William D. Frazier’s company, Shanghai-America Direct Import & Export, is based in Shanghai (xmftrade.com). He is the author of Black American Entrepreneur in China: Connecting Industry and Cultural Differences, and his website is WilliamDFrazier.com.
The interview was conducted on Zoom with Mr. Frazier in Shanghai and Dr. Penelope Prime, China Currents’ managing editor, in Atlanta, on March 8, 2022. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PP: Welcome, William! I am so glad you are willing to talk to China Currents about what is going on in your life and business in China. You are initially from Georgia, but you’ve been living and working in China for a long time. Tell us your story about how you came to be doing business in China and living there for so long.
WF: It started when I came here on a study abroad program with the Savannah State University’s China Study Abroad Program in 2000 and 2001. I was doing my master’s in urban studies, which was an exciting time. When I came in 2001, I attended a World Planning Congress at Tongji University in Shanghai. I met a professor there, and we just started talking. He said, you know, if you’re interested in coming back to China to work on a Ph.D., you’re welcome to do that after you get your master’s. I told him I don’t speak Chinese well enough to do a Ph.D. in China. It was just conversation, and I didn’t think anything about it.
I came back stateside and had a pretty decent local government job working on economic development for the City of Savannah. One thing that we were trying to do was to figure out how to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods by bringing businesses there. Working for the City opened my eyes to many barriers that particularly small minority businesses have, even today. For example, access to the merchandise that they need.
Then, unfortunately, 9/11 happened, which caused me to leave the United States to pursue my Ph.D. in China. The impetus was to ask how is it someone could dislike the United States so much that they would fly two planes into tall buildings? What is going on out there in the world that would make someone that angry at this country? I had to find out what was going on beyond the borders of the U.S., so I sent that professor an email to see if that opportunity was still available to come to study for a Ph.D.
In February, 20 years ago, I moved to China. It wasn’t frightening really, when I moved. I made that leap of faith, despite not knowing anyone over here. I put in about three years of study and was working on my dissertation when several Chinese people asked me if I wanted to learn how to do business in China. I said, well, OK, how would that work out? They said that since I was from America, I could help them understand how to do business in the States, and they could help me do business in China. I thought that I would get the better end of the deal. So, in 2005, I co-founded the start-up company in Shanghai and named it America Direct Import & Export Co. Ltd.
The company was an offshore manufacturing and product sourcing company helping other companies who wanted to figure out how to get stuff from China. But back then, everything was not as it is now, because manufacturing was still in the development stage. As a result, people were getting a lot of lousy merchandise out of China due to poor quality and other challenges.
This experience showed me that Black America not having direct access to many products or services from China hurts its competitive position. So, I try my best to talk to individuals to say this is what you need to understand about China from a different perspective. There are a lot of opportunities here. But unfortunately, it hasn’t resonated yet in the Black American community, but we’re working on it.
PP: What were your early products, and how have they evolved?
WF: I went with what I knew. I made Greek college paraphernalia because I was part of a Greek organization. And then we went into housing by making frameless shower doors, the rods, and the stainless steel shower handles – anything that goes into a bathroom.
Today I’m into three or four different industries, including children’s toys, automatic food packaging machinery, food packaging, and especially aluminum foil food packaging. I have also started doing a lot of digital content marketing for mainland Chinese companies to promote their products and services.
PP: So, you moved into services, moving up the value chain.
PP: Do you have employees?
WF: Actually, we are all automated right now. When we started, we built a pretty large staff, but we would lose people every spring festival. People would maybe get married and then not return. I got to a point where I was tired of hiring and retraining people, so I decided to aggregate all this information into a system. Depending on my customers’ needs, I have access to all the past data. I started that process a long time ago. To answer your question, now there are three of us, but we do a lot of outsourcing, for example, for our accounting and taxes. I have been doing this work for so long that I can pick up the phone or send an email and say I need to book a shipment or whatever.
PP: Do you have a partner that you co-invested with?
WF: There was no financial investment but rather a more personal capital investment. My wife and I acquired the company from my previous business partners about eight years ago, so it was a smooth transition.
