If you’re familiar with the New York skyline, you know the famous logo of Manhattan Portage, the standard for reliable, lightweight, functional messenger bags. Founded in 1980, the company has since expanded its bag line to many different styles and an additional high end line called Token. Recently, I, Diana Lee and Peter Yang Zhao of AsianinNY.com met the inspiring Su Hwei Lin, President of Manhattan Portage, the chief executive and trademark owner of this brand and related companies. She gave us her amazing insight on how MP has risen to be the leading bag company in its category. Ms. Su Hwei Lin also shared with us her philosophy on how to become a successful Asian American entrepreneur.
Why do people want to buy Manhattan Portgage bags?
There is a Confucious saying- Don’t sell something you do not like to others. My goods are durable, of good quality, and are of reasonable price. Anywhere I go, I can sell my product because of these strong points. Whether I go to China, Africa, Israel, Libya, America, or Japan, it’s the same mentality.
Who designs the bags?
I’ve been creating all the designs since I started working at the company in 1998, but we just hired a new designers 1-2 months ago. I know what styles look beautiful. Our bags look good because the styles are very simple. Our signature pieces include a red square bag, and also a triangular bag with a single shoulder strap. We were the first to come out with the triangular style. Of course, it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. But if someone complains about a bag, we use their opinions to improve upon our designs. We will do our best. Many famous brands constantly approach us to do collaborations with them.
Where are your products made?
Taiwan. I feel that it is an honor to have our products made in Taiwan. Some Taiwanese manufacturers have factories in Vietnam or China, but because the factories have different standards because they are in a different country. I’m looking for Taiwan manufacturers that have factories in Taiwan, because they have the standards that I’m looking for. I pay a little more, but I feel better.
Where in the world do you sell best?
Asia. But, we sell in 40 countries worldwide, in the top stores all over the world. Of course, we are not at the same level of stores like LV, Prada, but for our price range, we are the top.
How can you become a really outstanding Asian American?
Know your roots. Don’t forget where you come from. Don’t look down upon your parents. I see a lot of Asian kids who don’t know how to speak their language and can only speak English. I think it’s important to speak your native language.. Understand what is good about our Asian culture, and what is not good about our culture. Since we live in America, we also know what is good here and what is not good here. We are bilingual, trilingual, etc. We have a unique combination of both cultures, so we understand more. That is why we are special.
What kind of people work at your company?
My company is very multicultural. We have Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Thai, Americans, German, French, American Asians. We have different attitudes, but we become the same culture because we are in the same company. Very few people have the global mentality and appreciate the benefit of being multicultural, so that is why I have a hard time to find good people. You have to be able to work together in a team and understand each other, and appreciate the advantage of working in a multicultural company. I have European and American experience. I have an Asian cultural background and wisdom, and that is why I can manage the team. I don’t want just the American way of business or the Chinese way of doing business. We are an international business, which means we operate in a logical way. I have a logical way of explaining things to my employees. I am constantly learning from my employees, and they learn from me. There is a Chinese idiom: One is never too old to learn.
How do you feel about your Asian background?
I’m very proud of myself because I come from a very good history, education, culture, family and good country. I always tell myself that as long as I step out of my country, I represent all of the Taiwanese people. A lot of Asian people don’t think about that. If I do something stupid, people will say all Taiwanese people are stupid. I’ve been to many countries, and they treat me differently because I am an Asian woman and I was not happy with the way I was treated. Some people think because I am an Asian woman, they can take advantage of me. But I am very careful of my image, especially when I do business. I don’t drink or smoke. I’m very careful about how I dress – I like to dress well, but I know where to stop, or else people will get the wrong idea. I’ve always been like this and even though I’ve become a millionaire, my attitude has not changed. If you want everyone to accept you, you have to be logical. People have an image of you, and it’s up to you to change it.
I used to go to a massage place in Chinatown and I met a family. They had recently immigrated to America. I treated them to a meal at a nice restaurant, and the child spit on the floor while eating. I explained that he should spit onto a plate instead and also told them that we should pay a tip for the waiter’s service. They didn’t know the ways of America. If anyone else saw them, they would assume that all Chinese people are that way, and not realize that they were new to the country.
How did you become successful at Manhattan Portage?
I started working for Manhattan Portage 1998, but the company started in 1983. When I started working, I had to prove my abilities to my partners. At that time, the famous Manhattan Portage trademark was registered by other companies in many countries. In Japan, the person who registered the logo, was opposed to our business in Japan. My American partner had tried already to retrieve the trademark and failed. But I wanted to try. I asked my partner: What happens if I get the trademark back? They said that I would be the owner of the trademark in Japan. Do you know how long it took for me to get it back? 8 years. I had to do it step by step. In 2000, we were finally took back the logo. You have to prove that you can do what you say, don’t talk too much and don’t give up.
How do you promote yourself?
I haven’t used PR or marketing. I don’t do trade shows. If you have a good product, your product will become well known. People will tell others about your products and it will spread by word of mouth. Our customers use the product until it’s old and worn. But they will come back to buy a different style.
Do you have seasonal products?
I don’t like to be restricted to seasons. The way I dress is the same way, something that I wear in the summer, I also wear in the winter. We like continued business. If I can keep stock 365 days a year and sell it any time, why not? It’s logical. Also, it’s more risky to be seasonal. If you buy the wrong stock, then you can not sell it.
How has your family influenced your personal/business philosophy?
Actually my family retails Western medicine, which is similar to my current business, but with a different product. I grew up watching the family business, so it’s like second nature to me. I saw a lot growing up – I saw rich become poor, poor become rich. I saw how people treat you when you become poor, they disrespect you. I feel like I’m more mature than other people.
My family also valued charity and doing good deeds. Every day, our family’s servants put water and food out for the poor. One time a fisherman was selling a turtle. My mother bought the turtle. I went to my mom and said Mommy, the turtle is crying. My mom said, don’t touch the turtle, we’re going to send him back to the ocean to see his mother. I love to help people. I feel happy when I can help someone. When I was young, I thought it would be wonderful if I could be like GuanYin. We should do something good for our society.
Even now, I order lunch for my employees, because it’s so expensive to eat in Soho. We also have a rice cooker in the kitchen. And if they don’t want to eat what we order, they can bring their own meal. I also provide my employees with H1 visa and health insurance.
What is your advice on becoming successful?
Be Persistant. I decided to come to the US by myself and was very poor. If I gave up when I was young, I would be in Taiwan right now and not here in NY.
Be a good person. Good heart, good thoughts, good behavior. Good behavior leads you in a good direction, producing good results. If you have wrong ideas, you will go in the wrong direction. If you want good people, you have to be good yourself, because good people will want to choose you. You have to become a nice person in order to choose good people.