As a teenager Zhou Xiaoguang hauled a 60kg bag of trinkets around China on night trains selling her wares. Now her company, Neoglory, is the world’s market leader in costume and fashion jewellery.
Neoglory once was a simple low-cost manufacturer, churning out cheap rings, bracelets and necklaces.
Today, it has nearly a thousand stores of its own dotted across China, and 300 designers producing 100 new designs a day.
Based in Yiwu, in East China’s Zhejiang Province, Madame Zhou’s success has had a startling effect on her adopted home town.
When she arrived in 1986, Yiwu was noted mainly for its poverty.
Today there are nearly 4000 jewellery manufacturers, employing over 100,000 people and generating over $3bn a year in sales.
Madame Zhou left school at 16, tired of being sent to stand outside of class because her parents were behind on the fees.
At age 35 she studied for and was awarded an MBA.
“I felt as if I was wronged to have to start working as a vendor at such a young age,” Mrs Zhou says, the memory of those times still fresh three decades later.
Today, her companies dominate local industry. As well as running a jewellery business, she has property holdings that include 5 million square metres of office space in the Yiwu region. She has also diversified into wine and other investments.
Her base is Neoglory’s six-storey company headquarters, in which she and 28 other family members live and work.
The jewellery business is still her main focus. These days, she sells her wares in trade fairs rather than train stations, with a sales force in 70 countries. Neoglory has high-profile alliances with the likes of Austrian luxury brand Swarovski – its crystals are used in Neoglory products – and singer Celine Dion, who has put her name to a line of high-end jewellery.
Zhou Xiaoguan’s holdings include property and wine but the jewellery business is still her main focus
Once a “hidden champion,” Neoglory now aspires to become a global brand of its own.
With demand for Neoglory jewellery down by half in Europe and the United States, the company shifted its focus to emerging markets such as Russia, South America and the Middle East.
“It is a must to go abroad to sustain growth,” says Mrs Zhou, who is also a deputy in the National People’s Congress (NPC).
When she attends the annual meetings of the legislative body she arrives with a glossy booklet containing motions on everything from climate change to school security.
She has a team of five former officials and academics who help her develop the motions. She gets input from farmers, entrepreneurs and others in dozens of meetings every year.
Mrs Zhou says that women are now completely equal in China, and adds that female entrepreneurs are even entitled to special assistance in starting companies.