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back to catalog Chapter 7: Gao Dekang - Zipping Ahead.

  Fifty-six-year-old Gao Dekang is the chairman and founder of Bosideng, the company that produces over half of the branded winter coats in China. It sells 30 million units annually.

  Investors estimate that Bosideng’s Hong Kong listing could value the company at $2 billion. Its total sales were 11.7 billion yuan (USD $1.8 billion) in 2007.

  Many smaller coat manufacturers were forced to close down in 2006 due to the warm winter, but Bosideng survived and its sales continued to increase, largely due to its reputation established over the past ten years, and product innovation.



  As global warming becomes a very real prospect, things aren’t looking good for those who earn a living by keeping people warm.

  And Gao Dekang is one of them.

  “Warmer winters are our most urgent problem,” Gao says. “Other problems will be solved once this problem is dealt with.”

  Yet earlier in the interview, Gao told reporters that his business was “not affected by the warm winter in 2006”. Its total sales were 12.6 billion yuan (USD $1.9 billion) in 2006, up over 40 percent on the previous year.

  

New Strategy.

Gao says he has been shifting company strategy to tackle climate change for years. He has worked on the design of his coats to make them more fashionable and also brought in technology so that the garments are better suited to the elements.

  He says the company is working with a local research institute to make clothes that can be worn in different temperatures. The plan is to produce clothes that can be labeled with the temperature suitable to be worn in.

  “Consumers will know which coat to wear according to the weather forecast - whether it’s -5C or -10C,” says Gao. He says this will ensure he has a market for his coats, no matter how warm the weather is.

  Gao has four product brands that target different age groups and income levels. “So if a competitor tries to beat me by lowering prices, he’ll find we’ve already got a brand at the lower level,” he says.

  The company also plans to expand its portfolio beyond winter clothing. While Gao says the focus will still be on the China market, Bosideng is also looking internationally to countries where it has market share such as Russia and Canada.

  

Humble Beginnings.

Gao started his career as a tailor in 1972 after graduating from high school. This was a natural career choice for him as both his father and grandfather were tailors. He proudly recalls the days when he could tell customers’ sizes just by looking at them. He says he could finish a pair of trousers in 14 minutes; most tailors would need two hours.

  He set up a factory in his hometown of Changshu, about 100 kilometers from Shanghai. The factory started with eight sewing machines and 11 locals from the village. Gao made a round trip from Changshu to Shanghai every day to bring material and supplies from Shanghai to make clothes in his factory. He took the finished garments to the city the next day.

  One day he came across people queuing to buy winter coats on Nanjing Road. It struck him as a good opportunity.

  “The coats were made from down, which is natural and warm,” he says. He thought there was huge potential for the products. But he didn’t have the capital to follow through on the idea. He decided to learn firsthand how the business worked and began making down coats for a Shanghai company in 1984.

  He waited until 1994 to register his company. He made the first coat for himself and had sold less than half of his stock at the end of the season.

  Gao changed the company’s name after its initial failure to break into the northern market. He chose Bosideng, a transliteration of Boston, a US city that experiences cold, snowy winters.

  He also streamlined his product. The garments were known as “bread coats” in China, as anyone wearing one looked as round as the local bread, mantou. Gao used his tailoring expertise to improve the design of the coats and began producing them in brighter colors instead of drab blue and black.

  He says the company sold nearly all of the 500,000 coats he made in 1995 and the firm became the local market leader.

  Gao is hoping to take his company further with a bold marketing strategy. He approached the General Sports Administration to sponsor the clothing of the first Chinese winner at the Winter Olympics, Han Xiaopeng. Bosideng also sponsored an attempt to climb Qomolangma (Mt. Everest), and an Antarctic expedition, which saw the company’s flag flying in the coldest place on the planet.

  

Wheels of Progress.

Gao Dekang doesn’t hesitate when asked what his great passion is in life: cars.

  “My love of cars reflects the speed at which I pursue my career,” says Gao.

  In his factory’s museum that showcases the history of Bosideng, it’s a bicycle and a sewing machine, not a car, which take pride of place.

  Like most entrepreneurs at the helm of privately owned companies in the Yangtze River Delta region’s manufacturing industry over the last two decades, Gao has been through plenty of hardships.

  When he first set up his factory, Gao would set off from Changshu, his hometown, to Shanghai before dawn every morning. Strapped to his bicycle were garments weighing up to 100 kilograms. Five hours later, after negotiating with a factory in Shanghai, he pedaled back to Changshu with another 100 kilograms of new material.

  Once he was pushed off a crowded bus in Shanghai, injuring his back, because his bag of textiles was deemed too big.

  After a while, Gao was able to afford a motorbike. But life also got busier, and he found himself making the round trip from Shanghai to Changshu three times a day. He went through six motorbikes in five years before he bought his first car, a Peugeot.

  By then, his company had moved up the value chain from manufacturing raw materials to become an original equipment manufacturer. The factory began making clothes, putting other companies’ labels on the finished products.

  Today, Bosideng is estimated to be worth over 10 billion yuan (USD $1.5 billion). And Gao owns a fleet of 20 vehicles worth 20 million yuan (USD $3 million). “I will never slow down,” he says. “I cannot slow down, it’s not in my nature - either on the road or when I’m doing business.”

By Liu Weiling and Diao Ying

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