Business Done Differently

Ben Schwall first came to China at the age of just 15, on a study exchange program. Since then, his involvement with China was perhaps inevitable. We delve into the basics of business.

Ben Schwall inside the Forbidden City in Beijing (1982)

After having experienced the land of Asia as a teenager, Ben knew what to expect. It was spring of 1991 when he decided to pack his bags in the U.S. and move to Taiwan, in search of fame and fortune. And that he certainly found—having starred on multiple media channels including renowned TV stations, the radio and in various magazines, over the years.

Ben Schwall

Originally the manufacturing hub, Taiwan was the perfect place to set up a buying agent business, assisting people who wanted to manufacture products in China. There were thousands of trade companies. However, those companies only offered someone for translation purposes, and someone who made the product that buyers were looking for. There was no “added value.” Herein lies the difference between the typical “middle man” business, and Ben’s value-added business, that now refers to itself as a “supply chain management company”—a service to ensure guaranteed quality. Ben admitted that choosing to act as a service provider, rather than actually being in the trade game itself, was one of the best decisions he’s ever made.

Ben eventually transferred his business entirely from Taiwan to Mainland China, following the industry, with the initiation of his profession and presence taking place in 1997. He commented, “We had to come to China. It was inconvenient, but I didn’t hesitate as I knew that we had to follow where the business was. There were folks doing what I was doing in Taiwan and didn’t take up the opportunity and they went out of business.” Impressively, Ben manages to balance his work and family life, despite his home and family being in Taiwan, and his business in Dongguan. He does enjoy the jetsetter lifestyle, despite it being tiring sometimes. “The general rule is I have ten working days in Dongguan, and then two or three weeks in Taiwan, ensuring plenty of time back home with my wife and children. By that point, the wife asks when I’m going back to Dongguan!”

The unique philosophy behind Ben’s business is full transparency, and cultivated principles, allowing a mutual professional relationship based on trust.

Specializing in the lighting industry, Ben’s business includes around 30 members of staff, of which 20 inspectors float between factories on a daily basis. The unique philosophy behind Ben’s business is full transparency, and cultivated principles, allowing a mutual professional relationship based on trust. This promotes longevity within the business and its relationships. Ben explained, “Cutting me out means going directly to the manufacturer, but what if you have a problem? We are basically the insurance policy.”

Ben Schwall

Ben described, “I notice inspectors at the trade shows, the “Jack of all trades” is floating around the light fixtures—but they can kill a person by burning down a house or electrocute someone if fixtures aren’t fitted properly. I mean, you don’t want the person who qualifies your lighting fixtures to be the same person who inspects sneakers, right?” He made a good point—I certainly would not want that, especially where safety is a concern. He added: “In the lighting industry things are in transition with regards to LED lighting—to understand LED is quite technical—many people don’t know the information on the boxes for example—but the information absolutely needs to be accurate.” Ben showed me images of some of the equipment that his team uses, such as the giant sphere which tests the CRI (color rendering index) of lighting. Apparently, not all factories provide accurate information, either deliberately, or because they just don’t know.

Something I was particularly fond of, was how Ben described his team and the importance of “lunch.” Yes, you read that right. His company insists on the entire team having lunch together every day, cooked by the ayi, who has been with Ben’s company for 16 years now. Promoting family values and communication across departments, I believe that more companies should follow this excellent idea.

Due to items becoming more expensive in China, Ben made the decision to branch out to India, with the company’s first employee now coming to China for training. “Just as I was not afraid to move from Taiwan to the mainland, I now feel the same way regarding expanding from China to India. However, it will take a while for their supply chain and infrastructure to match China on all levels.” Ben added, “I would like to have the business continue, hopefully across different countries.” His advice to others in a similar situation was, “Don’t be afraid of change!”