"Portraits by Linfeng Li, www.linfengliphotography.com"
For Feiy’s new Impact Series our writer in residence Nika Dulevich is talking to entrepreneurs who pursue a path greater than just profit and strive to contribute to the greater good with their products and services. The first business owner she talked to is Robin Dell, the founder and managing director at imondi, a Shanghai based reclaimed wood flooring company.
在Feiy新的影响系列，我们的常驻作家Nika Dulevich正在与追求超越利润、努力透过产品和服务来贡献的企业家访谈。她访谈的第一位老板是Robin Dell，他是上海回收木材地板公司－imondi的创立者和执行董事。
"Portraits by Linfeng Li"
How did imondi start? And how did the first years of the company look like?
Imondi started with me coming to China on a university exchange program back in 1999. I left after being here for a few months and came back in 2003 with an intention to help some people I knew to do work in China. At the beginning we did many different projects, but within a year of starting I learned that it is important to focus on one project, which I chose to be wood flooring. The first few years were definitely not easy. I think it is very difficult to enter an industry when you don't know much about it. I lost money for about two to three years in a row and had to borrow $100,000 from my family to keep things going. But with the help of a great team I managed to bring it back in about a year or two after that. I think you hear somewhere that it takes three years for a company to be successful and I agree with that. For the first three years we lost money, in the next two-three years we broke even and the last ten years have been very successful for us.
Do you only work with reclaimed wood or with other sustainable wood too?
The majority of our business is reclaimed wood. Our reclaimed collection is exported around the world and half is sold to the Chinese market. We have had tremendous support from several corporate clients, like Starbucks in China, for whom like us, a sustainable future is as important as the bottom line. That said, our average Chinese consumer is still after modern and contemporary products for their interior. So about 30% of what we produce and sell is not reclaimed. And yes, we are FSC certified, which means any non-reclaimed wood we source is from forests that adhere to international sustainably managed forestry practices.
Courtesy of Imondi
What has been a key success factor for imondi?
Pushing ourselves to think positively and envisioning a clear a path has been a key factor for us. And it’s no secret that the key to a successful business is the people behind it. Ray Kroc (who grew McDonald's into the global franchise it is today) famously said, “you're only as good as the people you hire.” We have an exceptional team who are major contributors to our success. Nobody can build a great company alone. I am inspired daily by the contributions of my business partner Lisa Li-Seliger and our wonderful CEO, Rosa Li who has been with us nearly 10 years.
督促自己积极思考并展望一条清晰的道路一直是我们的关键因素。而毫无疑问地，一个成功企业的关键是幕后的人。 Ray Kroc（他将麦当劳发展成今天的全球特许经营）的名言：「你只和你聘顾的人一样好。」我们有优秀的团队，他们是我们成功的主要贡献者。没有人可以独自建立一个伟大的公司。每天我都受我的生意伙伴Lisa Li-Seliger和与我们在一起近10年出色的执行官Rosa Li 所有的贡献而启发。
Another success factor for us is understanding who we are as a company and making sure that this message is very clearly communicated to all our stakeholders. We consider design, sustainability and unique histories behind our wood, the craftsmanship and the artisan way we work the wood as the four key brand values that define us. And I'm trying to teach our staff as much as possible about it. What does that mean? Once a month a staff member is asked to pick a video that represents our corporate culture, everybody watches the video and then we hold a forum to discuss how we feel about the video and how imondi fits into the message from that video. The last video we saw was about deforestation in Africa after which we had a great discussion about how a lot of imondi’s competitors who work with wood are responsible for some of the awful deforestation that is now happening in Africa. When everybody in the organization understands what imondi is and why you exist, they are driven; their desire to sell, their desire to do admin, whatever it is, comes a bit more from their heart rather than their head, which is what you need to drive the company forward beyond a certain stage. So I think a clear understanding of who you are is key for me.
What has been your biggest challenge?
About 10 years ago our then factory manager decided to leave imondi and set up his own flooring factory. It was such a difficult time for our growing company. Our clients that we worked so hard to establish business with were being approached with much more competitive prices. I know this is not uncommon in business but it was the first time we had experienced such situation and at the time we still had a lot of learning to do. We matured a lot from that experience. We became more assertive with our clients. Our vision became more apparent and we realized what set us apart was our quality, design and expertise. Fortunately for us, we did not lose any clients but we were faced with a greater challenge of running a wood flooring factory which we had very little experience in at the time. That was incredibly challenging and ultimately incredibly rewarding on a personal level.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently, if anything?
I like what we have created and the path we took to get here. There are many things I’ve done along my entrepreneurial path that weren't perfect, or possibly considered mistakes, but I've benefited from all of them in the long run. In hindsight, I doubt I would have made any decisions differently and truly don't regret any of it.
Courtesy of Imondi
Imondi was born in Shanghai in 1999 and now you work with clients and partners in over 35 countries. How do you scale your impact? And what advice would you give to those who want to scale their sustainable ventures?
