The Man Behind Treasure Garden
By Tom Lassiter
Photos Courtesy: ©2017 Activa/Oliver.
Oliver Ma doesn’t quit.
Ask anybody who knows him, and you’ll get a similar answer. Oliver Ma – founder and CEO of Treasure Garden – simply doesn’t quit.
His determination to overcome obstacles large and small is the primary reason that the company he founded in 1984 now is the world’s largest manufacturer of shade products.
Ma, according to his longtime associate Margaret Chang, now president of Treasure Garden, firmly believes, “There’s nothing I cannot do if I’m persistent. I have to make sure my product is good quality, and my price has to be competitive. And I have to take care of my customers.”
The casual furniture industry acknowledged Ma’s leadership and contributions last year with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The other 2017 recipient was Petey Fleischut, founder of Casual Marketplace in Hockessin, Delaware. Their photos joined those of other award-winners on the International Casual Furniture Association’s Wall of Fame at the Merchandise Mart.
“Most of those people I know,” Ma said, just hours before going onstage to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’ve done business with them.”
Ma, tanned and robust at 62, seemed a bit nonplussed about his photo joining other giants of the industry at the Mart. Most previous honorees were inducted in their later years. Their predominant hair color is gray. More than a few have passed on since being honored for a lifetime of dedication to the casual industry.
In a way, the dark-haired Ma seemed to be saying that the honor – while deeply appreciated – may be premature.
“I’m not finished,” he said. “I’m not finished.”
|Stardust by Treasure Garden.|
Then and Now
Oliver Ma travels constantly, maintaining close relationships with his associates and with the leadership teams at the companies in which he has invested. He’s the No. 1 cheerleader, salesman, trainer, and mentor to a global family of 6,000 employees.
Contrast this with the Oliver Ma of 1980, sleeping in his car, eating at McDonald’s and trying to generate business for his family’s manufacturing business in Taiwan.
The young company made inexpensive beach umbrellas, selling mostly to mass merchants, which primarily wanted high-volume and low cost. The Ma family enterprise delivered.
Ma, equipped with a relatively poor command of English and an unremarkable product, struggled to find new business in the United States, especially with casual furniture dealers.
“He failed to get any traction,” said longtime California retailer Buzz Homsy, who met Ma soon after he arrived in the United States.
The product in those days, Homsy said, simply wasn’t made for specialty merchants. Then as now, specialty retailers wanted something better than what mass merchants sold.
But something about Ma impressed Homsy deeply. Whenever he got around casual retailers, Ma wasn’t concerned with selling. He listened. He asked questions. He jotted things down in a pocket notebook.
“He looked to us to teach him the culture of the United States and the casual business,” Homsy said.
Ma had two older brothers back in Taiwan. Mark, the eldest, was a financial whiz. Jack, next in line, was an engineer. They had attended college and were important to the family business. Oliver was picked to go to America and drum up business.
The Ma boys had learned to work at an early age. The family had fled China in the late 1940s and settled on the island of Taiwan. The boy’s father was a medical technician; their mother was a nurse. Neither could practice medicine in their new homeland.
Like many families, they did what was necessary to survive. Some relatives worked with fabric, which appeared to be an industry with potential.
“We had a chance to learn some things,” Ma said. “We always dreamed we wanted our own factories. So we started early.”
The family acquired a sewing machine and did piecework, making gloves. Oliver learned how to operate the sewing machine by age seven. He used a chopstick to turn each glove’s fingers right-side out after sewing it together.
When he was 15, his mother fell ill. The family fell into debt. Oliver was called upon to do more. “You have to sacrifice for the family,” his father told him. “We’ve used all the money we have, and we are in debt.”
“I wanted to finish school,” Ma said, “so I worked night and day.” Starting at 3 a.m., he delivered milk to residences in the family’s village.
“I was forced to grow up quickly,” he said. He kept up the pace for five years, finishing high school and continuing until the family’s debts were repaid.
The family eventually bought eight sewing machines and began to do contract work. “We did so many things, cut-and-sew,” Ma recalled.
One of their first orders was to make backpacks, and rather special backpacks, at that. Those backpacks were for Barbie. “I was totally surprised,” Oliver said.
More work followed. The family operation turned out tote bags for roller skates, and tents (for people, not dolls). A buyer called and said, “If you can make camping tents, you can make umbrellas.”
Looking back, Ma said, “I thought it would be easy.” But it wasn’t. “We took the sample, and we didn’t know how to make it. We had to ask other people to teach us.”
An umbrella, with metal struts and pole, with plastic in addition to fabric, was a major challenge. The family learned new methods and skills and mastered the task.
|Ma in front of his employee living areas in Ningbo, China. The complex consists of dormitories, dining hall, and leisure facilities such as tennis court, basketball court, etc.|
When the first big Kmart job arrived, in 1977, Oliver was 22. The Big Box retailer ordered 80,000 pieces. “The quality was wonderful, and they loved it,” he said.
