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A great catch: In many ways, the Chinese-born Ma is the model American small businessman: smart, independent, and plucky.
JD Ma is not ashamed of his past. He’s not apologizing for the Flash Pen, the Fish Pen, the Snake Pen, the Boxing Pen, the Retractable Mini Pen, or the Squiggly-Wiggley Jumbo Pen. He takes full responsibility for the Grip Lite, the Phaser Lite, the LED Clip Light, the 3 in 1 LED Emergency Light, and the Robolite Pop Up Book Light. He expresses no regrets for Brain Slime (“Goooey! Worm and Rat Inside!”), Skull Glow (“Makes Eeeerie Sounds. Smash the Skull and Watch It Glow!”), or Floam (“Mash it! Mix it! Mold it! Smoosh it! Bounce it! Floam is fun you can feel!”). He doesn’t mind if you call him Mr. Flashlight, Mr. Pen, Mr. Key Chain, or even Mr. Key Chain Flashlight Pen. He has made a nice living selling this stuff and will keep on selling it as long as distributors and retail chains and mom-and-pop dollar stores want to buy.
But Ma prefers to operate on a higher plane. As he sees it, his business—the business of connecting American sellers with Chinese manufacturers—can be done on several levels. The most basic level he calls “I pick.” He tours the industrial boomtowns of China in search of key chains and flashlights and novelty pens that will sell on the American market. Maybe he develops the packaging or asks the manufacturer to change the color. Another level is “You pick.” He works with American distributors of gifts, toys, and promotional items, finding factories that can make pens and clocks and coffee mugs to his clients’ specifications. He supervises production, buys from the factory, and sells upstream to his customers. The level he likes best is “Create something.” He employs his experience and skills and connections to help a client conceive, design, and/or market a product that he makes in China.
Lately Ma has been creating something, possibly his biggest item ever. One of his two Darien-based companies, Really Useful Products, owns the exclusive worldwide right to manufacture this item, and it’s something that could sell in the billions, a patented improvement on an object found by the dozens or even hundreds in almost every home in the United States, let alone the rest of the industrialized world. It was invented in the Chicago area and it came to Ma via a fortuitous chain of personal connections. If the pieces continue to fall into place, he and his impromptu band of partners could be on the brink of making the Big Score.
With a slightly bent version of the common clothes hanger.
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JD Ma (the initials are short for Jiadong) will never be mistaken for a native-born American. English is definitely his second language: clipped down to essentials, thickly accented, and idiomatically challenged. Combined with his loud laugh and ready smile, it’s quite sufficient for doing business, but he will not have a second career as a public speaker.
In many ways, though, he is the model American small businessman—smart, industrious, independent, enterprising, and guided by values and attitudes right out of the chamber of commerce textbook: Every business is a people business. Play by the rules and don’t cut corners. A good deal is one in which everyone benefits. In the United States, you can choose your life and work from your own heart.
Now 49, he grew up in Shanghai, the only child of middle-class office workers, in the midst of Deng Xiaoping’s economic and social reforms: right place, right time, as Ma would say. His college class, which entered in 1978, was the first in more than a decade to be selected not by the Communist Party but by means of a national aptitude test.
He was admitted to Fudan University in Shanghai, one of China’s elite schools, and majored in economics. In China’s new meritocracy, his degree earned him a job in the Shanghai government, overseeing state-owned factories that made light consumer items ranging from key chains to cameras and small appliances. It was a good job, especially for one who had never shown much interest in the party, but after seven years Ma was restless and looking to the West. “In China, you could not pick your life at that time. They want you to do this, then you do it. You get a job; it’s not the one you want.”
He came to the United States on a student visa in 1989. He had a friend who was studying at North Central College in Naperville, so he applied there and enrolled in pre-degree English classes. Again, right place, right time: By pure luck, he arrived shortly after Tiananmen Square. A few years later, Congress enacted a law, sponsored by Nancy Pelosi, giving permanent resident status to Chinese students who had entered the United States in the ten months following that uprising.
