Yiwu's 'King of Straws'
Lou Zhongping is pictured in front of a wall showing Sonton's strategic partners. [Photo/WeChat account: yiwufb]
Lou Zhongping, the founder and chairman of Sonton Daily Necessities Co Ltd, is often referred to as the "King of Straws" by media outlets and industry insiders as his company manufactures 170 million drinking straws daily and accounts for one third of the global market share.
Born into an impoverished family of six siblings in Yiwu in Zhejiang province, Lou dropped out of school at the age of 14 to eke out a living as an itinerant peddler.
Before turning 30, Lou had tried his hands at some 20 jobs, including selling toothpaste, raising farm animals and working as a blacksmith.
He was also among the last group of "sugar for feathers" vendors who visited households in neighboring regions to barter for feathers – it was an ingredient used in primitive fertilizers - using sugar derived from sugarcane, which was the only crop that could be grown in Yiwu's barren farmlands.
In 1991, Lou rented a stall in the newly established Yiwu small commodities market to sell daily necessities, including drinking straws. Lou soon decided to focus solely on selling straws after realizing that they had the quickest turnover out of all his products.
In 1994, Lou spent his entire life savings of 50,000 yuan ($7,845) to buy a second-hand semi-automatic production line for straws. Two years later, Lou registered the trademark "Sonton", which was the first local brand for straws.
Sonton soon attracted the attention of many major international clients such as Tesco and Walmart. But Lou did not rest on his laurels and continued to develop diversified straw products and expand his client base to include smaller companies such as coffee shops, chain restaurants, pubs, and luxury hotels.
Compared with most of its competitors that were content with supplying big buyers, Sonton boasted a stronger bargaining power and hence greater profits, which bolstered its sustainable development. It was exactly because of this business strategy that Sonton survived the global financial crisis in 2008.
From 2015 onward, Sonton started shifting to biodegradable or reusable straws as more and more countries were banning plastic straws due to their environmental impact.
Today, Sonton is the world's largest drinking straw manufacturer with over 1,000 product varieties. It is also a main setter of global technical standards and controls two thirds of the patents in the industry.
Yiwu, too, has undergone a significant transformation. It is today known as the "world's supermarket" as it is home to the largest wholesale market of small commodities such as toys, socks, hair accessories, and plastic containers. Around 80 percent of Christmas decorations in the world come from Yiwu.
A worker of Sonton Daily Necessities Co Ltd packages edible straws made from starch in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. [Photo/for China Daily]
Workers of Sonton Daily Necessities Co Ltd package edible straws made from starch at a factory in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. [Photo/for China Daily]