AsianInNY Interviews with Su Hwei Lin, Owner of Manhattan Portage and Token

Su Hwei Lin is the President, Chief Executive Officer and trademark owner of Manhattan Portage brand and related companies. Her personal/business philosophy is deeply influenced by her Asian background.


Article By Alice Chin
Photo by Peter Yang Zhao

If you’re familiar with the New York skyline, you know the famous logo of Manhattan Portage (曼哈頓包), the standard for reliable, lightweight, functional messenger bags.  Founded in 1980, the company has since expanded its bag line to many different styles and an additional high end line called Token.  Recently Diana Lee, Peter Yang Zhao and I of AsianinNY.com met the inspiring Su Hwei Lin, President of Manhattan Portage, the chief executive and trademark owner of this brand and related companies.  She gave us her amazing insight on how MP has risen to be the leading bag company in its category.  Ms. Su Hwei Lin also shared with us her philosophy on how to become a successful Asian American entrepreneur.

Why do people want to buy Manhattan Portage bags?
There is a Confucius saying- Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others do unto you. For me, I have to believe in the product I’m selling so I can sell it to my customer.  My goods are durable, of good quality, and are of reasonable price.  Anywhere I go, I can sell my product because of these strong points.  Whether I go to China, Africa, Israel, Libya, America, or Japan, it’s the same mentality.  People always look for products that have good quality with reasonable price.
 
Who designs the bags?
I’ve been creating all the designs since I started working at the company in 1998, but we just hired a new designer 1-2 months ago.  I know what styles look beautiful.  Our bags look good because the styles are very simple.  Our signature pieces include a DJ Bag, and also a triangular bag, known as the J-Bag.  We were the first to come out with the triangular style of backpack.  Of course, it’s impossible to satisfy everyone.  But if someone complains about a bag, we use their opinions to improve upon our designs.  We will do our best.  Many famous brands constantly approach us to do collaborations with them.

Where are your products made?
Taiwan.  I feel that it is an honor to have our products made in Taiwan.  I’m looking for Taiwan manufacturers that have factories in Taiwan, because they have the standards that I’m looking for.  I pay a little more, but I feel better.  I want to make sure my goods are made durable with good quality.

Where in the world do you sell best?
Asia. But, we sell in 40 countries worldwide, in the top stores all over the world.  Of course, we are not at the same level of stores like LV, Prada, but for our price range, we are the top.
 
What kind of people work at your company?
My company is very multicultural.  We have Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Thai, Americans, German, French, and Asian Americans.  We have different attitudes, but we become the same culture because we are in the same company.   Very few people have the global mentality and appreciate the benefit of being multicultural, so that is why I have a hard time to find good people.  You have to be able to work together in a team and understand each other, and appreciate the advantage of working in a multicultural company.  I have European and American experience.  I have an Asian cultural background and wisdom, and that is why I can manage the team.  I don’t want just the American way of business or the Chinese way of doing business.  We are an international business, which means we operate in a logical way.  I have a logical way of explaining things to my employees.  I am constantly learning from my employees, and they learn from me.  There is a Chinese idiom: One is never too old to learn.

How did you become successful at Manhattan Portage?
I started working for Manhattan Portage in 1998, but the company started in 1983.  When I started working, I had to prove my abilities to my business partner.  At that time, the famous Manhattan Portage trademark was registered by other companies in many countries.  In Japan, the person who registered the trademark was opposed to our business in Japan.  My business partner had tried to retrieve the trademark, but failed, and gave up. I wanted to try again so I asked my partner: What happens if I get the trademark back?  They said that I would be the owner of the trademark in Japan.  Do you know how long it took for me to get it back?  8 years.  I had to do it step by step.  In 2005, we were finally took back the logo.  You have to prove that you can do what you say; action speaks louder than words. Never give up easily.

How do you promote your products?
Instead of marketing and advertising, I put efforts in making great products.  I always believe if you have a good product, your product speaks for itself and will become well known.  People will tell others about your products and it will spread by word of mouth.  Our customers use the product until it’s old and worn.  But they will come back to buy a different style.

How can you become an outstanding Asian American?
Know your roots.  Don’t forget where you come from. Don’t look down upon your parents; they immigrated here, worked hard to pursuit their dreams and to give you a better life.  I also think it’s important to know your native language. Nowadays we live in a global village; being bilingual or trilingual is definitely a great asset. We should understand what is good about our Asian culture, and what is not good about our culture. Since we live in America, we also know what is good here and what is not good here.  We should learn the best parts of the Asian and American cultures and avoid the unfavorable parts in them. To make the best of both cultures is what makes us special and unique.

How do you feel about your Asian background?
I’m from Taiwan. I’m very proud of myself because I come from a very good family and good country with rich history, education, and culture.  I always tell myself that as long as I step out of my country, I represent all of the Taiwanese people.  A lot of Asian people don’t think about that.   So I am very careful of my image, especially when I do business.

How has your family influenced your personal/business philosophy?
Actually my family retails Western medicine, which is similar to my current business, but with a different product.  I grew up watching the family business, so it’s like second nature to me.  My family also valued charity and doing good deeds.  Every day, our family’s servants put water and food out for the poor.  One time a fisherman was selling a turtle.  My mother bought the turtle.  I went to my mom and said Mommy, the turtle is crying.  My mom said, don’t touch the turtle, we’re going to send him back to the ocean to see his mother.  This is why I love to help people.  I feel happy when I can help someone.  When I was young, I thought it would be wonderful if I could be like Bodhisattva GuanYin. We should do something good for our society.

Even now, I order lunch for my employees, because it’s so expensive to eat in Soho.  We also have a rice cooker in the kitchen.  And if they don’t want to eat what we order, they can bring their own meal.  I also provide my employees with H1 visa and health insurance.

What is your advice on becoming successful?
Be Persistent.  I decided to come to the US by myself and was very poor.  If I gave up when I was young, I would be in Taiwan right now and not here in NY.

Be a good person.  Good heart, good thoughts, good behavior.  Good behavior based on good thoughts leads you in a good direction, producing good results.  If you have wrong ideas, you will go in the wrong direction. Being a good person with good thoughts allows you to make right decisions and surround yourself with good people. Everyone wants to be successful, to have a great carrier, to be with smart and successful people, but don’t forget this: When you’re choosing other people, they’re choosing you as well. We have to constantly work on ourselves and improve ourselves in order to become the person that people respect and admire.

 

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