Category Archives: Journey to China

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

Shaw Chop

Shaw Industries’ new manufacturing plant in China is one exit beyond the Sutong Bridge – a right turn past the billboard advertising Chinese power drills. Its nerve center is in a low building, behind a door at the end of an unheated hallway. Inside, I’m expecting a maze of cubicles, whirring office machines, and ringing phones. This is, after all, where Shaw is creating the next generation of its Asia-Pacific business.

Instead, I discover a quiet room largely empty except for a single long table topped by computers, printers and phones. Several Chinese women focus intently on computer screens. Tucked away in a corner are a computer and printer with a curious-looking extension.

Nolan Howell, Shaw’s China director, follows my gaze. “That,” he says with reverence, “is for the fapiao.”

"The fapiao is to business in China what oxygen is to breathing."

One of the first Mandarin words you learn working in China is fapiao, which means “official invoice.” This sheet of paper isn’t just any old receipt. Registered at the tax bureau, the fapiao is to business in China what oxygen is to breathing.

The other business tool with which Howell has rapidly become acquainted since he arrived here last year is less hi-tech – and even more critical. In China every legal document must come with a signature that proves it’s been officially anointed. Not just any signature will do. Like letters of old stamped in wax by the king, modern China adores the chop, a heavy metal stamp engraved with the company’s name.

Howell never goes anywhere without the Shaw chop, which he presses onto each document with gusto, leaving a bright red imprint. “The amount of ink I’ve gone through with that thing is astounding,” he says, chuckling.

This is life behind the scenes at Shaw’s factory in Nantong, the future Asian hub of the world’s largest carpet manufacturer. For as long as construction workers have been building the plant, Howell and his ever-expanding Chinese team have been toiling over the details, major and minor. It’s all part of expanding a global business.

This room is a temporary office staffed by Shaw’s newly hired customer service squad. Today customers in Asia call the company’s offices in the United States, half a world and a several time zones away. That means placing orders around, say, midnight Beijing time – not the most convenient moment to check on a delivery.

That will all change next month when Nantong takes over Shaw customer service for this part of the globe. “We’ll be working our customers’ hours,” says Howell. “It’ll be a huge improvement both for customers and us.”

The shift is providing another opportunity for Shaw to blend its skills across borders. After the Chinese New Year holiday, Shaw’s U.S.-based customer service team will arrive in Nantong, set to train its Chinese counterparts in the art of the order. If they have time, perhaps the Americans can learn to master the chop while they’re at it.


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Nantong Facility Takes Shape

The first containers rolled up to the factory in the morning. Big cargo crates, like the kinds on freight trains that whiz past small American towns. Which these probably did, before finding their way onto ships at the port in Savannah. Now, weeks later, they have finally arrived half a world away.

Workers unload the first crates of carpet tile equipment at the Nantong factory.

Nolan Howell, Shaw’s China director, watches from the parking lot in a winter coat, yellow safety vest and hard hat. These containers hold machines, but they are more than just carpet manufacturing equipment. Their very presence marks the beginning of the next stage in Shaw’s journey to China. “Today is pretty historic,” he says.

Hundreds of construction workers and nine months after Shaw first broke ground on its carpet tile plant here in the city of Nantong, the building itself is nearly complete. There’s no water or gas yet, but the sprinklers and boilers are installed, a tangle of red and blue pipes that wend across the towering ceiling. Considering that the last time I was here the factory was but a shell, just seeing the lights triggers a sense of accomplishment shared by all involved, American and Chinese alike.

The first equipment being unloaded at Shaw’s Nantong plant.

But there is no resting on laurels. In fact, it’s as if someone turned up the pressure. Although Shaw has set an opening date of July, the swift pace that defines China’s economic boom is about to come to a screeching halt in mid-February, when practically the entire nation shuts down for the annual Chinese lunar new year holiday, known as Spring Festival.

In a country where hundreds of millions of people live and work great distances from their hometowns, Spring Festival is a yearly tradition few would dream of ignoring. Factories close, offices go silent and restaurants go dark as most Chinese head home for vacation to spend time with their families, light fire crackers and toast with copious amounts of rice wine.

Nolan Howell and Susan Chen discuss the Nantong factory’s plans for Chinese lunar new year.

According to state media, China’s vast rail network is expected to handle 225 million trips over the 40-day travel rush, while the nation’s long-distance busses will pack in up to 3.1 billion passengers. Chinese airlines are planning on more than 30 million journeys.

“At least half the country is traveling long distance,” Howell tells me, sighing. “Everyone’s gotta go somewhere.”

For Shaw, the holiday is a major test in what happens when global commerce meets local tradition. As the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, shutting down is not an option. To ward off that fate, Howell and his team are pulling out all the stops to keep the lights on.

