The “Iron Lady” playing the rejuvenating concerto with passion

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By Xinhua Writers Sun Renbin, Huang Yan, Zhao Hongnan

SHENYANG, Oct. 18 (Xinhua) – After investing all of his savings along with bank loans to buy his former employer, a piano company, Zhang Xiaowen refused to think about the outcome if his business fails.

All she could think of was the afternoon of summer 2018, when she walked into the abandoned factory of Baldwin Dongbei Piano Instrument Co., Ltd. in the middle of a desert of weeds, tears came to his eyes.

“It couldn’t be like that,” the woman said to herself. “I bet my whole life on the Dongbei piano. Life is short, and don’t we live to do something?”

Fortunately, she succeeded.

On June 20, 2019, Dongbei Piano Musical Instruments Co., Ltd. (Dongbei Piano) was inaugurated. It has produced 3,000 pianos throughout the year despite a six-month operating suspension due to the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

During the first half of this year, Dongbei Piano received orders for more than 300 grand pianos.

“When there are orders, there is hope,” said Zhang, who is now president of the company.

YOUNG STAR

Dongbei Piano was located in the port city of Yingkou in northeast China’s Liaoning Province, where Zhang’s career began 35 years ago. After graduating from a local vocational school specializing in piano making, Zhang and his 39 classmates were assigned to more than 1,000 employees of the Dongbei Piano Factory in 1986.

“It was the best job you could get in Yingkou at that time,” recalls Zhang, 54.

Dongbei Piano, founded in 1952, was once one of the largest piano producers in China, selling its products to more than 20 countries and regions.

The trucks coming to load the pianos were still in line; taxis lined up outside on payday; the team leaders reminded their merry subordinates not to have fun too late because they had to work the next day.

Zhang, resourceful and well-trained, quickly stood out from her colleagues. At the age of 21, she became one of three out of 100 workers to receive a raise for their outstanding performance.

“We weren’t in the same studio, but her name was often mentioned. I was not convinced at the time: can a young woman who has just left school be that good?” said Zhou Xiong, 59, who joined Dongbei Piano in 1983.

Zhang was too busy to learn Zhou’s doubt. The company often called her to fix customers’ pianos, and she never let them down.

“I have studied and participated in the entire piano production process, from design to assembly. I know what the problems can be,” she said.

These trips opened a window to the outside world that fascinated Zhang. “I was surprised to see a woman driving a Santana in Beijing in 1993.”

Eventually, she volunteered to move into the sales department and was sent to Shanghai in charge of the East China market in 2001.

“I was greeted with bad news and good news. The bad news was that I couldn’t sell a single piano because our pianos were overcrowded in dealer warehouses,” Zhang said.

She visited the warehouses, examined the pianos and found out the reason: Due to the climatic difference, pianos made in the dry north did not adapt to the humid south.

“The good news was I could fix them all.”

Zhang traveled from warehouse to warehouse, repairing pianos. To eradicate the problems, she offered to improve the manufacturing process and got more discounts for dealers.

She didn’t earn a penny for the business, but lost 65,000 yuan (about US $ 7,850 in 2001) in her first year as a salesperson.

In the third year, Zhang ranked second in the company’s sales.

HUGE DEBT, BIG BET

As Zhang progressed from an apprentice to a model employee, Dongbei Piano experienced profound changes in its history.

Dongbei Piano took a bold step by buying Swedish piano brand Nordiska for US $ 750,000 in 1988. The company sent 25 skilled workers, including Zhou Xiong, to train at Nordiska.

“It was gratifying,” Zhou said. “My masters at home told me how, and the Swedish masters showed me why.”

In 1998, Dongbei Piano and a Daewoo piano company from the Republic of Korea signed a contract to produce grand pianos. Dongbei Piano set up a grand piano factory the following year.

“It was a dream to produce grand pianos,” said Guo Kai, 46. Guo is a piano designer who joined Dongbei Piano in 1998 as a college graduate.

However, the road ahead has never been easy for Dongbei Piano, with changing market demands and business management challenges.

At the time, the Chinese piano maker was producing 30,000 vertical and 10,000 grand pianos per year, making it the third largest piano producer in China.

However, due to the sharp decline in international demand before the 2008 global financial crisis, the heavily export-oriented Dongbei Piano experienced a difficult period.

Following the restructuring of Chinese state-owned enterprises, Gibson Guitar Corp. of the United States acquired full ownership of Dongbei Piano in December 2006.

The new company was called Baldwin Dongbei Piano Instrument Co., Ltd. The dismissed workers withdrew from their own account after receiving a lump sum in compensation.

