The Manhattan Portage brand began in 1980 as an idea whose time had come... make a bag for urban people who were always on the go that they could really depend on. That concept caught on first with New York City messengers who needed a sturdy, reliable product that was as tough as the streets they traveled and became the now famous "Messenger" bag. Over the years, the original idea was expanded and I wanted to make a bag for everyone that was practical, functional, trendy and very "New York." Our brand now appears on bags for students, business people, travelers, teachers, and so many others. And the distinctive logo of the city skyline etched in white on a red background was becoming an icon in the urban landscape and beyond.
"In the 1990's, I decided to use my experience in the Asian import/export area to develop the MP brand as an international business. I also wanted to introduce the unique New York culture and style to other countries. As this brand became more well-known, we opened a flagship store to showcase our many different styles and continued the goundbreaking innovations such as light-weight materials, plastic buckles and Cordura fabrics which made our products so practical and durable and even fashionable for everyone.
As we approach our brand's 25th anniversary, we have become known across the city and around the country for a unique and very special line of bags. We have introduced many new designs, styles, materials, and even new brands such as Token as a high-end addition to the original line. During these years, our bags have really traveled a long way too... from the city streets to the office suites. Along the way, the Manhattan Portage trademark has become a symbol of outstanding quality and distinctive design not just here, but in more than 25 countries around the world."
Su Hwei Lin - President of Manhattan Portage
No matter where you travel in New York and no matter who you are, one thing you are bound to see is a bright red rectangle with an image of the city's sklyline outlined in white on all kinds of bags carried by all kinds of people everwhere. The brand name on those bags is Manhattan Portage and this signature trademark has become an urban legend not just on our streets, but all over the country.
And the person behind that label is an extraordinary woman named Su-hwei Lin who is the chief executive and trademark owner of this brand and related companies that she has taken world-wide over the past 10 years.
Born into a family with a long social and business history in Taiwan, she was the middle child of six , all of whom were expected to go into some part of the family enterprise. Her parents owned a pharmaceutical factory which was the first to have a joint venture with a European company as early as 1964. As pioneers in the new global economy, they would later branch out to include electronic products, wholesale and retail and import/export operations with other countries in Asia and around the world.
Despite this strong family tradition, Suhwei Lin grew up as a very independent and active spirit more so than her siblings. She could sing, dance and speak other languages and seemed destined for another kind of life, not the business world. But after high school, she graduated from the Taiwan Commercial College and then went to Nagoya to study economics and Japanese history. She left the Master's program and started an import company for sporting items and other goods from Taiwan to Japan and managed the family operations there.
From 1986 to 1991, she was traveling between Switzerland, the US and her home base in Asia for the family firm and began building an import/export design business involving these countries. As this work expanded, she came to New York to live in 1991 and several years later, met the founder of Manhattan Portage and began a thriving business exporting their bags to Asia. Shortly thereafter, she took over Token, Inc., a company operating in Europe and the US. as an importer/exporter of designer goods, fashion accessories and jewelry. And building on this success, by 1998, she had formed a partnership with Manhattan Portage and was managing their flagship stores in the US.
In 2006, Su-hwei Lin as executive officer of Portage Worldwide, Inc., bought out the Manhattan Portage brand and took over as trademark owner. She also launched a new line called Token as a high-end designer collection of bags which came on the market a year later. Her family name is Lin and that is represented by the Chinese symbol for a "growing tree." For past decade, she has grown the companies which she now owns into a multi-million dollar business that circles the globe.
AB: During the Summit you said, “If I deal with 1,000 customers, I get 1,000 ideas about what the customers really want…" Did you ever feel it was time to shift your emphasis towards back-office tasks?
SL: Yes, I'm always in the front of the store because it's my window on the world. I have my desk right up there because to me, that's where the action is. I manage my company from that space and do business at the same time. I can do my networking and still build the one-on-one relationships which are the heart of the customer service model that we have created over the years. From the customers, I learned how to deal with different types and what their needs were. I get feedback from them and new ideas about how to improve what we make, how we do it and how to sell it. I came to this country many years ago from a different culture and did not have the business networks that other people had to assist and support them. So I had to learn it from the customers themselves starting from the ground up. They give me ideas all the time and I then organize them into concepts that may go into production or into improving our company's service and the market. Customers will always let you know what's on their mind if you listen to them. You just have to be available and open to hear it and then actually use it.
AB: Running a small business for the first time means lots of new challenges. What part of entrepreneurship have you worked hardest on?
SL: The biggest challenge for me has been the different language, culture, business landscape and relationships because I'm not a native of this country. I worked hardest on the language and business skills and in the beginning it was very hard for me. I had to be persistent…I never gave up. Because I was a newcomer, I had no support networks to depend on. I had to prove everything… from buying the right fabrics to hiring the right workers who understood the mentality and bi-cultural values that I had invested in this company. These financial and business decisions have to done very carefully. You need to think big and go for the big goals while at the same time doing it very carefully and cautiously. Once you get your plan going at the ground level, then you can go on to the next phase. You just need to make sure every step is the right one before proceeding on or expanding. From the beginning, I had an international vision, a global view that I was going to be successful in New York and then internationally. And key business decisions had to be made at every turn. You have to tell yourself that failure is not an option… No matter what, I had always planned to succeed and I just never gave up.
AB: What would you do if you weren't in business for yourself?
SL: I think I would be a doctor or a diplomat if I hadn't gone into the business world. So, many more years of specialized study would have been necessary to do this. Or, I might have worked for an international corporation in the financial services area doing joint ventures and used my Asian networking contacts to connect them at the highest levels. For example, bringing American and Asian companies together as partners in trading or other economic activities. My early training and skills were not in this area because I loved the arts, music and dance. But my family had a long tradition in the Taiwan business world and beyond and after college, I began working for them and expanding their businesses into other Asian markets. And this experience and training has ultimately helped me succeed in building Manhattan Portage into my own international business.