Law Chen, Shaw’s China logistics manager, will be working through Spring Festival in what he calls a labor of love. “This project is for my family,” he tells me at the factory gate. “If anything, working through the Chinese new year feels auspicious.”

Law Chen, logistics manager in the newly built Nantong carpet tile plant.

But Shaw is not depending solely on its employees. Over the past few weeks, the company has reached out to local customs officials, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants to ensure the dozens of American workers coming over to install the equipment will be able to do their jobs. So far, it looks like all systems go.

“We’re optimistic,” says Howell. That includes his wife. “I’ve promised her that when it’s done we’re going to spend a week on a tropical beach.”

James Jarrett, director of Shaw commercial manufacturing at the Nantong plant.

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Cultural Fluency

Law Chen, Shaw Logistics Manager in China

Before Law Chen visited Shaw Industries’ headquarters in Cartersville, Ga., his knowledge of the American South came straight out of Hollywood. “All I knew was ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Forest Gump’,” he tells me as we gaze at Shaw’s rising carpet tile plant in Nantong. Of course, that’s about as close to reality as believing China is populated by kung fu-wielding pandas. Chen no longer thinks of hoop skirts or Tom Hanks. As Shaw China’s logistics manager, he wears many hats at the Nantong plant, which will serve customers across Asia once it opens next year. To learn the ropes, he recently spent several weeks in Georgia. In addition to meetings and training sessions on the nuts and bolts of operations, Chen saw an innovative, dynamic side of Southern life that was thoroughly modern. “It’s a lot more open than I imagined,” he says.

In today’s global economy, you can’t just speak English to thrive in a multinational company. A keen cultural understanding is critical, which is why Shaw recently brought Chen and the other newly hired Nantong management to Georgia. For Shaw, cultural fluency means more than learning how to work the hardware of global supply chains. The real value of Chen’s trip was getting to know the software – Shaw’s people: “This is a company that treats you like a member of the family,” he says. There were sit-downs with executives and dinners with colleagues. In China, where professional hierarchy is strictly enforced, he would probably never meet the top brass. “In China we respect authority; in the U.S. the value of experience gets respect.”

There’s also another benefit. By bringing Chen to Shaw’s U.S. headquarters, the company was able to better adjust to the ways of China. It’s people like Chen, as well as his fellow Chinese colleagues, who will have a direct role in making Shaw’s China plant come to life.
That distinction was all too clear to Chen while living and working at Shaw’s Georgia headquarters. “We have different experiences and come from different countries,” he says. “But instead of being told to listen, my trip gave us the opportunity to share and learn from each other.”

The data bears out this appeal. According to a recent report in the Chinese media, nearly 70 percent of Chinese prefer working for foreign firms. Multinationals offer ambitious talented Chinese the best of both worlds: a competitive market they fully understand combined with the dynamic best-practices of a global company eager to leverage their skills in the world’s second largest economy.

A major business difference between Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private multinationals is openness. As firms connected to the government, Chinese SOEs come with a bureaucratic DNA the average multinational can avoid. Plus, multinationals give Chinese more opportunities to meet and mix with foreigners.

Chen has spent his entire career working for multinational corporations in China – electronics, semiconductors, chemicals.

This is the first time, however, that he gets to be part of a start-up, where his years of management and technical prowess will fundamentally leave their mark on Shaw’s future in Asia. And there are a lot of responsibilities. Unlike Shaw’s U.S. business, with its thousands of employees each with their own teams, Chen will be personally overseeing numerous logistical operations at once, from customer service, warehousing and transport to production, procurement and customs compliance. And that’s not all. His function, he says, “is not deep, but wide.”

It’s the kind of challenge that would scare some people off. Not Chen, who is embracing the epic task of creating a supply chain essentially from scratch. Aside from his years of experience and the global support of Shaw, Chen is finding solace in an ancient Confucian proverb: “a heavy load and a long road,” which means to bear heavy responsibilities through a long struggle. Or as he puts it, “if you can’t avoid it, you just enjoy it.”

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Creative Journeys

What do a limber dancer and laser lights have to do with carpet? It turns out a whole lot.

It’s a freezing December evening in Beijing, but 120 architects and designers have braved the frigid winds barreling down from Siberia to discover how color and light inspired Shaw Contract Group’s latest collections.

We’re chatting over glasses of chardonnay when suddenly the lamps go out and an ethereal figure in sequins appears in the center of the room. With a graceful wave of her arms, green lasers flicker and spread in a cloud of smoke. As she moves her arms, they appear to push the lasers – now purple, then pink – like bolts of glowing cloth. The crowd is silent, breathless and snapping photos of the performance with their smartphones, instantaneously posting the pictures to Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

This seamless display of movement, color and creativity echoes the design process at the heart of Shaw Contract Group.