Unlike those sad colleagues, tuner Zhang Yongqing yearned for a new job.

“The traditional public enterprise was like a comfort zone. I can imagine what my working life would be like until retirement, nothing special,” said Zhang, 50. He soon left for Dalian, a coastal town in the province, and worked as a tuner for a local musical instrument store.

Guo traveled to southern China, then to Germany, where he was technical director for ten years in a piano company for his new employer. He never ceased to strive to design the best pianos.

Zhang Xiaowen was the last to leave. She remained at the head of the sales department until 2009.

She said she left because she didn’t think her beloved brand was cherished. “The good products were labeled with their own brand and the poor quality products labeled as Nordiska. I cannot accept that.”

She started buying and renovating used pianos, then had her own piano factory.

Meanwhile, the Baldwin Dongbei Piano failed to save Dongbei Piano. “Wages have halved, people have left,” Guo recalled.

The company stopped production in 2011 and later went bankrupt. The brand of Dongbei Piano has been registered by others.

Zhang Xiaowen understood the value of brands while running his own business. She managed to buy back the old brand.

Then came his next chance. In November 2018, the Baldwin Dongbei Piano was released for sale with the approval of the Yingkou City Government.

Zhang ultimately won the public tender. She paid nearly 120 million yuan (about 18.6 million US dollars) with 50 million yuan in bank loans, more than five times the estimated value.

“What she did was amazing,” Guo said. “It will take years of losses before the business profits.

However, Zhang was confident that the old customers would come back and Dongbei Piano would regain its international market share.

Gifted at sewing and tailoring, Zhang redesigned the Dongbei Piano coveralls according to her memory.

“These are my favorite clothes,” she said.

AIM HIGH

Zhang Xiaowen was not the only one trying to revive the glory of Dongbei Piano.

Designer Guo Kai was in attendance, as were tuner Zhang Yongqing and sound engineer Zhou Xiong.

They have all been colleagues for over 30 years. They played a leading role in their duties and often took the stage together to receive awards.

“In the past, we were like-minded colleagues. Today, we are like-minded partners,” said Zhang Xiaowen.

On August 25, 2019, the first upright piano, numbered zero, was taken offline. She kept it for a piano museum project in the company.

Guo, Managing Director and Chief Designer of Dongbei Piano, was helping the company to win over the market with quality products and creative designs in both workmanship and function.

“Our pianos are made with the best materials from around the world,” he said. “We aim to produce the best pianos in China.”

Zhou Xiong was among the few people who supported Zhang Xiaowen’s buying plan early on.

“I had deep feelings for old Dongbei Piano and cried when he broke up,” said the 59-year-old production manager.

“Fame and fortune are no longer important. I only have one thing left in life: to rebuild Dongbei Piano and make even better pianos,” he said.

Zhang Yongqing was the chief tuner and director in charge of marketing.

“The pianos we make today are the best that Dongbei Piano has ever made,” he said. “But it takes time to recover our brand image because it had been off the market for over ten years.”

To awaken the Nordiska brand and spread its return to the market, Dongbei Piano has been participating in the largest international trade fairs in the sector since 2019.

In May, Zhang Xiaowen had a grand piano delivered to Boston, United States, at the request of a potential customer. The piano sample was satisfactory and brought Zhang an order for 100 grand pianos.

“We will catch up as long as we have the key technology and skilled workers,” she said.

Piano making has developed for centuries in the West. The mature industry values ​​the experience and skills of its workers, which is why Zhang and his partners were confident about the future of Dongbei Piano.

The industry has grown in China, where some 400,000 pianos were produced in 2020, incomplete statistics from the China Musical Instrument Association (CMIA) showed.

“I am not worried about orders but about rising raw material prices and the shortage of skilled workers,” said Zhang Xiaowen.

Although the prices of wood, iron and copper have risen 10 to 30 percent this year, the council of four insisted not to use cheaper alternatives.

Since a grand piano consists of nearly 20,000 parts, many of which have yet to be made by hand, Zhang had a new idea: to build a vocational school and train workers for the company.

Dongbei Piano occupies an area of ​​260,000 square meters, which is equivalent to about 36 football fields. It seemed big enough to house his goals and dreams.

“But first of all, we have to survive,” she said.

She managed to obtain a copy of the 1952 Dongbei Piano annals and plans to continue recording.

“People from the future might be interested in our story, that we did something to make a good piano,” she said.

(Xinhua correspondent Bai Xu contributed to the story.)


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