Category Archives: Journey to China

As told by Newsweek correspondent and NY Times contributor, Dan Levin.

Opening Day in Nantong

The red carpet is unfurled, the sign-in book is open and a line of sharply dressed greeters –boutonnieres pinned to their lapels –stands at the entrance of a huge tent draped in red and white fabric. Fashion show? Graduation ceremony? A little of both actually — and more.

Opening day in Nantong

We’ve travelled 65 miles from Shanghai to be here in the port city Nantong, China to celebrate the opening of Shaw Industry’s new carpet tile plant, a 210,000 square-foot manufacturing hub that has already begun to serve the Asia Pacific region with a wide range of completely recyclable, Cradle-to-Cradle-certified products. Hundreds of invited Shaw associates, clients and international designers have come from across the globe for the opening, which has also drawn a host of Shaw executives and Chinese government officials who have been intimately involved with the plant’s creation from the very beginning.

All this pomp is relatively new for Shaw, but it’s a tradition in China, where new businesses go all out to celebrate the affair with banners, floral arrangements and banquets. And like at the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympics, Shaw’s event is steeped in the celebration of Chinese culture.

Indeed, once the guests find their seats, a dozen female drummers in traditional Chinese opera costumes and vibrant headdresses unleash a thundering percussion on instruments the size of wine barrels, followed by a burst of applause from the audience.

For those present, especially the Shaw executives who have worked long day and — thanks to multiple time zones — nights for the past several years, today’s ceremony represents the end of one journey and the beginning of the next. The timing comes as summer turns into fall, the season of harvest, a fitting moment to mark the occasion.

shaw carpet tile plant nantong china

Shaw has invested $45 million in the Nantong plant, which will employ 250 people producing five million square yards of carpet tile for the Asia Pacific market, where the majority of carpet tile is sold outside of North America. With China the world’s third largest buyer of carpet tile — sales have grown 20% annually — locating the plant in Nantong not only gives Shaw access to the region, it provides an ideal setting for servicing customers across the country from a home nestled amid the city’s rich heritage in woven textiles.

None of this would have been possible without Shaw’s commitment the company’s core values of honesty integrity and passion — values that transcend borders and cultures. Such commitment has been essential to Shaw’s success around the globe, especially in China. “Though we are separated by thousands of kilometers and multiple languages, we are united in creating a better future,” Shaw Industries Chairman and CEO Vance Bell says in his remarks, noting the superb cooperation across the globe that led to this event. Bell is then joined by a select group of designers, Chinese officials, Shaw executives and associates on stage for the plant’s official inauguration. Each flips a switch that illuminates a light bulb, symbolizing one of ten success factors that built the plant, from confidence and local leadership to service and globalization.

Shaw opening ceremony nantong

A burst of glittering confetti suddenly filled the air as the crowd rose to its feet, cheering.

Shaw’s Director of Commercial Manufacturing, James Jarrett, who has spent many months in Nantong working on the plant, appreciates the Olympic-style celebration. “The excitement the Chinese put into ceremonies is on par with what I really feel,” he tells me. “All the dedication needed to become an Olympian is a lot like the dedication to this success.”

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Prelude to Opening Night

The first clue that things have changed is the roar.

Over the past year, Shaw Industries’ new carpet tile plant in Nantong went through a range of playlists. Initially, the percussion of hammers and saws resounded in the air as construction workers built the walls, installed the pipes and fitted the windows. During later visits, it felt like someone had pressed the mute button, with a vast empty factory floor to match. But this time, the plant sounds state-of-the-art.

tile cutting

On a sweltering July morning, the temperature is already above 90 degrees, and the fans are going full blast in the plant. Tim Kow, a Georgia native who is the plant’s technical manager, takes me first to check out the tufters, those miracles of engineering that insert thousands of threads through carpet-backing fabric and are, at the moment, singing with speed.

Upstairs, a seemingly endless roll of tufted carpet slides through hulking steel machines. These are the coaters, which cover the underside with a latex whitewash that hardens after a short stint in an oven larger than a pickup truck. “You could bake a lot of pizzas in there,” Kow says.

Nearby, the carpet is being cut into neat squares bound for shipping boxes, all hisses and slaps as the tiles move and flip along the line for inspection. A team of Chinese inspectors keeps watch to ensure that even during this testing phase of production that Shaw is delivering on its global standard for quality.


The machines run with an almost supernatural force, but a human touch is what makes Shaw an industry leader in carpet tile. For every whirring piece of equipment, there are numerous pairs of hands and eyes on hand, bringing a global roster of skills to the job.

Take Eric Xie, a 31-year-old process engineer from Nantong who joined Shaw last November. Boasting fluent English and experience from years at Sharp, Siemens and Erikson, Xie’s resume mirrors China’s rise as hub for both mechanical hardware and intellectual talent. But Shaw brought him back home to Nantong, where he can stay close to his aging parents and plan for the future.

