A Female CEO Willing to Get Her Hands Dirty
Apr 01, 2016

Hailing from the foothills of Alishan, she guided a company to become Taiwan’s industry leader, and nurtured another enterprise to become one of the largest in the world.

Of the six foundries in the world with female CEOs, Tu Mei-hua (Cindy Tu) is the only one from Asia. “She’s the legendary woman from the Alishan foothills. An amazing woman!” gushes former Premier Mao Chih-kuo. He punctuates his superlatives with a thumbs up as he describes Tu, CEO of Ying Chien Foundry Industry, Inc., Taiwan’s biggest foundry, and Chin Fong Machine, the world’s fourth-largest mechanical press company.

“It doesn’t matter how long you live, but how well you live your life,” says Tu. And when it comes to living a brilliant life, the number of female entrepreneurs in Taiwan whose lives can compare to hers could easily be counted on one hand.

Thirty-six years ago, a degree in accounting from Ming Chuan University in hand, the newly graduated Tu envisioned a career playing the role of a classy, attractive teacher, never anticipating that she would end up as a boss lady in a dirty, male-dominated industry.

At the time, Ying Chien Foundry Industry owed the Tu family money, so her father put her directly in charge when taking over the foundry.

Located at the foot of Alishan in Chiayi, far outside the sphere of machinery customers concentrated largely in Taichung, Ying Chien is at a geographic disadvantage, and the poor management had only made things worse, putting the company on the verge of collapse. Yet Tu not only hauled the company back from the brink of failure, she managed to grow it into the only foundry in Taiwan with annual turnover exceeding NT$1 billion.

Taking over at Ying Chien, the company president dismissed her as an outsider, at the same time pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes by starting a company whose business overlapped and conflicted with Ying Chien’s, while sticking Ying Chien with the costs. Little did he expect that Tu, the person he called a “little girl,” would hire someone to follow him to his doppelganger corporation and bust open his illicit operations.

After she had fired the company president with full dominion over technical knowledge, company secrets, and customer information, onlookers in the industry were just waiting to watch her swift demise, thinking ‘This girl won’t last three months.’

She found herself left with just three customers, one of whom was Chin Fong Machine, the fourth-largest mechanical press company. “I told the client that we manufacture for Chin Fong, and to just give me their orders; I guaranteed there would be no problems... even though at the time our company’s products were simply awful,” Tu recalls. Orders in hand, she did everything in her power to deliver products that exceeded her customers’ expectations.

Surrogate Mother to Guest Workers

Foundries are covered in particulates, making workers’ lungs into dust vacuums. To redress this, Tu spent 10 times what others in the industry did to direct the dust underground and turn a grimy workplace into a place where fetching young lasses can stay healthy and pretty while employed there, and attracting public officials and industry colleagues to lead groups there to see what it is all about.

Tu is also renowned for the kindness she shows her workers. Excellent pay and benefits aside, she has a soft spot for the plight of guest workers from faraway lands. For them, she built housing that is more like a mansion than a dormitory, purchased land for them to grow fruit and vegetables to their taste, and raise chickens and ducks. Moved, one guest worker from Thailand described the unmarried Tu as “like a second mother” to them.

At one point considering moving Ying Chien to China, she realized that a number of her employees had university-age children and were under the burden of heavy expenses. Rather than put them out of work, she invested three times more money in automation equipment than it would cost to build an entire new plant. Not only did this help make Ying Chien bigger and stronger, it also leapfrogged the company ahead of Japan, poising it to knock on Germany’s door.

“I made the transition to high-end castings that, if Taiwanese won’t buy them, I’ll just sell them to Japanese customers. Even if China and Korea catch up quickly in low- and mid-range goods, I’m not afraid,” she asserts confidently.

It almost seems as if Tu was fated to become a swashbuckling superwoman. After former CEO Lu Tai-yang bled the company dry, imperiling employees’ livelihoods, they took to the streets in protest. No longer a Chin Fong supplier for quite some time, Tu saw the protest on television. “Chin Fong had made a huge contribution to Taiwan; I had gotten business on the coattails of its reputation, and I believe you should give back to those that nourish and help you,” she says.

She shares that Chin Fong, founded nearly 70 years ago, was instrumental to Taiwan’s early period of industrialization when “living rooms were factories,” and metal household products like spoons and fasteners were made in backyard processing facilities using Chin Fong’s metal stamps.

