Supporting Article

The Interior Decoration Tycoon of Shanghai

Because religious activities are restricted to government-designated venues, projecting Christian influence beyond the four walls of the church building is difficult. However, many Christians choose to bring their values and faith into their business practices. As their influence spreads, they become a beacon of truth to their colleagues. Beyond this, their ethical practices even influence the industries in which they work.

The Call

Mr. Jiang Jiexue’s mother is a very devoted Christian from Suzhou near Shanghai. Mrs. Jiang introduced the faith to her son while he was very young. He had attended Christian meetings since he was a child, and he still reads the Bible and prays every morning. Now both Mrs. Jiang and her son attend the Shanghai International Church.

After he finished his schooling, Mr. Jiang went to Shanghai to seek employment. He first worked at Shanghai’s Public Security Bureau (PSB) as an officer for 12 years. During his tenure, he suggested many innovative ideas and was able to streamline the resolution process of some cases. However, Jiang did not feel satisfied or fulfilled. He felt that the bureaucratic system was stifling his creativity. He felt that God had given him gifts in innovation and creativity, and that he should fully develop this potential in life. In 1988, he left the PSB and launched his own business.

The Entrepreneurial Launch

Jiang had taught himself interior design by reading books and by observation. In the late 1980s, Shanghai had begun to experience economic prosperity, and many of its citizens spent money on home improvements. In general, people still lived in tiny flats so storage space was at a premium. Jiang ingeniously designed hidden closets so that they did not obstruct the sense of space. He also pioneered a modular furniture system that was simple to produce. He moved to a flat and renovated it to demonstrate his talents. As potential clients walked into his home office, they immediately liked his design and began placing orders. In this way, Jiang started the first private home interior design and decorating company in Shanghai.

Soon many people in the city became interested in redesigning their homes. Jiang expanded his service to include building materials, household fixtures, appliances, and other materials. He opened a large retail store in the central district and contracted suppliers to produce parquet flooring under his company’s name (Qianxi). His parquet soon became the most popular choice on the market, and Qianxi became a brand name in its own right. Soon, Qianxi became the No. 1 interior design retailer for homes. Other companies then entered the market trying to capture part of this lucrative business.

The Business Plan

Sensing the growing demand for high quality home improvement in Shanghai, Jiang launched a supermarket to supply everything in home improvement materials—from nails to Finnish saunas.  He purchased a shopping mall with 10,000 square meters in the center of town. Customers can get there easily using public transportation. Jiang then invited his five biggest competitors to join him in this supermarket. He theorized that customers would appreciate being able to get everything under one roof. They would have more choices, and the competing companies would be forced to search for goods with better quality and lower prices. They would also have to improve their service. This was a bold approach in China where the market economy has just begun to take off. Jiang is years ahead of most other Chinese entrepreneurs.

All five of his competitors eagerly agreed to participate knowing that this supermarket would draw customers. Soon it became known as the place to go for home improvement-related goods. The various merchants also provided services such as interior design and renovation. The rent they paid to Jiang covered not only the mortgage but also provided a sizable cash flow. Together, these six companies captured most of Shanghai’s home interior design market and controlled most of the brand name dealerships. In the year 2000, the sales volume of these six companies was more than RMB 500 million; Qianxi alone had more than RMB 100 million. There are now many booths rented to smaller companies that specialize in items such as lighting fixtures or curtains. These smaller stores complement the six main players.

Jiang did not stop there. Looking ahead to the WTO and to Shanghai’s rapidly increasing wealth, he established a trade union for interior design and home improvement merchants in Shanghai. This trade union, with Jiang as deputy secretary, established industry standards and a system to protect consumers. He also set up a collective purchasing plan. All six companies can now bargain for better prices from dealers. Jiang invested in a warehouse, teams of logistical staff, and a purchaser to serve this trade union. In fact, he became the main supplier, able to get better prices than would be possible for individual companies. Needless to say, Jiang has become an interior design tycoon in Shanghai.

