YIWU, CHINA — A large piece of Chinese calligraphy hangs on the wall behind Lou Zhongping's office desk: Small is Big. That's the motto he has tried to live by in his past 30 years as founder and chairman of Soton Daily Necessities Co. Ltd.
In an interview with Plastics News, he explained that tackling something small has been the key to his company's success. That singular focus and his natural early adopter tendencies have served him well and brought his company to where it is today — the largest manufacturer of drinking straws in the world.
As Lou tells it, he stumbled into straws quite by chance. A native of Yiwu, the small Chinese city famous for its small commodities market (the largest in the world), he grew up poor and remembers always feeling hungry as a child. He was forced to drop out of middle school after just a year and a half in order to accompany his farmer-merchant parents on their trading trips to other provinces. That instability followed him into adulthood. Before founding Soton, he had worked 20 different jobs between the age of 14 and 30.
By the 1990s, he was selling plastic products, including toothbrushes and straws, at Yiwu's small commodities market. He saw the potential in straws and decided to invest in his own operation. When he started Soton in 1994, he embraced a Japanese-style management sense that encouraged simplicity, and since then his company has focused on drinking straws and nothing else.
“When we started, our company was small. [It was] just my wife and I and one machine in a 100 square meter [about 1,000 square foot] space,” he recalled, while showing a small blurry black-and-white photo taken at the time. The original operation was so basic that workers had to use chopsticks to push the straws into packaging by hand.
But 1994 also was the year when Lou first began using a computer, which he describes as a life-changing experience.
“I was one of the first Internet users in China,” he recalls. “We made a website in 1997 and through the Internet our scale increased greatly.”
The company began exporting straws to the Middle East and Africa, and then to the United States.
After 10 years, Lou managed to secure a plot of land in Yiwu to build his factory and he moved to the new space in 2005. It was a big leap from the company's humble beginnings to the current campus, which includes a 10-story 12,000-square-meter [129,000-square-foot] administrative office building and dormitory and 30,000-square-meter [322,000-square-foot] factory.
It was not easy to secure the land, he said, because he lacked government connections, and not being much of a drinker, he was at a distinct disadvantage at building those connections. So when he acquired the land, he said, “I made a decision. I would make the best factory in China, the most sustainable factory in China.”
At that time, environmental sustainability was not a priority for enterprises. The government was encouraging fast development instead. But Lou's self-education and interest in Japanese business methods had gotten him interested in sustainability. He taught himself Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and made detailed plans for the factory himself. They included a water recycling system, a rainwater collection system, a green roof, and dormitories for workers that he proudly describes as equivalent to a three-star hotel, and an outdoor garden.
It wasn't a desire to be environmentally friendly that drove Lou to make these sustainability moves in his factory. He said he was driven instead by the need to save money.