PP: How have changes in China’s policies influenced your business over time?
WF: One policy in particular that China implemented that has impacted me was that I saw that the domestic market would be the growing trend. I think that started maybe around 2012. That took me back to when I first started. You had a lot of people here who didn’t have the skill level to know how to communicate with foreigners through email composition or telephone conversations. That’s one of the advantages that I had, so I worked with clients to shape their angles when dealing with foreigners. Now that digital marketing is becoming a norm, there is also much to learn. You cannot just post something and hope that someone will buy it. There is much more to it.
Today you need to tell the story behind the product and be more personal with your customers. Being more personal is hard for some people who do not want to be on camera because they are shy or feel they don’t have the right facial features. Telling a story helps me function in that capacity as the markets have gotten more sophisticated but also more customized and personalized.
When COVID happened, that set new ways that foreign trade would happen over here. Even though they did have some trade shows, it wasn’t that many compared to previously, but most importantly, you could see that our business was like 65 percent domestic sales rather than exports. So how then do foreign companies promote themselves now that they’re absent from that old traditional trade show format? How do mainland private companies market their products or services when everything moves digital? In China, this has been a good opportunity for me.
PP: Interesting. So, talk about your project related to Black entrepreneurship and your book about Black American Entrepreneurs in China. How has that evolved, and how does it fit into your business now?
WF: When COVID happened, I had a chance to sit down and think about what to do since outside work was pausing. I was telling myself I was going to write a book for years, but I didn’t know what I would write about or the book’s purpose. So, I thought the easiest way to write a book is to write about me and my experience here. What have I learned in China through all these years that I haven’t heard anyone talk about, or I haven’t read any books about that looked like me? There are many how-to-do business in China books, but I don’t see any Black authors. So, I decided I would write as a Black American living in China. I’ve experienced the process in China, but it’s not known to the Black American community in America. The Black community needs to know how to do business in China.
How to connect industry and culture is the whole basis of the book. I start from the point that many people in Black American communities have home-based businesses. For example, my mother used to make freeze cups at home that we sold as children growing up because of the hot Georgia summers. I used this to start writing my book to explain when you want something manufactured, there are critical aspects you need to consider. The material inputs and end items may differ, but the process is the same. I’m grateful for the opportunity that I had to learn how to do business in China, but at the same time, I see a lot of other organizations or individuals who are missing out. The lack of information is another barrier because I only knew about China growing up from watching Bruce Lee movies and going to Chinese restaurants.
PP: Why did you choose China as your study abroad location?
WF: I was joking with my professor walking down the hall one day and asked him, Dr. Hong, when will you take me to China? He looked at me and said one day, I will take you. I paid his response no attention at the time, and then he came up to me in January of 2000 and said William, I want to put together a study abroad program, and if we do it right, you will get to go to China. And so, we did.
PP: That became a wonderful opportunity. Recently you have been working on your williamdfrazier.com website. Tell us about your website as well as what role it plays in your work.
WF: I started thinking about what I want to leave and what I want to be known for. And when I wrote the book, I thought I better protect my name. So, I registered that domain. Then I started thinking about what I wanted to say on this website. I kept the company website separate because this website is more focused on my personal experience. I decided to use my name branded so that when people search for Black American China, my name would likely come up. And to get more name recognition for my business as well. So, either an individual hears about me through word of mouth or finds me through a search.
PP: Any last thoughts you would like to share with our audience at China Currents?
WF: One thing that is very important that needs to be said, and I’ve said this many times, is that there hasn’t been a prominent Black American organization establishing a representative office in China. The absence of an office is a severe economic problem facing the Black American community. Imagine if they had a Black American Chamber of Commerce in China helping people access sourcing in China directly. And not just in China, but because Shanghai, to me, is like the United Nations of global business. Everybody comes to Shanghai or has some representation in Shanghai that provides avenues to other countries and other companies worldwide that you could develop relationships to expand your market. So, to say this to you, Dr. Prime, you understand, but it goes over their heads when I say this to individuals who don’t see what I have seen. But I continue to work on this and be hopeful.