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.
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.”