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The last word: Mr. Ubiquitous
How a novelty importer with a magic touch aims to get his next product into every closet in America
J

D MA is not ashamed of his past. He’s not apologizing for the Flash Pen, the Fish Pen, the Snake Pen, the Boxing Pen, or the Squiggly-Wiggley Jumbo Pen. He takes full responsibility for the Grip Lite, the Phaser Lite, the 3-in-1 LED Emergency Light, and the Robolite Pop Up Book Light. He expresses no regrets for Brain Slime, Skull Glow, or Floam (“Fun you can feel!”). He doesn’t mind if you call him Mr. Flashlight, Mr. Pen, Mr. Key Chain, or even Mr. Key Chain Flashlight Pen. He has made a nice living selling this stuff and will keep on selling it as long as distributors and retail chains and mom-and-pop dollar stores want to buy.

But Ma prefers to operate on a higher plane. As he sees it, his business—the business of connecting American sellers with Chinese manufacturers—can be done on several levels. The most basic level he calls “I pick.” He tours the industrial boomtowns of China in search of novelties that will sell on the American market. Another level is “You pick.” He works with American distributors of gifts, toys, and promotional items, finding factories that can make products to his clients’ specifications. The level he likes best is “Create something.” He employs his skills and connections to help a client conceive, design, and/or market a product that he makes in China.

Lately Ma has been creating something, possibly his biggest item ever. One of his two companies based in suburban Darien, Ill.— Really Useful Products—owns the exclusive worldwide right to manufacture this item, and it’s something that could sell in the billions, a patented improvement on an object found by the dozens and sometimes even hundreds in almost every home in the industrialized world. Invented by an Illinois tinkerer, it came to Ma via a fortuitous chain of personal connections. And if the pieces continue to fall into place, he and his impromptu band of partners could be on the brink of making the Big Score—with a slightly bent version of the common clothes hanger.

JD MA (the initials are short for Jiadong) will never be mistaken for a native-born American. English is definitely his second language: clipped down to essentials, thickly accented, and idiomatically challenged. Combined with his loud laugh and ready smile, it’s quite sufficient for doing business, but he will not have a second career as a public speaker.

In many ways, though, he is the model American small businessman—smart, enterprising, and guided by values and attitudes right out of the chamber of commerce textbook: Every business is a people business. Play by the rules and don’t cut corners. A good deal is one in which everyone benefits.

Now 49, Ma grew up in Shanghai, the only child of middle-class office workers, in the midst of Deng Xiaoping’s economic and social reforms: right place, right time, as he would say. His college class, which entered in 1978, was the first in more than a decade to be selected not by the Communist Party but by means of a national aptitude test. At Fudan University in Shanghai, Ma majored in economics and—in China’s new meritocracy—his degree earned him a job in the Shanghai government, overseeing state-owned factories that made light consumer items ranging from key chains to small appliances. It was a good job, but after seven years Ma was restless. “In China, you could not pick your life at that time. They want you to do this, then you do it. You get a job; it’s not the one you want.”

He came to the United States on a student visa in 1989. Again, right place, right time: By pure luck, he followed a friend into North Central College in Naperville, Ill., shortly after Tiananmen Square. A few years later, Congress enacted a law giving permanent resident status to Chinese students who had entered the United States in the 10 months following that uprising.

Ma, who wanted to find a job in the arts, soon landed an internship with the Chicago Sinfonietta through the arts management program at Chicago’s Columbia College. By that time his wife, Xiaosu, had joined him in the United States. She worked as a waitress while JD studied at Columbia and delivered pizzas.

On one of his trips back to China, Ma bought a few hundred clocks to use as party favors at a Sinfonietta fundraiser. Working on their living room floor, he and Xiaosu took the clocks apart one by one so they could have the orchestra’s logo printed on the faces. A career was born. “I made like a dollar for each clock. So, couple hundred dollars. A week to do that. But it was fun! … That was 1994, I think.”

His next item was a Chicago skyline pen, a project that established principles and working habits Ma follows to this day: First, study the market, which usually means visiting stores looking for items he can provide at a competitive price. Next, buy cheap and sell cheap and be sure everyone makes money. Third, don’t think only about this deal; think about all of the future deals to be done with these people. Finally, do it the right way. Make sure the quality is good, that the rules have been followed.

Ma didn’t ask anyone to preorder his skyline pens. He bought some pens in China, drew a skyline design, had it engraved on the pens, then walked into a gift store in the Sears Tower and said, How do you like this pen? You want to buy it?