Tu approached Chin Fong herself, securing NT$800 million from her family to supplement NT$80 million of her own funds to purchase shares in Chin Fong. Thus began her six-year-long battle with Lu Tai-yang.

Not Afraid of Bullying Boss

Barred from a shareholders’ meeting by security, she lifted a long, thin high-heeled shoe and flatly stated, “See this? It’s pretty painful when it penetrates your flesh.” Having gotten in the door, she was still unable to get upstairs, prompting her to look straight into a security camera and shout, “I know Lu Tai-yang is watching!”

Lu played tricks at Chin Fong, forging stocks as collateral to get cash from loan sharks, purchasing machines with fake contracts, and funneling the money into his own account. Once, claiming to be setting up a plant in China, he had US$3 million wired into his own account, and he had funds from company sales of machinery and goods sold put into ghost accounts he opened through unauthorized use of the company’s official seal. Lu even went so far as to cheat customers of their money through fake contracts, as well as circular deals where he “sold” the same item multiple times.

These disputes have now turned into suits by clients and loan sharks against Chin Fong, and suits by Chin Fong in turn against Lu. As a consequence, having succeeded in her bid to become company chairperson, Tu spends time in court on practically a daily basis. “I still have over 20 cases pending at the moment; probably only the Wei family (owners of the scandal-wracked Ting Hsin International group that sold tainted cooking oil to an unsuspecting Taiwanese public for years) can compare to me.”

Before the swashbuckling Tu entered the picture, Chin Fong employees could not share profits, while there was no ceiling on how much board members were paid. With her in the driver’s seat, company bylaws explicitly mandate that employees share no less than three percent of net company profits, and board directors and supervisors get no more then five percent amongst themselves. “Women have a stronger innate sense of justice,” Chin Fong deputy chairman Tang An-cheng says, by way of explanation.

When a brutal cold front slammed Taiwan recently and Chin Fong management neglected to purchase new comforters for company guest workers, “The CEO took them to task, giving them an earful for five hours,” relates Fang Si-yang, deputy general-manager of finance.

Would Taiwan’s precision machine industry be different with more female involvement and influence?

Tu’s eyes widen as she responds to this question. “Of course it would. Let me show you a picture. Look, a customer lodged a complaint about one of our machines. This is unacceptable for a longstanding company like Chin Fong. It kills me, it’s so embarrassing.” Pointing to a picture on her smart phone, she says, “Look at this. After drilling a hole, you fail to polish the weld smoothly. It’s so unsightly. When the customer complained, they (Chin Fong staff) said, ‘but Ms. Chairperson, this doesn’t have any effect on functionality.’ We’re talking about a NT$40 million machine here. Does that not make you angry?”

“I was really out of place at Chin Fong at first, and constantly yelling at people. To me, when we ship a machine it has to look sharp, with a nice appearance, aesthetics, color, lines, and curves in addition to functionality – all things that can go unnoticed. That group of men thought I was being pedantic and difficult with my insistence on these things,” Tu relates.

Upon taking charge at the company, she introduced a whole series of initiatives, like the “droplet” movement, under which not even a drop of water was permitted on restroom sinks, which were to be inspected twice daily by the superintendent. Another was the “smile” movement, which required staff to greet each other with a smile whenever they met.

Is the CEO over-reaching into details like bathrooms?

“One can tell if discipline ties things together, starting with little details like these,” Tu maintains. In fact, this is exactly how she went about reforming things at Ying Chien.

“Thanks for Not Marrying Me”

A matchmaker once introduced Tu to a suitor, unsuccessfully. Meeting again some 30 years later, the man joked that if he’d married her, he could have saved himself 30 years of hard work. “I said, ‘Well, thanks for not marrying me, or I would probably have been just a housewife, having children, cooking, and cleaning.’”

Escorting the reporters to the door after our interview, Tu spotted a cigarette butt on the floor and ground it up with her sharp heel. “Seeing cigarette butts on the ground really gets my goat,” she huffs.

These days Chin Fong maintains turnover of NT$2 billion, one-third of the company’s level before it ran into trouble. Many more cigarette butts and water droplets remain for Chin Fong (editor: specifically, the Taiwan-based operations Cindy Tu oversees). With around two dozen court cases left to fight, plenty of challenges lie ahead for the swashbuckling lady from the foothills of Alishan. And we will be watching to see what kind of miracles she produces next.

By Monique Hou
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman