar stores from six to 22. Today, Ting’s little project to keep her parents busy is the largest flag designer and wholesaler in the nation, producing millions of flags each year and more than 12,000 other home and garden products.
“I am very fortunate that every day I wake up, I can do something I am passionate about,” says Ting. “This is a fast-paced, competitive business. I am constantly learning and reinventing.”
Though their paths diverged widely, I feel certain that Wang, the Red Army soldier, who was still a dynamo at age 93, when I talked to her, would have admired Ting, the dynamic captain of industry. And I am amazed at how the horizon for women has changed during the lifetimes of Wang and Ting, partly through their efforts.