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This Little Idea Went to Market

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This Little Idea Went to Market

This Little Idea Went to Market

When Enoch Poon reserved a booth to sell Chinese dinners at AgapeFest '86, he wanted to give concertgoers a taste of China and make some money in the process. Though he lacked cash, supplies and manpower, Poon - soon to graduate with a major in computer science and mathematics - was rich in resourcefulness.

Poon persuaded a local grocery store to provide him with food for the event and accept payment afterward. He borrowed electric woks and frying pans from all the married students he knew. He outsourced the tricky task of preparing eggrolls to a nearby Chinese restaurant and hired students to staff the booth. By the end of AgapeFest, more than 200 attendees enjoyed the alternative to hotdogs and pizza. After Poon paid the bills and his helpers, he pocketed more than $400 in profit (adjusted for inflation, about $840 today).

"It went so well, I could have doubled what I sold," Poon tells management students in the Professional Business Leaders class on the Greenville College campus where he occasionally returns to speak. "People often ask me, 'Is it true that you need money to make money?' I say, 'It helps. Still, you must start somewhere; just be creative.'"

Creativity seems to be Poon's specialty, particularly creating opportunities for profit. When his early employment as a programmer and systems engineer proved less than inspiring, he chose a new direction and earned his law degree from the University of Louisville.

As a first year associate, he generated more than 50 new clients for the law firm where he worked.

Poon tells students that he was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Trade with China had just opened up, and his fluency in Mandarin, Cantonese and Taiwanese proved valuable. He traveled often to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to size up potential business partners and suppliers for his international clients. One client, a logistics firm, wooed Poon away from law to build its international trade division from the ground up.

"My function was really to drum up import business for our logistics clients," he explains. "I was supposed to be in charge of Far East operations and have someone else manage sales and marketing, but the firm never hired that person. I had to do both. That's when you really have to learn and be creative!"

Poon worked with customers like Samsonite and OXO to develop new product lines and identify strategic manufacturing partners. The market welcomed his ideas, and Poon grew his division's revenue from zero to $2 million in two years. After 2 1/2 years, he left to create something new, his own international trade business, Innovative International LLC.

Students laugh when Poon describes how he began the business with a fax machine and phone in his basement. In eight years, he grew its revenue to $35 million, realizing about 40 percent growth each year with no marketing effort.

"Why doesn't your company have a website?" a student asks Poon, suggesting that a business without a website today is counter intuitive to marketing in an Internet-driven world.

"I don't know," Poon shrugs wryly, "Maybe I'm just lazy." Students laugh at the incongruity of Poon playing down his undeniable penchant for productivity and efficiency.

"We don't try to sell things to multiple people," he explains. "We try to service a customer as much as we can and grow that customer's business. By growing their business, our business grows at the same time. I have a lot of customers, all through word of mouth; it is the best kind of advertisement."

The process of learning the needs of a customer's business is a fitting challenge for Poon. His constant fascination with figuring out how things work may be his most valuable asset. When Poon seeks the best manufacturer for a client's project, he visits many prospects, asks questions, listens and learns. "By the fifth or sixth factory, I am half-expert and know the lingo," he says.

Poon's ever-increasing expertise is reflected in Innovative International's broad range of products that include housewares and cookware, stationery supplies, and accessories for travel, autos and pets. Most major retail chains carry his products worldwide.

"I get bored," Poon admits to the students, "I always want to be learning." He says he is happy to establish a client's success and then turn management of that success over to a colleague so he can pursue new interests. Poon holds patents on various inventions and MIT-certification in technology, operations and value chain management. He is a U.S. customs broker and commercial realtor.

"Keep your eyes open," he encourages students, "Truly look at everything and be curious. Learn as much as you can. Think about how things link together. Accounting, marketing, finance, even the Bible and business - they all work together."

The classroom conversation covers a lot of territory like the end of the "Made in China" era, labor costs, and the changing landscape of international distribution. Poon's experiences, connections, and expertise prove as broad as the continents his business spans. By the end of class one thing is clear: Innovative International LLC began with far more than a fax machine and phone.

To read more about Enoch Poon's story, click here

This story was published on April 01, 2013




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