Jiang’s latest dream is establishing a web-based interior decorating and home improvement market for the trade union. The web site (525j in Chinese sounds like “I love my home”) connects all the companies in this trade union and lists their latest goods and sales. Further, customers can get exact price quotes on custom-made designs. They no longer need to go to the mall.  However, that is not the end of Jiang’s dream. He is now hiring teams of software engineers to do a virtual-reality home design program in three dimensions. Customers can create their own designs on the web and receive immediate price quotes. Jiang hopes that this approach can increase sales without increasing overhead.

Growth of Business

Jiang started humbly with a 13square-meter home office. Thirteen years later, he owns a 10,000 square meter shopping mall and a company of 370 employees with more than RMB 100 million in sales. Clearly, he has established himself as a successful businessman. He has also set the standards in the industry. Each time he has done something new, Jiang has increased his core business yet retained his focus.

Despite all of Jiang’s talents, he has never received a visit from the pastoral staff of his church in Shanghai. The churches there seldom tap Christians like Jiang for church ministry. There are only about 40 to 50 full time pastors for every 100,000 Christians in Shanghai—a 1:2,000 pastor/member ratio. Although Jiang does not have many Christian friends, he is well known as a Christian among his business colleagues who are almost all nonChristians. Jiang has been looking for Christian teachings on business but has found none.

In business, Jiang bucks common practice and does not give bribes or participate in immoral entertainment. Instead, he focuses on improving his service and coming up with innovative ideas to maintain his advantage. He refuses to take business from the entertainment industry, such as nightclubs, because the Chinese mafia owns much of it. Jiang also eschews the traditional custom of setting up an altar for Chinese folk gods at any of his home interior renovation jobs. Sometimes, however, customers ask that Buddhist monks or Daoist priests conduct ceremonies. Mr. Jiang never sponsors them and makes sure he is elsewhere on such occasions. Because his clients know that Jiang is a Christian, they usually do not mind his absence. Jiang has been fair to his staff, and the turnover rate is very low. His employees generally believe that the company has a bright future. They take pride in being associated with it. Often, he helps them as personal problems arise. Jiang discovered that one of his branch managers wanted to start his own business. He knew this talented man was being underutilized in his responsibilities with Qianxi. Therefore, Jiang lent him money and gave him enough credit to launch his own company. This new company now complements Jiang’s regional branch.

Jiang seeks not to defeat his business competitors but to join them in win-win situations. He looks beyond his own interests and focuses on the whole industry’s welfare. His visionary leadership and concern for safe and healthy workplaces in the industry have won him respect from his competitors. He has successfully made alliances with competitors, and together they meet customer needs and enhance the quality of their services—signs of a mature service industry. Evaluation Jiang’s concern for quality service, combined with his honesty and vision, makes him a successful businessman. He knows how to look beyond his present circumstances and see the wider needs of the industry. He always makes customers his No. 1 priority. He does not feel threatened by competition, nor does he try to fight against it. He sees it as an opportunity to develop a win-win situation for all. His intuitive grasp of trends challenges him to go beyond the present situation even though he is already at the top of his profession.

His business performance is rather impressive, judging from his past 13 years. Jiang does not spread himself too thin by venturing into different fields. Within his area of expertise, he has excelled as the industry leader and the trend setter. Jiang’s business has grown continuously, always with new ideas and products to set new industrial standards. With Shanghai continuing to grow rapidly, Jiang will most likely continue contributing innovative ideas. People like Jiang make Shanghai one of the fastest growing industrial cities in the world.

The church in Shanghai is in no position to offer assistance to Jiang or use his gifts for the kingdom. However, Jiang has volunteered and given money for orphanages, homes for the elderly, schools and scholarships. He has been looking for a fellowship for Christian business people in Shanghai, but since the local church is unequipped to provide such teaching or pastoral care, he and his business associates are lonely sojourners struggling through the complex business world with no spiritual guidance. If Jiang decides to form a Christian business people’s network in Shanghai, given his track record, there is little doubt that he will pull it off. Such a fellowship would be the first of its kind in China.

This article is excerpted from Holistic Entrepreneurs in China by KimKowng Chan and Tetsunao Yamamori. William Carey International University Press, Pasadena, CA., chapter 5, pp. 59–64. Used with permission. 

Image credit: by vis-a-v. via Flickr.

Kim-kwong Chan

The Rev. Kim-kwong Chan, PhD, DTh, is the Executive Secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council.View Full Bio