“When life puts you in a difficult position, you will be amazed at how well you can survive,” says the Clipper Corp. CEO.
Lina Hu, 52, is chairman and chief executive of Clipper Corp., which supplies uniforms and other goods to companies in the retail, hospitality, delivery and food service industries.
“We provide product to restaurants, including fry baskets, steak knives, serving trays, flatware,” Hu said. “Pots, pans, anything you cannot eat. We also provide high-end stainless steel cookware and utensils to retail. We are a full-service uniform provider, from design to manufacture to distribution.”
Clipper, founded in 1994 and based outside Los Angeles, projects revenue this year of about $40 million. Clients include Burger King Corp., Target Corp., Home Depot Inc. and FedEx Corp.
The brainstorm: In the early ’90s, after failing to land a customer service job with AT&T in Boston, Hu moved to Los Angeles to be near friends. She was reduced to the hope of becoming a dishwasher in a restaurant. “When life puts you in a difficult position, you will be amazed at how well you can survive,” Hu said. That job interview gave her an idea.
“I saw the opportunity, while they interviewed me. They showed me the dishes, what products to wash. I saw all of the pots and pans, silverware, plateware. I thought ‘China has a lot of factories. They can make these things cheaper, and I can supply it for them.’”
Ignore failure: People assumed she would fail, Hu recalled. “One, you don’t speak English. Two, you don’t have any merchandise, you just have an idea. Third, you’re Asian, and they don’t respect you,” Hu said.
“For me, I don’t give up. I called all of the other national chain restaurants. I said, ‘I can supply you with the same quality, but at reduced costs.’ Or, ‘You will spend the same amount of money, but have a better product to use.’ Most wouldn’t even return my calls.”
The breakthrough: “Finally, Burger King gave me my first appointment, and I closed the deal. They were having their baseball caps made in South America, but they became my first customer.”
“I went back to China, found a factory that wanted the work,” Hu said. “They asked me to pay them. I told them, ‘I don’t have money. I’m your free salesman. You should pay me for this. You make the product. I will find the buyer.’ I took my cut from Burger King and paid the factory.”
China roots: Hu’s engineer father and factory-worker mother encouraged her to have lofty goals, but “in China then, people did not have many options. It wasn’t what you wanted to choose to do; it was whatever was available.” Hu earned a bachelor’s degree in statistics and a master’s degree in business from Zhejiang University, south of Shanghai. “There were really no women role models in China, but I always had a dream of starting my own company,” Hu said.
“My father was very positive,” Hu said. “He always encouraged me to think and dream big, He always said, ‘Never let anyone stand in your way.’ To him, what I did was like a dream come true, being an entrepreneur. He was so proud of me.”
Branching out: Hu’s next two customers were Darden Restaurants, owner of eight casual dining restaurant chains, including Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse. Her third customer was Yum Brands, operator of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.
Hu refined her pitch. “I’d bring samples to show them what the product looked like. We will be reliable and accountable. It will be hands free for them.”
Today, Clipper employs 80 people in the LA area and Atlanta. The Chinese factories that work with Clipper employ more than 500.
The Clipper name: Hu named her company after the revolutionary 19th century sailing vessels. The sleek clipper ships had more sail space than any predecessor, which allowed them to set speed records.
“It represents my style,” Hu said. “No matter what obstacles, we always move forward, reach our destination and deliver on what we promised.”
Leadership style: “I can be a hands-on manager at times, but I do instill a workplace environment where the employees are encouraged to own their work,” Hu said, adding that she doesn’t want her workers to fear missteps. “They know they won’t be fired if they make a mistake. Just learn from it.
“You have to hire talented people,” Hu said. “That includes people I have either worked with or competed with for many years.”
Personal: Hu is on the board of trustees of Virginia’s Hampton University, and she has served on a Commerce Department advisory committee representing small and minority business.
She loves to travel and has visited 85 countries. She is an avid runner, putting in several miles a week on Southern California beaches. “I’m a very disciplined runner. I run every day,” Hu said, “about five or six miles each. Running is like meditation for me. It relaxes my mind.”