For now, though, Xie’s days are filled with training the plant’s operators, a task that goes beyond the technical. “Some trainers just want to show the how,” he tells me. “I like to teach them why.”


His strategy fits closely with Shaw’s corporate culture, which prioritizes collaboration as a way of nurturing innovation. And that comes from building trust not just in each other but also in oneself. Chinese workers are often used to a strict hierarchy where just following orders is enough to get promoted. Shaw’s employees are part of something different, and that means they need the license to try on their own.

“At Chinese companies, you need guanxi,” Xie says, using the Mandarin word for relationships, which is essential for professional success in China. “But at Shaw, it’s based on your abilities. It’s fair play.”

Bill Yuan, 26, is taking Xie’s instruction to heart. Before he joined Shaw three months ago, Yuan worked in a warehouse where he operated a forklift. “It was so dull,” he says over the rumble of heavy machinery. Looking for something more challenging he sent in his resume to Shaw, which saw potential. Now, after months of training he operates the tile press, a job that required he master complex software and intimidating hardware. How did he do it? “I studied the manual,” he says. “But I learned about myself.”

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What Comes Around…

Like countless young spirits before and after him, Daniel Shi landed in New York City one winter’s day in 1984 hungry to pursue his dreams. A graduate student in painting at the Pratt Institute, Shi, then 25, who is from Taiwan, couldn’t wait to begin exploring the world class museums and avant-garde art exhibitions that were drawing creatives from across the globe, despite the city’s then-urban decay.

But Shi soon decided he wanted to mix his love of art with something more practical, and he switched his focus to interior design. So, in addition to the gallery visits, he found himself wandering through midtown Manhattan on the hunt for fabric samples and other design materials that he needed for design class projects.

Much to his dismay, design showrooms had no interest in handing over their prized materials. “If you said you were a designer they would ask for a business card to prove you’re a professional,” Shi recalls. “But all we had were student ID’s.”

Shaw Contract Group New York Showroom, seen here featuring Natural Palette and Dye Lab (with On The Edge on the floor)

His luck changed upon entering Shaw Industries’ showroom, where the sales team was more than happy to furnish the young grad student with samples. Shi used the samples to compile material boards and other projects critical to learning how to craft design themes for clients. “Everyone else would say, sorry we only give to designers, but Shaw was really helpful,” he says.

Nearly three decades later, Shaw’s generosity shines brightly for Shi, who is now a successful interior designer in Chengdu, China. This vast metropolis in the country’s southwest also happens to be a prime focus for the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, which is building a carpet tile factory in Nantong, near Shanghai, to service to growing Asia-Pacific market. As Shaw works to understand what local companies are seeking, it needs input and cooperation from local designers. Now, Shi is in a position to support the newcomer in a foreign city. It is a twist of fate that brings a benefit no amount of marketing can buy: good karma.

Shaw’s investment in the next generation of designers continues to this day. Last year, the Shaw Contract Group design team collaborated with the Savannah College of Art and Design on a fiber art competition in which students submitted innovated designs for the company’s recent Natural Palette collection. The students experimented with herbs, metals and flowers, as well as indigenous weaving practices, to push the limits of color and texture. The winners’ designs were incorporated into the carpet tile line. The students behind them gained critical networking experience with industry leaders.

Entries from the SCAD student competition and inspiration for the Natural Palette collection

Half a world away, Shi has incorporated Shaw carpet into numerous projects across Asia and especially in China, where he has been based since 2000. China’s roaring economy has created tremendous opportunity for global companies and designers, most recently in the country’s interior boomtowns, like Chengdu. Since relocating from Beijing to Chengdu last year, Shi, the founder of the Formula Integration Design Center, has worked with both multinational and Chinese clients. But his design work is increasingly coming from domestic companies, including a 107,000-square-foot office space.

Shi’s connections to private companies and state-owned enterprises in Chengdu make him a valuable resource for Shaw. He sees the relationship as mutually beneficial in a country in which quality carpet is still largely a rare species. “I feel we’re helping each other,” he says. “In China there’s not so much good product for designers, so it’s great Shaw is opening for business here.”

Shi’s early support from Shaw has inspired him to pay it forward. Today, half of his staff is comprised of recent college graduates just as eager for to launch their careers as he once was. “I want to train them because they’re the future,” he says.

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From Construction to Production

NANTONG, CHINA – Nolan Howell likes to do a walkthrough of his concrete realm two or three times a week. “Just to see what’s working and what’s not,” he tells me as we head toward to front door of Shaw Industry’s carpet tile facility on a bright spring morning. Even as the plant rises, the list of things still undone is a tangle of big decisions and small details: sign the landscaping contract, fix the glass facade on the front office, get the wheelchair ramp in place – “when is that scaffolding coming down?”

A few months ago, the plant kitchen – the gastronomic laboratory for hundreds of Shaw associates and executives alike, following Chinese custom to feed employees – was a dark, empty cave. As we swoop through this time, it looks like the set of Top Chef, complete with a wok the size of a sled that can stir fry a feast’s worth of chicken and broccoli. Whatever Chinese delicacies will be concocted there, Howell plans on enjoying them. “The more I eat with the workers the better my Mandarin will get,” he says.

