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Women at work: ‘All business becoming global,’ Chicago importer says

Last year, Linda Bi, president of Chicago Expert Importers, oversaw a nearly one-third expansion of her company’s warehouse that saw it grow to 126,000 square feet to store a growing array of imported products.

“All business is becoming global,” says Bi, who, as a woman, is among a minority in the export-import business.

Twenty-five years ago, she immigrated to San Francisco from China with her husband. They moved the company to the Chicago suburbs in 1996 to be nearer their customers.

“We had two lovely daughters, and we had been growing the business for about 10 years,” Bi says. “We felt so blessed.”

Then, suddenly things changed 15 years ago when Bi’s husband had a stroke and died at 45. Bi, who has a college degree in Western literature from Zhengzhou University and originally planned to follow her parents into teaching, took over the business. She wanted to ensure that her daughters — then 5 and 2 and a half years old — would have a better future.

“It was very, very hard,” she says. “I was taking care of two little girls and facing barriers with the culture, the language and the business.”

The Chicago company became a top importer of casting components in the mobile home/RV axle manufacturing industry. And Bi gradually expanded the business into areas including sporting goods and forklift- and school-bus components.

She also expanded from importing parts to also providing sourcing, logistics and warehousing and distribution, leading the 17-employee company to $40 million in yearly revenue — a sixfold increase from where it stood when Bi’s husband died.

“Accept and deal with the challenges,” she says is the advice she would offer others.

Mary C. Howe, president of Howe Corp. on the North Side, has seen similar success with exports. The company, founded in 1912 by Howe’s great-grandfather William Henry Howe, makes industrial refrigeration equipment — primarily high-capacity ice machines for grocery stores, food processors and zoos that use the ice for penguin and polar bear habitats.

Mary Howe, president of Howe Corp., listens as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Myron Brilliant speaks in the Loop. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
Mary Howe, president of Howe Corp., listens as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Myron Brilliant speaks in the Loop. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

“One of the reasons we’ve been around for more than 100 years is that our exports have helped us survive recessions and depressions,” says Howe, whose family started exporting in the 1920s.

She says exports account for 10 to 40 percent of the privately held company’s undisclosed yearly revenues. The company’s biggest markets are Canada and Mexico.

Howe Corp., at 1650 N. Elston Ave., has a workforce of about 40.

About 10 percent of her employees are women. Howe would like to see more.

“There are so many exciting, challenging opportunities in manufacturing,” she says. “That’s part of what makes the job fun. You’re always learning.”

Howe, who started in the mid-1980s, says she has been heartened to see more women move up the ranks to run their families’ manufacturing companies.

“When I started, it was rare to see a woman in the refrigeration industry,” she says. “My customers were far more accepting of me than my dad’s generation who worked at the company.”

Howe says that early on men often dismissed her ideas, so she learned every part and process of the ice-making equipment. She worked at the company for nearly 20 years before buying out her now-late father’s ownership stake.

Only 12 percent of businesses that export are owned by women, which shows there’s room for growth, says Laurel Delaney, executive director of Women Entrepreneurs GROW Global, a new nonprofit organization that aims to boost the number of women business owners in exporting.

Shea Soucie, co-owner of the custom residential design firm Soucie Horner, Ltd., at 208 W. Kinzie St. in River North, started a new business, SHIIR — pronounced SHEAR — to import fine rugs and decorative carpets and sell them across the country and worldwide.

Shea Soucie, co-owner of Soucie Horner, Ltd. | Kendall Karmanian photo
Shea Soucie, co-owner of Soucie Horner, Ltd. | Kendall Karmanian photo

The rugs are imported into the United States and distributed through nine showrooms nationwide. The company started exporting in 2013 to specific clients, such as a hotel in Delhi, India, and a super-yacht that travels the world.

Soucie and her business partner of 15 years, Martin Horner are working with Chicago’s Oscar Isberian Rugs, a vendor for Soucie Horner for more than 20 years.

“Oscar and his brother, Sarkis Tatosian, are third-generation Armenian rug dealers who have deep partnerships with master weavers in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout South America,” says Soucie, whose company employs 21 people.

She advises women to look for female mentors in groups like the Women Presidents’ Organization — womenpresidentsorg.com.

“If you are serious in your field, drive new product and initiate interesting discussions,” she says. “You can gain respect.”

Linda Bi is the president of Chicago Expert Importers. | Jon Langham / Sun-Times
Linda Bi is the president of Chicago Expert Importers. | Jon Langham / Sun-Times