Note: This story is part of Global Atlanta’s exclusive report: Taiwan: Georgia’s Asian Gateway?, which features on-the-ground reporting and local insight.
Sue-ling Wang came to Atlanta by accident, but the Taiwanese entrepreneur had a background that helped him know how to find another route when you hit a dead end.
Dr. Wang’s journey from son of a farmer to the founder of multiple companies based on his expertise in polyurethane was enabled in part by lessons learned as the fifth oldest out of six entrepreneurial brothers.
In the 1980s, after earning a Ph.D. in chemistry in Detroit, he invested about $1 million to buy a toner factory in Norcross, which promptly lost its primary customer. He kept it afloat in part with capital from other ventures in Taiwan, including one he founded in 1975 to produce polyurethane coatings for synthetic leather.
Now, Dr. Wang is firmly planted in Atlanta as president of Color Imaging, which supplies aftermarket toner for printers and copiers to wholesalers and retailers in the U.S. His four American children carry on his affection for his second home, but family ties in Asia remain vital to his businesses.
At a factory in Taichung, Taiwan, a company headed up by Dr. Wang’s youngest brother, Jerry Wang, makes toner cartridges and ships them to Atlanta (among other destinations) to be filled with yellow, red, blue and black toner.
General Plastic Industrial Co. Ltd. was founded in 1978 to make plastic parts for shoes, quickly growing to five factories. As Taiwan’s manufacturing prowess grew, General Plastic moved up the value chain and started doing injection molding. Now, its current headquarters, located in a free-trade zone near Taichung’s bustling port, has more than 500 workers.
More than 60 engineers spend their days tweaking patented cartridge designs. It’s a fine balance: they have to be close enough to fit the printers and copiers but different enough to avoid infringement lawsuits.
On the factory floor, more than 250 line workers – mostly women in pink uniforms – assemble, fill and pack cartridges for the export market as 16 green machines run, producing 8 million plastic gears a month.
“My brother opened the door for the company in the U.S. market,” said Jerry Wang, GPI’s president, during a Global Atlanta visit last year to the factory. “To make toner cartridges is quite different from shoe parts. At first we had no idea how, but luckily, at the time there were no other people doing that.”
In cracking the U.S. market, Dr. Wang became GPI’s main customer, enabling the Taiwanese company to grow along with him.
In some ways, the Wangs are heirs of a trend toward “disaggregated manufacturing,” which was common in the early days of Taiwan’s economic ascent in the 1970s. In this system, individual factories in family-linked supply chains specialized in different parts of a product instead of trying to make the whole thing, said Shelley Rigger, a political science professor at Davidson College and an expert on Taiwanese politics.
That’s because while Taiwan (along with Korea) followed the Japanese model of state-led development, controlling key industries, it didn’t institute policies that favored hand-picked champions that eventually became huge conglomerates, Dr. Rigger said.
As a result, Taiwan’s manufacturing sector developed organically. In a formerly agrarian society with entrenched “trust networks” and little formal access to capital, it made sense for families to work together in small, integrated supply chains.
“Family’s not the only way that these guys can become connected, but it’s the best way because you trust people in your family more than everyone else,” Dr. Rigger said.
As Taiwan has integrated with the global economy, becoming an outsized powerhouse for electronics from laptops to semiconductors, families have taken these networks to overseas markets, including mainland China, where Taiwanese investment has played a significant role in the country’s 30-year boom.
The Wangs, however, are starting to sour on China. As the cost of labor there has risen, their patience for piracy and government land grabs has waned.
One of Dr. Wang’s companies was forced to invest millions in Shanghai this year to move a factory from the site of a planned high-rise.
He’s keeping his plant in Guangdong province to be close to manufacturers of sandals and high heels that use his materials. He has an ear-plug factory in Fuzhou, but he’s thinking of moving some production back to Taiwan.
“Not because of the corruption, but because the wage will be the same and the efficiency of people there is about 30-40 percent less than the people in Taiwan, so Taiwan will be very strong in manufacturing again,” he told Global Atlanta in a 2011 interview in Atlanta.
Both Sue-ling and Jerry Wang are now eyeing Cambodia for their low-end factory work, noting that they’ll both keep higher-value elements in Taiwan.
“In Cambodia, they need a job. In China, it’s very difficult to find people on the production line. You wait to get that, and then you have to raise their salary every year,” Jerry Wang said.