I’m a strong believer in being passionate about what you do. When you find what you love, the passion for it shines through in your work with colleagues, clients, suppliers and all stakeholders. I love personally taking clients to visit our factory where I feel as excited as a child showing them new designs we are working on, talking about the incredible stories behind the reclaimed wood we rescue and simply watching our craftsmen at work, hand-crafting wood in the way it’s been crafted for hundreds of years. I think passion and excitement drive growth. As we get inspired by the stories behind our wood and share this inspiration with our clients, they become part of those stories too.
And if talking about a more hands-on business strategy, then I’m all about social media. I'm 40 years old, I can't really be telling that to millennials (laughs). I think we started focusing on social media about 4-5 years ago and when we post something now, the impact is phenomenal. We're getting about 10,000 views per posting and all these views are typically from people we want the message to go out to – the architects and designers around the world. You look at some of these companies who spend $100,000 on printing adverts in magazines and it just doesn't make any sense to me. The world has changed and so many companies just don't seem to be aware of that. Without a question, focusing on a social media strategy to get your message out there is the biggest advice I can give.
How did you build your team? What advice would you give those thinking of starting an impact driven business in terms of building a team?
When we were in the process of transitioning from a small company to a medium-sized one, an important step for us was the decision to invest in hiring senior management. At the time we were not sure if our company could survive the financial burden of senior hires but we also realized that if we didn't invest in people, we would struggle to grow as a company. A lot of business owners I talk to struggle with this issue and put a lot of burden on their own shoulders. It is typical of many entrepreneurs to believe that “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”. I think the sooner you start bringing senior hires into your company, the quicker you can teach yourself to get rid of that wrong thinking. It is difficult to let go, but in my opinion it is essential to grow the business. Don't be frightened to invest in great people. That was a real learning for me.
I also think it’s important to understand the strengths of each individual and to define roles clearly. At imondi we recognize the value of diversity and celebrate it. Any opportunity we are given to get our team involved and engaged in community events and projects, we jump at the chance to do so. It is important that your team is aware and understands your business vision and your culture. We found great people who share our passion, and we make sure they understand it, love it and can communicate it.
Courtesy of Imondi
So what are you looking for in potential candidates? What is important for you?
I saw a lovely presentation on YouTube. A guy talked about a graph where you've got the x-axis and the y-axis and the negative x-axis and y-axis. On the right hand side of the graph there are people who understand your company values; on the top are those who perform really well and on the bottom are those who understand your company culture but don't perform very well. These are the guys you want to invest in and bring them up to become great performers. On the negative x-axis on the bottom left are the guys who don't understand your company culture and don't perform well – these are the ones you want to let go. The top left is a really tough one: these are the people who perform really well but don't understand your company culture. Actually, you should let them go because they don’t contribute to building an amazing company, but you don't really want it because they're great for your bottom line.
The presenter’s main message was to hire people who fit into your company culture and who have the same business vision as you do. So we look for people who fit into our culture, who, if necessary, can be trained to do their job well. At imondi, we have built and continue to build a long-term sustainable company that focuses on our company culture.
What does success mean to you?
For me at the moment, it's just about having as many positive days as possible inside and outside the office. We are on this planet for only 50, 60, 70 years so you’d better make sure every day is a good one.
"Portraits by Linfeng Li"
What advice would you give to entrepreneurial individuals who would like to make a positive impact in the world?
I think that finding your niche is really important. Don't give up, try to ride the waves. Find your passion. The nice thing about many people I meet in the impact driven businesses is that they have obviously found their passion, which is one of the most important things for an entrepreneur. You've got to be really driven to make it a success, because it's not an easy ride. But how to turn that passion into business is where it becomes more difficult, so plan things out sensibly.
I don't want to say ‘try it’. It’s so easy to say ‘try it’ giving advice about starting a business, yet it's so difficult to do it. I’ve always been a fan of writing a one-page business plan whenever you want to start a new business. Don’t spend days on it, but you need to figure out whether it makes sense on paper first, as well as who you need around you to make it a success. Also, don't be afraid to reach out to people around you because people are really supportive. If somebody doesn't respond to the first phone call, don't be frightened to call them again and again and again. It's often because they're too busy that they don’t respond at first, but when they actually sit down with you, you get great results. And I do see that some people in their 20s who come into our office want to do sales using WeChat or text messages, they actually don't want to ring anybody up. And I hate sounding like an old man, but I think connecting with people is just so important when you're doing business, whether it's in person or just over the phone.
What are your plans for the future of imondi?
We opened our Beijing in March and we are planning on opening another three or four showrooms in China in the next twelve months. We are heavily expanding into the Chinese market as we recognize that there are many Chinese consumers who appreciate the unique position we are in – a European brand that is “Made in China”. Chinese consumers feel very comfortable working with us and respect the incredible track record we’ve built up over the last 15-20 years working here.
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