An Interview With a Chinese Entrepreneur
The Yizhou Hengye Silk Company is different. It is owned by Hengye Lu who was born and raised in Yizhou. Mr Hengye used to be a farmer of mulberry and silkworms. But since 1991 he has been a silk entrepreneur. He has found it a good way to make money.
It started, he says, as the result of a local government initiative who were keen to improve the local economic situation. This rural part of southwest China has lagged behind the more developed east and south coasts, and the general ethos in China is for these areas to share some of the newly found Chinese wealth. In order to do this they have been encouraged to modernise.
I ask him about the help he has received, and he says this has come mainly from the local government, not grants, but help such a advice on liaising with banks.
'It was my own decision,' he says, and Mr Hengye was the first man in Yizhou to take the plunge and invest in processing silk.
His factory is modern, three years old, and so his machinery is close to state-of the art (see previous post for details) but he is always on the look-out for improvement - mainly methods of increasing automation and productivity. I ask him about the quality and he says it is good, not quite as good as the silk produced in the old established centres of Shanghai and Hangzhou, maybe, but improving. He is proud that the factory is air conditioned, and given the hot and humid climate, it must sometimes be a pleasure to come to work. Altogether he now employs 1000 people. They are mainly women, the wives of farmers, housed in the flats he has built for them near the premises.
He also employs 20 graduates - engineers and people specialising in sales and marketing - and he now exports his silk all over the world. For Mr Hengye the future of silk is bright (though even he noticed a decline in demand in 2008, particularly from Europe). The silk leaves the factory on the newly built roads (presumably another government initiative), and he is looking forward to further developments with optimism and energy. He has dreams to establish a silk clothing factory in Nanking for his son to run, and he plans to extend the operations of this Yizhou factory to process double cocoons into padding for quilts.
It was interesting to come across someone who had changed his life, and those of a lot of other people, through perseverance and self-belief. He seems to have a lot in common with Messrs Thompson, Noble and Armstrong in Galgate in Edwardian Lancaster, or the Huguenots during the reigns of Elizabeth and Stuart.
It can happen so quickly. Just forty or fifty years ago China was starving and the cultural revolution had closed down the universities, schools and many of the industries, and from he reports I've read, everything seemed hopeless. The same is true for pre-Elizabethan and pre-industrial England, or post-war Germany and Japan. Life was hard and desperate and yet there were people with vision, and a downtrodden workforce prepared to work for a better life. Maybe sometimes the best way to succeed is to start with nothing at all.