Sometimes, a headline just jumps off the page and grabs your attention. That’s what “Georgia’s Hottest Export: Chopsticks!” did to me. Sitting in China, which has to be the single largest market for chopsticks in the world, I just couldn’t resist reading the story and learning more.
It began by borrowing a line from the 1967 award winning film, The Graduate, offering this advice to the reader: “Just one word: Chopsticks.”
Jae Lee, a U.S. citizen from South Korea, took this advice, and Georgia Chopsticks, the company he founded earlier this year in Americus, Georgia, is now America’s only chopsticks manufacturer. His market: China and Japan. Talk about bringing coal to Newcastle!
How can that make any sense? It’s very simple. “China relies very heavily on imported logs, lumber and other wood products,” said Russ Taylor, president of the International Wood Markets Group in Vancouver, British Columbia. “So the chopsticks factory fits rather well into that model.”
In fact, China’s imports of logs and lumber soared in 2010 as compared to 2009. According to International Wood Markets Group, China imported 34.3 million cubic meters of logs, $6.1 billion worth, last year, an increase of 22 percent by volume and 49 percent by value over the previous year.
Every year, the equivalent of 25 million trees are cut to produce the 45 billion pairs of chopsticks that China alone consumes annually. Lee spotted an opportunity when he heard that China has a moratorium on domestic tree cutting in order to protect its dwindling lumber resources. That moratorium has been in place since 1997, forcing China to rely on Russia. When Russia increased its timber export tax from 5 percent to 25 percent, though, China was forced to look elsewhere.
China has to import lumber because, with 1.3 billion people, or approximately 20 percent of the world’s population, the country only has 7 percent of the globe’s arable land. Compounding this imbalance is the fact that continuing urbanization and property development have taken large amounts of farmland out of production, threatening grain supply and agricultural development. Moreover, timberland in China is only 20 percent as productive as timberland, for example, in the United States.
Georgia Chopsticks currently has 102 employees and manufactures four million sets of chopsticks each week, but the company is not stopping there. Lee plans to add 800 more employees and five new plants next year to keep up with rising demand. Even at his current production rate of 208 million pairs of chopsticks per year, Georgia Chopsticks can only meet a fraction of China’s annual usage. After that, “We’ll go from chopsticks to tongue depressors and toothpicks,” Lee said. “We’ll export it all to China.” It would seem that Lee has a very promising business.
Lee emigrated from Seoul to the U.S. in 1986, working in Atlanta as a business consultant and scrap metal exporter. His experience in exporting to Asian countries came in handy when he founded Georgia Chopsticks in April. Lee said that no bank would lend to him in the beginning, so he raised his first $1 million through the help of family members.
Opportunity is where you find it, and my hat is off to Lee for finding what appears to be a good one in the unlikeliest of places–you have to admire his persistence and good old American spirit.
Congratulations, Jae! I’ll look forward to eating my next Chinese meal— with chopsticks from Georgia.