At a Chicago trade show, he soon met Brian Russell, a buyer for Giftco, a major supplier of school fundraising items. They collaborated on a set of engraved pens, and that was the beginning of a fruitful friendship. At the time, companies like Giftco bought most of their Chinese-made goods through Hong Kong agents who charged hefty commissions. Ma was dealing directly with factory managers in China. Soon he was taking Russell to China with him. “He could find people, find friends, all throughout China,” Russell recalls. “We were going places where other people in the industry hadn’t even thought about going.”

Over a period of about 12 years, Russell estimates, he and Ma collaborated on as many as 2,000 different items, from lights and toys to fashion jewelry. Russell thought Ma was some kind of engineer: “He has a really unique ability to sniff out, understand, go through every detail of a product. He’s a terrific redesigner. I could say, ‘Hey, JD, this clock can’t be more than $8 retail,’ and he would go out and study it. ... And, son of a gun, he would figure out how to get it at that price and still have a quality product.”

Last spring, when Russell set eyes on the Z-Hanger, he knew exactly whom to call.

THE Z-HANGER is the purest sort of invention—and potentially the most profitable sort: an improvement on an item that sells by the billions every year. It has no moving parts, uses no new technology, and—this is huge—costs about the same to make as its common counterpart. It’s 100 percent human imagination.

Where a common clothes hanger has a hook shaped like a question mark, the Z-Hanger’s hook takes a detour, essentially continuing the slope of one of the arms. This allows the hanger to be slipped into a narrow opening—a buttoned-up shirt or a turtleneck sweater—without unbuttoning, pulling, or stretching the garment. It may seem mysterious until you see it done, but once you have, you wonder why hangers weren’t always made this way.

It was invented by Marshall Joseph, a retired mechanical engineer who lived outside Chicago. He died just a few months before a patent was issued, in 1996, but his son Mark had helped him with the patent process and was eager to take the hanger to market. That didn’t turn out to be so easy. Twelve years after the patent was granted, Mark Joseph had nothing to show but a couple of prototypes and a long trail of false starts.

In the spring of 2008, Joseph exhibited the Z-Hanger at Chicago’s International Home & Housewares Show and it surprised him by winning invention of the year. He received an offer from a TV shopping channel and took the proposal to an attorney he knew, who was impressed when Joseph mentioned the design award. Let me make a phone call, the attorney said. Within a few minutes another client was in the office with them: Brian Russell, who was now working on his own.

WHAT DID MA think of the hanger when he first saw it? “Good item. I like it.” Which is his second-language shorthand for: Consumers will like this thing. We can make money with this. It will be fun.

Ma “studied”: He showed the hanger to friends and family. He photocopied the prototype and scribbled all over the copies, specifying modifications. He changed the cross section of the hanger’s arms from a circle to an H, scooping out enough plastic to reduce the hanger from 75 to 60 grams without affecting its strength. He clipped the hooks off
other hangers—velvet-covered, wood, metal, padded—and photocopied them with Z-Hangers behind them to make no-fuss “drawings” of a whole line of hangers from basic to deluxe.

When I first met Ma a summer ago, his plan was to license the hanger to a company that sells gadgets on TV. That would have been a low-risk approach. But that company wanted exclusive rights to the hanger and a lower price point than Ma thought he could provide. A couple of months later, he and Russell had moved on to Plan B, which made the Z-Hanger the most ambitious project either had ever attempted: They would market it themselves, globally.

Last October, Ma spent about two weeks in the cities of Ningbo, near Shanghai, and Guilin, around 900 miles inland. Carrying his photocopies from one factory to another, talking with Russell by telephone every night, he gradually assembled a consortium of hanger manufacturers, including some of the biggest in China—one factory to do the basic plastic hangers, another for metal, another for wood and plush. He didn’t know this was what he wanted when he started, but he ended up structuring the deals so that each factory could sell the others’ hangers and stood to profit by doing so. In effect, Ma was creating an international, interlocking sales force out of thin air.

This spring, the Z-Hanger appeared in several major trade shows. According to Russell, it will soon start showing up in Bed Bath & Beyond and The Container Store. Meanwhile, Russell continues to work on a deal offering him entry into the display market: big clothing chains that he hopes will find the Z-Hanger easier for salesclerks to use.

“I don’t dream big,” Ma told me more than once. “I do one step at a time.” But on one of those late-night phone calls from Ningbo, Russell heard him say they might be able to capture 20 percent of the global market. And why shouldn’t they?

From “The Great American Novelty” by Michael Lenehan, first published in Chicago magazine. Used with permission.

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