“That’s how we started,” Ma said. “We were the first in Taiwan to produce Western-style beach umbrellas, garden umbrellas. In those days, China didn’t have any exports.”
Word spread that the family’s factory could deliver on price, on quality, and on time. Montgomery Ward ordered umbrellas; so did Walmart. “We became the largest shade supplier in Asia in just a couple of years,” Ma said.
Kmart had been sourcing beach umbrellas from Germany; Taiwan could produce them at half the cost. A smile crossed Ma’s face. “We still do business with them,” he said, “after 40 years.”
So it was Oliver who was chosen to represent the family enterprise in the United States. “I was the sacrifice guy,” he said with a laugh.
He made New York his home base and hit the road. His assignment was to sell umbrellas to major retailers, and component parts to U.S. umbrella companies.
He was tenacious, but struggled to understand English and make himself understood.
“People say Oliver is very smart,” Chang observed. “He is smart, for sure. But he’s a very dedicated, hard-working owner. He never gives up learning. He learned English, word by word.”
True story: Ma worked for weeks to get an appointment with a major U.S. retailer. Sitting in the waiting room, he didn’t recognize his English name – Oliver – as it was called over the loudspeaker. An angry man approached, chewed him out, and didn’t allow Ma to present his products. “Go back and find someone who can speak English,” he was told.
“I felt sorry for him,” Ma said. “I had a good product, and I didn’t have a chance to show it.”
Ma redoubled his efforts to learn English. Television and movies were his tutors. Three months later, with a new product in hand, he made an appointment with the same buyer. This time the pitch was made, and apparently well.
The buyer wanted to place an order for 3,000 pieces.
“I said no, I don’t want to do business with you. Three months ago, you were rude,” Ma recalled. “You didn’t give me a second chance, and you kicked me out. You should feel sorry.”
To this day, Oliver Ma’s companies have declined to do business with that retailer – a very major retailer.
Back in New York, Ma attended college, continued to sell his company’s products and walked the canyoned streets of the city. “I talked to the buildings,” he said. “Oliver’s here. I’m not scared of you.”
He was 24 years old.
|Activa-Shade Incorporated in Qingdao, China.|
Outfitted to Work
Ma’s outfit never varies. He wears slacks and a golf shirt, often one bearing the logos of several of his companies. His daughter had to buy him the suit he wore to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award. It was the first time he wore a tie in eight years.
Workers at Ma’s factory complexes in China recognize his work attire. So do the management teams and employees at companies in Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium in which he has invested. Ditto for the companies in Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Several of the companies are family-owned businesses started in the late 19th or early 20th century. All are involved in some aspect of the shade business: residential or commercial umbrellas, architectural shade structures, pop-up tents, retractable awnings, plus awnings and accessories for recreational vehicles.
Chang, Treasure Garden’s president, said Ma likes companies with a history. To reach the century mark, she said, “a company must be doing something right,” and the brand must have value.
Ma said several long-established companies sought his advice on how to reduce costs and maintain quality. He told them to use his factories in China to produce components, then assemble the finished products in Europe, as always. He assured them, he said, that his China operations could produce quality equal to that of Swiss and German manufacturing.
Europeans, Homsy said, “look to him as an innovator,” someone who “has taken the industry farther.”
Even though Ma visits his far-flung companies often, and brings employees to China to learn new processes, he has never sent a person from China to another nation to instruct or lead a foreign company. Ma earns the respect of the firms in his family of companies by coaching and persuading and, most of all, by making them more profitable.
“He can supply parts at wholesale to anyone, cheaper than anyone I know,” Homsy said. “There’s no middleman in his business.”
Flipping through brochures and playing videos for his European companies, Ma points out individuals and calls them by name. He knows the role each person plays in his or her respective firm.
“We are the world’s manufacturers,” he said. “A lot of brands are using our products. We are not just Treasure Garden. We are the most important supplier, all over the world. We do anything. We do everything.”
|Activa-Industrial Park in Ningbo, China.|
Growth, Growth, Growth
Ma’s vision to be as vertically integrated as possible in his Chinese manufacturing operations benefited Treasure Garden’s quest to control all aspects of quality, Chang said. Ma, she said, wanted to control everything from raw materials to the finished products. The ability to cast and extrude aluminum and handle every other aspect of manufacturing enabled Ma’s operations to offer lean production to other vendors.
Over the years, Ma said, his factories have made components as well as complete products for just about every other shade company.
Ma first began producing shade products in China in 1990, in Shenzen, in Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong. In 2000, he built a new facility in the city of Ningbo, a two-hour flight to the northeast. Ma built a second complex even further north in 2008, in the city of Pingdu, his family’s ancestral home in the province of Qingdao.
Ma named his China operations Activa Leisure, Inc. Activa makes some Treasure Garden products in China for export to the United States. Activa also makes shade products components that are shipped to California for assembly in Baldwin Park, home to Treasure Garden’s U.S. headquarters.
