Founding Chairman Winston Chiu: The Man who Brought Taiwan Machinery to the West


2011-07-01
Report by Greg Niederhaus Way back in 1967, a young machinery salesman from Taiwan landed in St Lawrence. Winston had no idea what snow was, didn't have much fluency in English and was clueless as to the local customs. He paid the taxi fare, waded through the snow and knocked on the front door of a dealer he was sent to contact. A small window opened and he introduced himself as "a machinery sales fron Taiwan". The man turned to his friends chiding, "Get a load of this guy. Claims Taiwan makes machinery like we do. You best stick to toys and umbrellas, son!" The window slammed shut. Winston was on the street with no parka and couldn't find a taxi. Through the 17 degree chill he walked all the way back to his hotel. "I don't know how many miles it was, but when I got there my face was frozen with no feeling." He sat down in his room and wept. "Gam bin na," he cried in his native tongue, "What have I gotten myself into?" Decades later he laughs heartily as he describes his beginning in a foreign land. Too Big of a Bite ******************** It felt like he had bit off more than he could chew. He realized that in order to not go home empty handed, he had a lot to learn. "I realized that I was an extra terrestrial." For half a year he tried like blazes to master English, adapt to the culture and figure out the customs. Try as he did, he found himself on a plane back to Taiwan, heart full of tears and shame, as his total sales resulting from his debut sales mission amounted to zero. He faced his boss like an embattled fighter would his coach after a devastating round. His boss threw Winston back in the ring... he knew Winston was tough. After all, prior to his budding career in the woodworking machinery industry, he was stationed in the jungles of Taiwan and helped train American GIs training for Nam in the tactics of guerilla warfare. They all smoked Winston cigarettes... "The first half of my career was spent trying to fit in to American society." Gradually, Winston got involved with the Woodworking Machinery Dealer Association in the United States. He learned that the WMDA consisted of 8 regional master dealers who covered 5 or 6 states each. Beneath them were sub-dealers in all metropolitan cities. For ten years he built up his own network for the sales and distribution of woodworking machines from Taiwan. By this time, he too had 8 master dealers with 53 sub-dealers. At a dealers' conference in Atlanta, some of his dealers called for him to create a new name for his machines. "Our clients can't pronounce brands like 'Xun Feng, Ren Yuan, Shen Qiao,' and we can't pronounce these names either!" He went to the quiet small city of Highpoint, just outside of Atlanta, and found the local watering hole. "Everyone was so curious about me. They had never seen an oriental before. They kept asking me questions, and I had such a good time that I chose "HIGHPOINT" as our new brand name. Here's where the story gets better: "I saw a very beautiful woman. So I moved over to her and used the American way to say, 'Hey Buddy, how are you tonight?' It worked, and we became friends." This artist from Miami ended up designing the graphics, slogan and logo for HIGHPOINT, which is still being used today. His dealers were very impressed when they learned that this new trademark for America was born from the bravado of the only Asian man in a pub hitting on the hottest lady there. The Irony of the Empire **************************** "This happened 28 years ago," Winston points out. "Only recently is our government encouraging Taiwanese manufacturers to create their own brand names.” Looking back, he regrets having only registered the brand name in the States and Taiwan. HIGHPOINT is a name being used all over the world. "Winston, you are a giant now!" His friends say in amazement. "Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan... Industries like furniture, automation, even KTVs are included in your empire. Your brand is all over the world!" He laughs, "All of them demand to drink for free at the KTV on Nanking East road! I don't even own it, but sometimes I break down and tell them the truth..." Prejudice and the Right Place *********************************** He recounts a journey he took to find the location for the new HIGHPOINT US headquarters. The mayor of Salem, North Carolina suggested that city but he discovered it was "no good for oriental people. Everywhere was so quiet. It was not good for oriental stuff. No KTVs, no entertainment, no oriental food." Now, Winston is not one to complain. But as he shares the vicissitudes of his success there are stories of racial prejudice and dodgy businessmen in his wake. He tells the story of feeling bored and lonely one night, and heading down to the bar to seek a solution. Once again, Winston spots an attractive lady and offers to buy her