September 13, 2010

Foxconn: The Man Who Makes Your iPhone

Frederik Balfour & Tim Culpan:
The interview took place at Longhua, the entrance to which looks like a border crossing, with seven toll-booth-like lanes and uniformed guards. Although drab and utilitarian, the campus is a fully functioning city, with fast-food joints, ATMs, Olympic-size swimming pools, huge LED screens that flash public-service announcements and cartoons, and a bookstore that sells, among other things, the Chinese-language translation of the Harvard Business Review. Prominent on display are biographies of Gou, one of which collects his many aphorisms, including "work itself is a type of joy," "a harsh environment is a good thing," "hungry people have especially clear minds," and "an army of one thousand is easy to get, one general is tough to find."

Foxconn is now the biggest exporter out of China, and its general is the richest man in Taiwan, estimated by Forbes to have a personal fortune of $5.9 billion. He says he cannot confirm that figure, however, as he does not keep track. "I have one guy in charge," Gou says in heavily accented English that he picked up while touring the U.S. in the 1980s. "Every year he gives me a piece of paper and says, 'Hey, this is how much.' I think for me, I am not interested in knowing how much I have. I don't care. I am working not for money at this moment, I am working for society, I am working for my employees."

The colossus that Gou (pronounced "Gwo") runs today started with a $7,500 loan from his mother. His first world headquarters was a shed he rented in 1974 in a gritty Taipei suburb called Tucheng, which means Dirt City in Mandarin. Gou, then 23, had done three years of vocational training and served in the military. He then worked for two years as a shipping clerk, where he got a firsthand view of Taiwan's booming export economy and figured he ought to stop pushing paper and get into the game. With the cash from his mother, he bought a couple of plastic molding machines and started making channel-changing knobs for black-and-white televisions. His first customer was Chicago-based Admiral TV, and he soon got deals to supply RCA, Zenith, and Philips (PHG).

Imagining his future success, he practiced signing his name in English over and over until he had perfected it. He remains proud of it today, walking over to a whiteboard during the interview and signing with a schoolboy flourish. It looked like the perfect cursive script from the credits of I Love Lucy.
Posted by James Zellmer at September 13, 2010 7:36 PM | Subscribe to this site via RSS:
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