The world economy was already sliding into recession when plans were made for the Pinghu facility. But Ma, Chang said, saw advantages to expanding at that critical time. Raw material costs were lower, as well as construction costs. Ma also figured that he could more easily train new workers while demand was soft.
“And when the economy comes back,” he told Chang, “I’ll be ready.”
Ma’s vision was prophetic. In 2009, Treasure Garden’s sales were up just under 9% instead of the usual double-digits, Chang said. She recalled Ma saying, “That’s good enough. A lot of people lost 30%, 40%. Don’t feel bad.”
Sales rebounded with double-digit increases in 2010. Treasure Garden broke sales records each year following, she said.
Ma’s strategy of having companies in a variety of markets and different shade categories in different regions builds in economic protection. A soft market in Europe, for instance, may be balanced by a robust market in North America.
“Oliver was thinking, ‘I cannot count on one product. I cannot count on one market,’” Chang said. “Wherever there is opportunity, he will never let it go.”
|Behind Ma are Activa’s administration facilities from which he runs his global empire. Both buildings shown serve as offices for various departments, such as accounting, R&D, quality assurance, customer service, etc.|
Nurturing the Specialty Market
Ma’s conversations with Homsy and other specialty merchants in the early 1980s convinced him of that channel’s potential for shade products. Ma saw that the specialty market’s demand for high quality was an opportunity to diversify market share, increase margins, and move away from the grueling pace of high-volume, lower-margin production that mass merchants demanded.
Ma had set up Treasure Garden in 1984. By chance, he located the company next to Brown Jordan’s operations. Treasure Garden in those days was hungry to make products for any segment of the casual industry, not just shade. Ma landed some contract work for Brown Jordan, producing the furniture in Taiwan. He also landed furniture contracts with Bloomingdale’s. Yet the shade business seemed to offer the most potential.
Ma’s brothers, from their vantage point in Taiwan, wanted to continue to pursue the mass merchant channel. Oliver’s vision focused on a different opportunity, the specialty market. He pushed for more quality and durability. In 1994, the brothers parted ways. Treasure Garden came under Oliver Ma’s sole control.
Chang, also a native of Taiwan, had known Ma’s wife when both worked at a trading company there. The women reconnected after their marriages and immigrating to California. Their families socialized together, and Ma eventually hired Chang to help run Treasure Garden.
“A lot of people think I am Oliver’s wife,” Chang said. “But Oliver’s wife is much younger and much prettier.”
|On the rooftop of Activa’s administration building, Ma takes a brief respite from his fast-paced schedule. Note: the swing set is not one of his products.|
Doing It All
Unlike many manufacturing executives, Ma truly has done it all – cutting and sewing, unloading containers, training employees, shooting photos for product brochures. “I worked day and night,” he said. “People think I’m crazy.”
Ma designed casual furniture (and almost won a design award for products for Bloomingdale’s, he said) and umbrellas. He personally holds some 200 patents.
Ma’s knack for design extends to master plans for the Activa Leisure campuses in China as well as the distinctive buildings. “All my factories, I designed,” he said. “I love doing that.”
Ma literally has built a shade products empire over the last four decades. His son, Benjamin, and daughter, Jennifer, have entered the family business, and Ma has reached the age at which some executives begin to back away from the grind.
But not Ma. He has more to do. He wants to continue to set an example for all the young people in his sphere of influence. He finds joy and satisfaction in working on common goals and helping others – whether individuals, specialty merchants, or other shade companies – achieve theirs.
In China, he’s set up a foundation that has helped pay the college expenses of more than 2,000 students. He enlists employees of Activa Leisure to write regularly to a student, offering encouragement and guidance.
“We cannot choose our family,” he tells the students. “We cannot choose our parents. But you’ve got to have responsibility. God has sent you here to have a mission.”
His mother, Ma said, hoped he would be a priest. The family has been Christian for several generations. His father was educated at a school built by missionaries from Texas.
Ma’s calling turned out not to be the priesthood, but it’s uplifting nonetheless. He has built bridges between individuals, companies, industries, and across national borders. It’s a different world today, he said, than in his youth. Commerce and communication unites all. “All the good people,” he said, “they’re working together.”
Ultimately, he said, the measure of a person is not wealth, but what one gives back. It’s earning respect by helping others. One succeeds not just by working hard, he explained, but by working hard with others.
“I think about this,” he said. “Why are you here? What did you do?”
Oliver Ma, four decades in, still sees his work as unfinished. He’s not ready to retire, and he has oodles of friends in the casual industry who can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. They toasted him in the Treasure Garden showroom at Casual Market 2017, in honor of his Lifetime Achievement Award. The pour was Ma’s favorite Scotch – Johnny Walker Blue Label.
Several friends spoke about Ma’s amazing career. Ma’s brother, Jack, was introduced, and his son, Ben Ma, shared a word about his dad. Buzz Homsy’s comment was short and sweet, followed by a bear hug that just wouldn’t quit.