a drink, American style. For two hours they spoke happily of all kinds of things. Things were going great, it was two in the morning, and just as he invites her to the next stage of the encounter, a local boy moves in and swipes her away. They left together and poor Winston was left feeling like ET once again. "You know, it's just not fair. I broke the ice, I bought her drinks, I warmed her up, and her own countryman just stole her away! I went home crying again." He roars, "How can I base my headquarters in a place where the women are scared of a foreign face?" Duped by a Distributor *************************** Twenty years into his career, Winston found himself addressing the audience at another conference. He had thought deeply about American psychology, and what it would take to break out of his ET Taiwanese identity and be accepted at the community level. The first half of his business career, he emphasizes, was spent learning to be more assertive and less subordinate. The next half was spent building and flourishing. "I come from Taiwan!" he thundered into the microphone. "Now I declare, this is the third encounter of the third kind. Yes, I came from outer space. I came from Taiwan. I was ET before, but this is the close encounter of the third kind, because now I speak your language, and my machinery has infiltrated your territory!” Indeed, Winston Chiu built a Taiwanese woodworking machinery network in the States that actually surpassed what existed when he first arrived. He grew so successful that some WMDA dealers viewed him as a threat. One dealer in Boston was particularly nasty. He posed as a dealer for HIGHPOINT, and bought a container full of HIGHPOINT machines. "I was so happy until I found out the truth. He was worried that his competitors would also become my distributors, so he stashed the container in back of his warehouse. He didn't want them to see the potential and threat my machinery posed. You see, he was already distributing for European brands and when he saw my machines he knew HIGHPOINT could rival those companies, he tried to make mine disappear while posing as my representative. It took me five years to figure this out!" Major Contribution to Taiwan / American Trade A Blunder Turns Bionic ********************************************************************************** One night in Montgomery Alabama, 1986, Governor Hunt was delivering a speech to welcome the Taiwan Trade Mission of the Forestry Industry. Winston was the chief delegate at the time. At that time Taiwan had become the main supplier of woodworking machinery to the United States; bigger than Germany, bigger than Italy. "Welcome friends from the Peoples' Republic of China!" said the governor. If you check the news today regarding WHO terminology for how Taiwan should be called, you'll know that Taiwanese may be sensitive about being called China. "When he realized this blunder, his face turned red at first, and then it became green. I told him not to worry, and I let him off the hook." With the vehemence of a politician running for office he shouts, "'Yes, I am the people, the people from Taiwan, the people from the Republic of China! Yes, we are the people, the people who love freedom, democracy and prosperity!' Because he was the governor, so I had to deliver with that attitude. He loved me because I relieved the tension." As things turned out, he was so happy that he chinked his glass with a spoon so hard that the beer inside spilled on the table. "I informed him that the beer was a joint venture between Taiwan and the US. The wheat came from Ohio, the hops from Washington, and the water and technology came from Taiwan. Let's toast, to the Republic of China!... Actually, none of that was true and I tricked him, but nobody noticed!" The night got crazier. The governor had such a good time that he handed over the mic to Winston, and Winston took over as host for the evening. The band would follow his lead on cue, Winston was granted honorable citizenship of the United States, and by the end all the local ladies were practically lining up for his company. A gentleman never tells, and what ensued later in the evening remains a well kept secret. Back to Outer Space ************************* Winston saw the market in Southeast Asia starting to take off, and decided to relocate back to Taiwan to develop the local industry further. The trend back then was single function machines for solid wood. Panel processing technology became the focus of his new factory, and this technology combined with traditional machinery from his prior factories allowed HIGHPOINT to offer consulting solutions for a variety of production lines. "If you look at things vertically, panel saws, double end tenoners, edge banding machines and multiple boring machines comprise a complete procedure for panel based furniture production. But if you combine a double end tenoner with a multi boring machine, add