Chicago importer also provides outsourcing solutions

By Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOT

When Linda Bi took over her late husband’s business in 2000, her previous involvement in the company was limited to bookkeeping. Since that time, the president of Chicago Expert Importers has turned the company into a leading mid-Western woman-owned business with revenue growth of 25% per year. CEI enjoyed 2006 revenues of $22 million, triple its 2000 sales.

‘It was my husband’s cup of tea,’ said Bi, of her initiation to the family business. ‘All my competitors thought it was a great opportunity to acquire my company.’ She didn’t sell.

Chicago Expert Importers had its genesis in China, when, in 1982, Bi and her late husband, Leonard Ma, went to work for a state-owned import-export company. ‘When I worked for a state-owned company back in China, I learned the basics of trade,’ Bi said, ‘but it was very different from American’s highly competitive work environment.’

Seven years later, with $300 in his pocket, Ma left for the US, aspiring to build a trading company of his own.

Ma set up Central Equimpex, CEI’s predecessor, in San Francisco, with an initial investment of $50,000 borrowed from friends and relatives. One year later, Bi left China to join her husband. Soon thereafter, Ma signed CEI’s first contract, an $80,000 deal with Elkhart, IN-based Dexter Axle Co. In 1996 the company moved to Batavia, IL, in the western suburbs of Chicago, a location more convenient for distribution to its customers.

Bi has pursued a two-tier strategy to expand market share since taking over the business. She has attempted to diversify and expand product lines while enticing customers to place larger orders.

Another change Bi has made to CEI is in the composition of its work force.

Her late husband used contract and part-time employees. Bi said she has been able to build a better and more committed team by employing full-time employees. CEI’s 15 full-timers specialize in purchasing, sales, technology, and logistics.

CEI now imports sporting goods such as golf clubs and hunting, shooting, and archery equipment as well as sporting apparel. The company also imports auto parts and industrial components.

Do-All Traps LLC, a Nashville-based outdoor equipment manufacturer, has been a CEI customer since the late 1990s, using its relationship to CEI to arrange the production of its hunting and shooting equipment in China. By outsourcing manufacturing to China the company has been able to spend more time and energy designing and marketing new products, according to Bi. As a result, Do-All has expanded its product line since 1998 from four products to nearly 100. Do-All’s products appear on the shelves of almost 5,000 stores.

Bi’s plan to continue to grow CEI’s market depends in large part on ensuring quality standards. She says she would not trade her long-term suppliers, many of whom have worked with the company for more than a decade, for a lower product price. If someone offers a tempting price, Bi said her first reaction is to figure out how to make her original suppliers’ products more competitive.

Bi has had to combat shrinking profit margins, however. CEI’s profits currently stand at two to three percent of revenues while gross profit margins have shrunk to about 10% this year from more than 30% in the early 1990s, according to Bi.

To combat shrinking profit margins, CEI emphasizes higher value products and attempts to introduce cost-saving technologies to its suppliers in China. At the same time, CEI provides value-added services to its customers such as logistics, production, engineering, and international trade services.

The company carries large inventories of products for customers, staged for just-in-time delivery, at its 86,000 square foot warehouse. The company also offers an extensive menu of other services including customs clearance and documentation, delivery scheduling, inventory management, domestic shipping services, production planning, product engineering, and quality