Christine Chen, Co-Founder, Kilop, on the Power of Integrity & Instinct
Christine Chen founded Kilop with her husband Heinz in 1988 as an independent sales agent for a major plastics group in Taiwan.
Living in North Carolina, Christine saw that the textiles industry was booming in the south and recognized the need for quality staple fibres, yarn and fabric. She developed a strong sales team at Kilop and a distribution network built around providing quality products from Taiwan to manufacturers in the US.
In order to increase her knowledge of building a small business Christine took several continuing education classes and especially excelled in accounting. With her new skills, Christine worked to construct internal Kilop systems, while her husband, Heinz, focused on developing sales. Christine and Heinz were not only building a business, but also raising three children at the same time.
Christine and the business suffered an unbelievable loss when Heinz passed away unexpectedly in 2003. It was her belief in the business and her desire to continue to support her employees, customers and suppliers that convinced Christine to continue the business after his death. Christine relied on her courage, inner strength and support network during the years following her husband’s death to continue to grow Kilop.
The business has grown exponentially in the last nine years with sales having multiplied about ten-fold.
Christine attributes this dramatic growth to still continuing to follow her and Heinz’s original philosophyof operating with integrity and maintaining a positive core balance.
By putting the needs of others in balance with her own, she has created an environment that people want to work.
Christine’s primary strength as a business woman is her ability to bridge the gap between her domestic customers and her international suppliers. Her knowledge of Asian culture and experiences from living in the US, have allowed her to understand where communication can break down. Her ability to facilitate open and honest communication between all parties has created many long lasting business relationships. Christine travels regularly to Asia to meet directly with her suppliers and in turn communicates these meetings to her customers.
We spoke to Christine about running a business with integrity and positivity; the power of instinct; and the benefits of all-women networks!
TNW: What was the inspired moment that led you to launch Kilop?
CC: One of my late husband’s business friends trusted our strong knowledge and ability in dealing with Asian suppliers as well as our international cultural experiences. He allowed us to utilize his business credit line to purchase product and sell back to him. It is his trust and innovative financial support that inspired us to launch Kilop.
TNW: How has technology fueled the growth and success of your company?
CC: 25 years ago we started with DacEasy accounting software and Lotus spread sheets to initially setup a sustainable operating system. By the 90s, e-mail was providing international business operations faster and efficient communication. We have since moved to an ERP accounting software with e-mail our main method of communication.
TNW: What is next for Kilop? As you look to scale your business, how can technology, capital and networks help?
CC: Kilop is in the process of building a scalable platform for organic sustainable growth.
Reliable technology had helped us to streamline logistic and communication processes. We actively seek new technology to maintain and promote operational improvement.
Innovative capital funding had helped us to start and grow our multimillion dollar business. As with all businesses, we strive for strategically innovative funding to scale our business, but within the guidelines of our core value of “do no harm and create meaningful purpose in doing business” at any of financial funding arrangement.
Effective networks helped us to place the right people in the right place in the Kilop team, bring in new business and offer resolutions for various business issues. In the next stage, Kilop will continue building effective networks to further develop our alliances with all strategic partners.
TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?
CC: Our biggest challenge has been drawing the line between relationships and accounts receivable collections.
All our customers are important to us and when a customer is paying late but still asks for more products, it is a big challenge for us, as a service business, to say no to this situation. We want them to succeed.
However, we learned a couple of hard lessons.
We had one customer, who faxed their check copies to ensure us for new deliveries. But, before we could cash those checks, this customer filed bankruptcy.
The check copies were no guarantee of the integrity of that customer.
Another case was one customer had been paying late and we had started to stop shipment to them. The business owner came to our office and pleaded to keep delivery of our product to help their business run through a difficult time, he even promised to pay every penny back. Unfortunately, we only received 25% of what they owed us after they declared bankruptcy.
The losses from these two customers impacted our business for nearly five years. We now purchase A/R insurance to cover big customers and watch our AR very closely plus communicate clearly with customers about the consequence of late payment.
TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?
CC: When I received an award for being in the top 25 business women in the Triad area in 2007, I also received a congratulatory card from our former CPA. He had looked at our financials right after my husband passed away and told me the best path would be to file bankruptcy. I felt differently as I knew I had a better path to follow. When he said that to me, I looked him straight in the eyes and said “No, I won’t” and subsequently fired him.
That was the moment I realized the power of instinct! If I had followed his advice, and if I had ignored my own gut feeling, then, there would be no Kilop today.
TNW: You attribute the amazing growth of your company to “operating with integrity and maintaining a positive core balance”. What are the key ways in which you put this strategy into practice?
CC: Practicing what I believe in. Walk your talk. Use compassion and understanding. Recognize difficulties and find resolutions quickly. Always remind myself and team members to create meaning in every business encounter.
TNW: What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way, but wish someone had told you at the beginning?
CC: To always have confidence in myself and in my strength, regardless of any real or imagined emotional barriers that I faced.
Although my business keeps growing, confidence as a woman business owner in a male dominant industry is still an issue since becoming a sole owner in 2003.
Recently in discussions with my women business group, several members mentioned they need to gain more confidence in growing business, including women who have 10 million or more revenue in business, and who have received business awards. These women are obviously successful but, still admitted to having confidence issues. .
The real lesson I learned over time is I do have the personal strength and ability to lead more effectively. The confidence comes from seeing the results of my work and how successful Kilop has become. And be aware of working through any of the emotional berries.
TNW: As someone whose company bridges Asia and the US, what could the two cultures learn from each other in the way they do business?
CC: Asians tend to see business more like crafting art work; focusing on partnership harmony and smoothness. Thus, trust and relationship are key elements to start a business relationship.
The American ways are more like scientific work, with precision and efficiency the focus. Thus, legal agreement or documentation is normal procedure to start a business.
Doing 25 years of business in between two cultures, I have seen both our Asian suppliers and US customers adopting and blending each other’s culture gradually and beautifully through our services.
TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?
CC: From DWEN conferences, meeting with women from different countries, and of various ages involved in various and notable businesses, has really inspired me to keep moving forward with my vision of utilizing people’s strength, to work productively together, and to grow my business to serve more people.
I see the benefits of all-women networks through gaining more of unconditional support and bonding that help them stand firm and tall in the “Red Ocean” business environment and at the same time creating their own “Blue Ocean” environment where ever they are.
TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?
CC: When purchasing assets for your business, consider quality as a priority over saving money.
One of our experiences involved computers. Before we changed all our office computers to Dell computers, we have different kinds of computers, some on different platforms, and some on barely compatible operating systems. All this caused significant operational delays through downtime and expense. The money we tried to save was not justified to the time and energy we wasted.
The Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN)celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.
In late 2011 and early 2012, The NextWomen partnered with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series. We're very excited to relaunch the series in 2013 with a further five fantastic interviews.
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