Mei Xu: Crossing Borders With Chesapeake Bay Candle
Mei Xu left China at the age of 23 to study journalism in the United States. One lackluster job and three years later, Xu started Pacific Trade International, a global marketer of candles and home décor products. Within a year, Pacific Trade’s signature brand, Chesapeake Bay Candle, had partnered with major retailers such as Hallmark and Target. Since then, Xu has expanded the company and established about a dozen boutiques in Asia.
Though Xu now calls the U.S. her home, she visits China at least three times each year. “The distance helped me appreciate China more,” she says. “No doubt, my link with China actually strengthened when I left.”
Xu’s company now brings in $90 million a year and employs more than 2,000 people.
I grew up in Hangzhou during the Cultural Revolution. China opened up in 1976 after Chairman Mao died. Before, it had been closed to the outside. I remember vividly when President Nixon visited our city in 1972. Ever since then, things changed.
When I was 12 years old, I was chosen to study at a new foreign language immersion school that was established to produce diplomats. My focus was English. I was mesmerized by American pop culture. As part of our English studies, we watched movies like The Godfather and Out of Africa.
After six years at boarding school, I spent four years as an American studies major at Beijing Foreign Studies University. At that time the World Bank was starting environmental projects in China but lacked good language translators. So I started working part-time as a translator for the experts brought in from all over the world. Later on, I coordinated some projects in Stockholm and London. I liked the travel particularly - I found it educational and fascinating.
I graduated in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square Uprising. All students who graduated that year were sent outside of the big cities, to the countryside and the suburbs. I was sent to work in a warehouse in Dalian, a coastal city that exported minerals and metals. It was pretty boring and I had little chance to speak English for a whole year. I resigned and applied to graduate school.
I was interested in communications and wanted to work for the World Bank. I picked the journalism school at the University of Maryland and came to the U.S. in 1991. When I graduated, the bank had a hiring freeze for noneconomic or financial majors. So I found a job in New York at a high tech medical company that exported equipment to hospitals in China.
I lived near a Bloomingdales. I was always drawn to great designs. so I liked to go there just to see the trends. In China, there was nothing quite like what I saw in Bloomingdales. The store had designers like Donna Karan and Calvin Klein with clean and modern aesthetics. But the home floor had a lot of Laura Ashley and traditional European-style furniture with ornate, decorative aesthetics. I kept telling my husband, “Why come home to what looks like your grandmother’s apartment? Where is the contemporary furniture and decor?”
My husband, who was working for a Navy contractor in Washington D.C., said, “You’re not happy with your job and we don’t know when the World Bank will give you a job-;why don’t we start something?” For him, this time was an opportunity for us to try entrepreneurial ideas.
I needed trustworthy advice. So I relied on my friends in China who worked in the booming foreign trade business. I knew I wanted to focus on home decor and a product that worked with my design aesthetic. Once I started asking my friends for trade ideas, they gave me product recommendations-;silk flowers, cushions for chairs, and candles.
My husband and I resigned from our companies in 1994. We went to the Charlotte Gift Fair in North Carolina to get feedback from people there. We set up a booth that was like a bazaar, a garage sale. Truly, it was an interesting way to narrow down our options. But from that booth came the truth-;we needed to focus on candles. Maybe it was because it was September and people were looking for holiday gifts, but the candles sold better than the others. From that point on, we were focused.
The big obstacle for small entrepreneurs who want to make a unique product is the scale. When we went into business, factories weren’t cooperative. Most shipped forty containers of one style. It’s hard to say, “I want to order 300 of this product in this color and 500 in that color.” The factory would say, “You need to give me an order for 20,000 pieces.” The nature of mass production is such that at the push of a button, you produce two or three thousand pieces each hour. We needed our own factory.
At the time, my sister was working with her husband at a computer company in Hangzhou. They heard about my frustrations with a factory. In 1995, they started a factory to make our product in small and large quantities, depending on our needs. It gave us a pair of wings. It became our base in Asia and to this day my sister still runs it.
There were moments when we had to make some tough calls. In the middle of the financial crisis, we were facing high shipping and labor costs in China and Vietnam. We searched for our next manufacturing site and chose Maryland. People said, “What are you doing in Maryland with a factory?” Well, we made a million candles for the first time. We hired a lot of people, not just blue collar, but people with backgrounds in engineering and management.
Today, I have a great group of people I call my family. It’s a big family now. We have 50 in the PTI headquarters in Rockville and over 70 in our factory in Glen Bernie-;and we’re adding as we speak. We have over 2,000 in Asia.
When I was alone for a year in New York, it was difficult. I was alone and my parents and all my friends were all back in China. But I learned you need to go through some soul-searching to understand what your strength is and how you want to apply it. Life has this way of offering you a different course.