On the plant floor, Howell introduces me to two key players in Shaw’s recipe for Chinese success. They have come all the way from Chattanooga, TN, but they don’t look exhausted from their journey in the least. A pair of tufting machines – steel monsters filled with rows of needles – sit gleaming and silent under fluorescent lights. They will churn out up to 500 square yards per hour, Howell explains. That’s enough carpet tile to fill 16 singles tennis courts every day.

As part of Shaw’s commitment to sustainability, the Nantong plant incorporates the most cutting edge technologies around, from the state of the art energy control system in the ovens, which reduce gas usage and improve tile quality, to advanced high efficiency equipment for yarn usage, backing and latex application.

But the machinery on site won’t do their jobs alone. Chinese managers, engineers and supervisors have spent weeks in the United States “getting nothing but equipment training,” Howell says, with stacks worth of manuals and hours of instructional videos.

They need to learn fast. In a few weeks, each machine will come to life in a crescendo of industrial might as Shaw begins the testing process in May. The tufting machines, so quiet now, will emerge from their mechanized slumber to whir and vibrate, their needles dancing a designated choreography across the color palate. They will be joined by other marvels of technology such as a machine the size of a whale that processes computer signals.

I try to imagine the noise that will resound in this cavernous space and the workers on hand to keep the production line flowing. But all there is now is the distant percussion of hammers and saws – the symphony of construction, with Howell as its conductor.

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Feng Shui

For thousands of years, Chinese emperors consulted with powerful mystics for guidance about how to rule. These men and their knowledge were kept secret, even as they helped shape the fate of dynasties and the landscape of an ancient empire. They were masters of “feng shui,” or “wind water,” a belief system grounded in the concept of living in harmony with one’s surroundings.

Feng shui practices have long been used to design buildings, from palaces and tombs long ago to skyscrapers and modern homes today. In the 13th century, feng shui masters chose a spot flanked by auspicious mountains as the site for a new imperial capital, which would one day become Beijing. The same concepts have dictated how Chinese build their houses, situate their desks and even where they place their potted plants. Essentially it’s about the flow of energy to maximize comfort and thus productivity.

When east meets west, feng shui is often in the middle. In 2005, Disney executives shifted the main gate of Hong Kong Disneyland by 12 degrees, after consulting with a feng shui master who said the change would ensure the then-under construction theme park’s success. Although the multinational banking and financial services company HSBC is based in London, its Hong Kong headquarters is practically a shrine to feng shui: a pair of lions guarding the entrance protect the building’s wealth, a square out front allows business opportunities to flow unobstructed and the building’s downtown location is judged to be supremely auspicious.

The offices (under construction) at the Nantong facility

Whether or not you’re a believer, it’s clear that in Asia, feng shui is good for business. After all, nobody wants to alienate customers by ignoring their spiritual culture. That’s why the main office in Shaw’s new carpet tile plant in Nantong, China was designed with feng shui in mind.

When I arrive on a clear spring day in mid-March, the front lobby is cluttered with scaffolding, plaster and a huddle of workmen sanding and sawing. The first thing I notice is the lack of right angles, which Chinese believe blocks positive “qi” or energy.

Jason Bowling, Shaw Industries’ Director of Corporate Facilities, stands in the lobby taking mental notes. “There’s a lot of concern about corners in this culture, so we want to make sure everything looks right,” he tells me.

Bowling first came to the plant site in 2011, “when it was still a piece of ground.” As the force behind Shaw’s showrooms in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, he’s learned a lot about what works visually in Asia, and that’s vital. With several months to go before the plant opens, it’s his job to ensure the environment is, as a feng shui master would say, harmonious.

The under-constructon office in the Nantong facility

“Shaw is a design-forward organization,” he says, eyeing the smooth lines that swoop across the front entrance with a practiced eye. “We’re bringing that idea to the Chinese market, which is why we’re sharpshooting.”

Recently, the Shaw design team got a bit of homegrown help. When Anna Chu, Shaw China’s business development manager, took a run-through of the office, she noticed something was amiss. According to the principles of feng shui, the ideal seating position faces south to take the most advantage of natural light. But the office set for Shaw China director Nolan Howell faced north.

The exterior of the Nantong facility

As a Chinese working for an American company, Anna was unsure whether her advice would be heeded – or laughed at. “I didn’t want people to think I’m superstitious,” she tells me. So she waited and then she mentioned it to the property management company, which agreed it was a strange decision, at least from a Chinese perspective. That convinced her to speak up. “In America it’s not an issue, but in China people really feel these decisions can impact your business,” she says. Howell agreed, and today his office, sure enough, faces south.

“If you think about design, it’s always functionality and comfort,” says Anna. “Feng shui is based on the same idea.”

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