After the performance, Marcy Ewing, a member of Shaw Contract Group’s design team confirms that notion. The collections on display grew out of months-long explorations of the world. Healing elements found beneath the earth’s surface inspire the “Unearthed” collection. High beams photographed in motion and Aurora Borealis shimmering across a pitch-black night sky are reflected in vibrant linear compositions in “Light Series.” An exploration of natural dyes and dyeing processes inform “Dip Dye,” reinterpreted ancient wash and dye techniques.


Ewing is here to launch these collections globally, with a focus on Asia-Pacific. With Shaw’s China-based production plant set to open in Nantong next year, feedback from the leaders of China’s design world is essential, she says. “We really want to understand the needs of our customers here and they really want to understand our process, so it’s amazing to have the opportunity to talk face to face.”

Chinese designers agree. As director of the Beijing-based design firm Inkmason, Kin Lam says that the creative journeys behind Shaw Contract Group’s patterns have helped lead him and his team to results clients want and appreciate. “These stories elaborate the bigger picture and allow us to evolve ideas into different dimensions,” he says.

For proof, he cited a recent design project for a Chinese technology company that Inkmason created, based on a minimalist Chinese garden. When Lam saw how the pattern in one of Shaw Contract Group’s carpet collection mimicked traditional Chinese brushstrokes, he was able to develop the concept into a complete package the client loved. “For any designer to be successful your creation has to have reason,” he says. “Shaw Contract Group’s designs all have logic and that links everything together.”

Shaw Contract Group’s ability to inspire the design conversation goes beyond the visual. Many designers here say they are noticing an increasing interest among China-based clients in environmental sustainability and they are happy to oblige. “A lot of companies now want green products, which are not only good for their brand but beneficial to their employees too,” says Steven Li, WTL Design’s Executive Director, as he sips a glass of wine. WTL has worked with Shaw Contract Group on several projects and expects many more as awareness of the need for environmentally sustainability grows here.

“We’re talking the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “This is just flooring material. Tomorrow it could be paint, the next day ceiling supplies – it all adds up to a more green China.”

See more images from this event on Shaw Contract Group’s Flickr page.

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Construction and Culture

The factory offices have no walls, the scaffolding is made of metal, but looks like bamboo, and not a single carpet tile plant worker has been hired. But on this October morning the main concern is getting them fed.

Nolan Howell, Shaw’s China director, is surrounded by contractors in what will one day be the plant’s canteen. Rectangles and squares, painted in white to represent tables and chairs, cover the concrete floor beneath their feet. Nearby is a dim empty space where stoves, sinks and refrigerators will soon be installed.

Even though the opening of Shaw’s carpet tile plant in Nantong to serve customers across Asia is months away, the details have to be ironed out now, down to where hundreds of pairs of chopsticks are to be stored. “You put it on paper but when it comes to life it’s a totally different experience,” he says.

Howell and the contractors spend the next few minutes huddling over a clipboard, Howell’s eyes reviewing the life-size blueprint sketched out on the floor. Although there are no lights, they can easily see each sketch by the daylight shining through the huge vacant gaps in the wall, which will be filled in with glass.

“We don’t want the canteen to be a dark hole,” Howell tells me. Big windows are not just a physical design element but part of building an empowering corporate environment. “We value our people, and we expect them to invest in the company. If they’re going to work here we want them to be happy,” he says.

Most factories in China give little thought to the happiness of their workers or the quality of their leisure time. They are built with one goal in mind –productivity. The typical Chinese worker gets few if any days off and works such long hours he is often too tired to do anything but go to bed. Shaw has a different mentality. It all goes back to the company’s values – honesty, integrity and passion – ideals Howell strives to live by as he goes about building the plant and hiring the people who will make it successful.

He then makes his way into the dim space that will be the kitchen, where a doorway leads into the plant. Given the amount of traffic that will flow back and forth each day – the canteen can hold 282 people – the doorway seems rather narrow. Howell asks, “can we make this bigger?” The contractors confer in Chinese and then translate an affirmative answer. Even though the walls are thick, nothing is set in stone.

Satisfied, he steps through and takes stock of the factory floor, a three-story, 22,000 square meter behemoth big enough to fit the Grand Central Station main concourse inside. Howell and I head up the stairs and emerge on a landing with a view of, as he puts it, “the whole operation.”

It’s hard to believe just how fast the building has risen.

Search Google Earth for the Shaw carpet plant, and you’ll find satellite images of farmland. Just two months ago, the construction site was mud, gravel and grass. Since then, 120 workers each day have laid a steel reinforced floor, with 2000 pilings driven deep into the earth; fitted skylights; and cut hundreds of pipes in different colors – red for fire protection, blue for cooling and yellow for natural gas.

Satellite image of the Shaw plant in Nantong and the Sutong Bridge

Howell looks out at the empty space, and it’s clear to me he can see and hear the impending hum of production – yarn to tufting to backing to cutting – laid out in his mind’s eye. Given the speed with which the factory has taken shape, it will be no time at all until we can see it too.

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