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Spreading shade, keeping promises every day

Oliver Ma had more than one moment of self-doubt.

Portrait of Oliver Ma and Margaret Chang
Chang and Ma

During the first few years after launching Treasure Garden in 1984, Oliver Ma had more than one moment of self-doubt. Was he wasting his time trying to sell U.S. custom-made umbrellas to a small seasonal market of dealers who were loyal to other, better-known manufacturers? Particularly given that he was in a country with a totally different culture than his native Taiwan?

“It was tough; I could spend weeks telling you about the bad experiences,” Ma said. “My father and brothers told me, 'Give up, we can go into computers or something better,’ but I did not give up. I wanted to be a success and this was the field I started in.”

Ma’s perseverance and commitment has made Treasure Garden and its affiliated China-based Activa group of companies the world’s largest sunshade manufacturing organization. As president, Ma has shaped and nurtured both his own companies and the sunshade industry alike, while earning an international reputation as the go-to guy for entering the China market.

Don’t expect his influence to lessen anytime soon.

“This is a tough industry, but I’ve never regretted what I’ve done,” Ma said. “I will spend my life in this industry. I am fully committed to it.”

Creating a culture of respect

Ma started manufacturing umbrellas while still in his teens, working with his brothers in Taiwan. When he immigrated to the United States in 1980 at age 25, he was the first Taiwan umbrella manufacturer to try to break into the U.S. market.

Ma soon found out the mid- to high-end market he wanted to reach demanded a domestic brand that could handle customization. Learning as he went, Ma launched the Treasure Garden brand in 1984. It is a testament to his leadership that many of his first specialty dealers, which now number more than 1,500, continue with the company today, as well as many of his first employees.

Ma describes his approach to leadership as a balance of loyalty, respect, care and discipline. Underlying those characteristics is a passion to share what he knows.

“Treasure Garden is a dynamite organization because Oliver is such a unique leader,” said Margaret Chang, chief operating officer.

While Ma is passionate, fast-moving and full of ideas, Chang is more deliberate, thorough and reflective. He drives Treasure Garden’s innovation, she ensures the company achieves its goals day in and day out. Together, Ma and Chang make a strong team.

Chang joined the company in 1996, having first met Ma in Taiwan when she was involved in the field of international trade of apparel and hard goods. Ma invited Chang to join Treasure Garden soon after she and her husband and sons immigrated to the United States in 1989, but she waited until her children were in their late teens. Chang started as the office manager then quickly was named COO of Treasure Garden. Today she overseas all of the company’s U.S. operations.

“I didn’t know anything about shade products when I started, but because this is such a friendly industry, you feel immediately like you are part of it,” said Chang, who is a very hands-on leader.

“I feel like I am more of a coach, and although I believe in delegation, I also believe in close monitoring,” Chang said. “I always try to give detailed and clear direction, to clearly specify my expectations to make sure there are no misunderstandings. I spend a lot of time communicating with customers, my subordinates and my boss to make sure we are all on the same page all the time.”

Working together

Looking back, Ma believes the success of Treasure Garden stems in large part from its commitment to quality from day one. He describes it as “A to Z quality” — starting with the choice of quality raw materials and high manufacturing standards to the level of care the company gives to its dealers, who in turn provide quality care to their consumers.

“When I say A to Z quality, I mean you have to keep that promise of quality always. The promise is nonstop,” he said. “If you want to do business in this industry, it is a long-term marathon. If you give up for a day, somebody else will jump in, so you have to keep your promise every day.”

That is particularly important now. Ma believes the challenges the industry faces today are only going to get worse due to the soft U.S. and European economies as well as the fluid situation in China, where so many manufacturers derive products and parts.

“With the new labor law in China, the changing currency situation, the increases in the cost of living ... too many things are changing too fast in China,” he said. And change doesn’t stop there.

“In the U.S., the retail dealers, the mass merchants, the Internet ... everything is changing here too, so it isn’t traditional business any more,” Ma said. “You can’t blame it on anybody. You just have to jump into it, but you cannot see what the real game is anymore.”

Ma recommends specialty dealers be proactive and reach out to manufacturers. Only through working closely together will they succeed.

“They must commit to each other,” Ma said. “It is the only way to survive.”

Celebrating 25 years

While times may be tough, Ma and Chang both look forward to positive action, including celebrating Treasure Garden’s upcoming 25th anniversary. A series of celebratory events will be launched at the International Casual Furniture Premarket in July.

In the meantime, it is business as usual for the two — which means striving to do more.

“We feel very obligated to continue to be innovative and provide better quality goods to our dealers to help them remain profitable,” said Chang, who believes consumers’ increasing appreciation for shade in light of health issues and climate change bodes well for the industry.

Ma also has his focus on the future.

“Life is very short, and I’ve always thought if I could do one thing right in my life, that’s good enough for me,” Ma said. “I started in the shade business and I will continue to do it for as long as I can. And if I can contribute something more, if I can help anyone in the industry, I will.”

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