At North Central, Ma planned to study management information systems, but once again he wandered off the path of least resistance. “Most Chinese students of my age, or people who came here at the same time, [a large percentage] took computers. Because why? It’s easy to make a living.” Ma was a big fan of opera and classical music, and he wanted a job in the arts. He found the arts management program at Columbia College and, through that, a brief internship with the Chicago Sinfonietta. By this time his wife, Xiaosu, had joined him in the United States. Like many other Chinese immigrants, they were living in Bridgeport. Xiaosu was working as a waitress while JD studied at Columbia and delivered pizzas for Connie’s. He liked that job—good people, good money—but he hadn’t come to the United States to be a pizza delivery guy.
On one of his trips back to China, Ma bought a few hundred clocks to use as party favors at a Chicago Sinfonietta fundraising gala. Working on their living room floor, he and Xiaosu took the clocks apart one by one so they could have the orchestra’s logo printed on the faces. A career was born. “I made like a dollar for each clock. So, couple hundred dollars. A week to do that. But it was fun! The concert was at Orchestra Hall. They set the clocks in the lobby; the big donors come in; they see the clocks. Nice clock! I still have one at home. Still running! So that’s my first business. That is 1994, I think.”
His next item was a Chicago skyline pen, a project that established principles and working habits Ma follows to this day: First, study the market, which usually means visiting stores to see what they’re selling and for how much, looking for items he knows from experience he can provide at a competitive price. Next, buy cheap and sell cheap and be sure everyone makes money. Don’t think only about this deal; think about all of the future deals to be done with these people. Third, do it the right way. Make sure the quality is good, the product is safe, the rules have been followed. Finally, take the risk yourself. Ma didn’t ask anyone to preorder his skyline pens. He bought some nice metal pens in China, drew a skyline design, had it engraved on the pens, then walked into a gift store in the Sears Tower and said, How do you like this pen? You want to buy it?
Before long he was poring through business directories to find local companies that sold promotional items. He giggles at the memory of his deviousness. He would call a company cold and ask if it could sell him, say, a nice metal pen with a logo on it. If the answer was yes, then he knew this company was also buying nice metal pens with logos on them. I can make you some in China, he would say, quoting an attractive price. Let me show you. No order necessary. If you like them, I’ll make you more.
At a McCormick Place trade show he met Brian Russell, a buyer for Giftco, a major supplier of school fundraising items. They collaborated on a set of pens inscribed with “Grandma,” “Grandpa,” “Mom,” and “Dad,” and that was the beginning of a long relationship that went from business to personal to close friendship. At the time, companies like Giftco bought most of their Chinese-made goods through Hong Kong agents who charged a hefty commission. Ma was dealing directly with factory managers in China, some of whom he knew from his work with the Shanghai government. Soon he was taking Russell to China with him.
“He could find people, find friends, all throughout China,” Russell recalls. “We were going places where other people in the industry hadn’t even thought about going. He took me into an area where they make nothing but flashlights. One factory makes the spring, one factory makes the bulb, one factory injection-molds the casing, somebody polishes that little glass. It was unbelievable. I used to go to hotels and I’d be the only American in the place.”
Over a period of about 12 years, Russell estimates, he and Ma collaborated on as many as 2,000 different items, from lights and toys to table games and fashion jewelry. Russell thought Ma was some kind of engineer: “He has a really unique ability to study, sniff out, understand, go through every detail of a product. He can do almost any item. And he’s a terrific redesigner. I could say, ‘Hey, JD, this clock can’t be more than $8 retail,’ and he would go out and study and review it, and he’d think, Well, if we did this and we did that and we did this . . . And, son of a gun, he would figure out how to get it at that price and still have a quality product.”
So last spring when Russell set eyes on the Z-Hanger, he knew exactly who to call.
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Photography: Jimmy Fishbein