a rip saw in the front and a wide belt sander in the back, it becomes solid can process both panels and solid wood. The X axis is for panel processing, and the Y axis is for solid woodworking. This theory, when put into practice, kept me engaged with traditional solid woodworking machine factories. I needed them and vice versa. All of these machines comprise full production lines for a variety of furniture, which allows us to supply dual industries." He went on to explain how European woodworking machinery was designed more for the thousands of cabinet making shops across Europe and the US. What they need is light duty machines, not heavy duty. But after 1986, all Asian factories were OEM suppliers. They needed high output equipment built to produce twenty four-seven, non-stop year round. Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia... This kind of manufacturing did not exist in the West. Europe was producing excellent machines, but they were designed for cabinet workshops. "One day a Vietnamese owner who'd been trained in Czecklosavakia for mechanical engineering was using our machine to lip panels with ten millimeter solid wood called and asked if he could use twelve millimeter lipping. We told him to go ahead. Half an hour later he asked about 15 millimeters. We told him to try. He had to swap longer trim cutters but he was delighted. He asked, 'Why is it that European machines designed for ten millimeters can't exceed ten mil, but yours can?' We said, 'the Taiwanese build machines to exceed the performance we specify.'" Another example of Taiwanese-machine-over-building philosophy comes back to a Japanese client. The standard was 21 meters per minute for edge banding. He asked if he could go up to the specified maximum 30 meters. No problem. Then he asked if he could push it to 40 meters. Winston said, "Go ahead, but don't use the crosscut function because the spindle won't match the feed speed.” Elaborating, he says, "You know, the Japanese are economic animals. They edge everything first so they need higher speeds. They cross cut and edge those lines when that's all done. But Europeans like to edge four sides at a time. The Japanese way is much faster. Now you can see, that's the basic difference between Taiwan machines and European machines, even now." If you feel samples of edge banded or lipped panels that HIGHPOINT puts out, you can hardly tell where the edging and panel surface meet. TWMA Chairman: The Clean-up Man ******************************************* Back in 1986, TWMA was in a bit of a shambles. There were two branches, "just like the mafia", and at the old style KTV's there were often bloody fist fights between members of these branches. Certain families couldn't sell to certain areas. It was stipulated in the chapters that the chairman had to be a member of one of the branches. Winston was neutral, officially known as a trade company owner. The senior members of these branches got together and approached Winston, beckoning him to stand as chairman. "I am not qualified, I am independent and you have rules against this." They said, "No, no, no! We modified the stipulation!" Within a week, he was chairman. "Pretty soon, nobody was bloodied anymore." He went on to re-write the chapters so that no one chairman may serve more than two three year terms. Hence, no one family may control the association for too long. (When his time to resign came they didn't want him to go, but he did what he said he would do.) Funnily enough, when things get a bit disarray within the association, Winston Chiu is still called upon to make an appearance, give any offending members a good verbal walloping, and strong arm them into productive cooperation. If there's anyone who can kick this kind of behind in TWMA, it's the pioneer old timer who kicked major behind over there in the US of A. There is no disrespecting the Great Grand Uncle of the Taiwan Woodworking industry, just like in the mafia. No Wonder he is a Wonder ********************************* "I was trained in guerilla warfare, but I didn't stay in that. I was trained as a lawyer, but I never went there. My life is strange, my life has been special. I never would have known things would go this way." In fact, when you engage Mr. Winston "Churchill" Chiu, time disappears faster than the speed of light. He is a hilarious man, an accomplished man, wise, passionate and wild. He is not going anywhere. We asked about his latest technology. He gave us the details and we will write about that next time. When asked how in depth we could get, technically speaking, he said he has no secrets. "By the time they figure out how to copy my stuff, my new stuff will already be in production!" Always a step ahead, it's no wonder the industry can't do without him. *** Law school nickname was Sir Winston Chiu because his surname Chiu sounds like Churchill. ***
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