Business of Bamboo
JMX International hopes bamboo molding and flooring will take it from an e-commerce shop to a lucrative business-to-business operation.
RETAILING by Rob Brannon | Staff Writer
In May 2003, Jim Miller and Miao Xue scribbled out a business plan on a napkin while eating at a Sarasota restaurant.
More than three years later, the company the duo formed, Sarasota-based JMX Corp., has opened an office in Shanghai, China. The office is designed to oversee JMX's bamboo modeling and flooring products, which the company hopes will carry it into lucrative business to business sales. The office will also take advantage of lower labor costs and tap into China's burgeoning middle class sales market.
The company's challenges in generating big revenues and profits, even in booming China, illustrates how difficult in can be to succeed in overseas business. Big players, such as Wal-Mart and Starbucks, have struggled with the formula, too.
Miller is perhaps best known in the Sarasota area as the founding director of Goshen College's Sarasota campus. Originally from Michigan, he studied both religion and business in college and has served as an associate pastor with the Mennonite church.
Throughout his life, he says, Miller has had an itch for the entrepreneurial side of things. Some of his roles with the church, along with his opening of Goshen College's local campus, fed his business desires. Goshen, he says, gave him latitude in creating the local campus.
Miller also enrolled in a graduate degree program at the University of South Florida. It was in that program that he met Xue, his future business partner.
Miller remembers when he first saw Xue. A Chinese National seeking better opportunities, Xue was literally right off the plane when he went to his first class. He came from a different culture, and his command of the English language wasn't what it is today. The professor called on Xue to answer the very next question.
The college program kept Miller and Xue together throughout. They both were enamored with a streamlined business model, and e-mailed and talked regularly.
Leap of faith
Miller ultimately left his job and plunged into the business. That's not always the smartest move, he recognizes.
"I was probably a little overconfident in myself; all along I believed we'd make it work out," Miller says. "It's almost a prerequisite for success is to have a strong conviction."
JMX's first Web site, GardenTones.com, sold outdoor products. It came online in May 2003. The company operated out of Miller's home and things started slow.
Soon, though, the partners latched on to a few Amish-made products and began selling Amish-made lighthouses and furniture. That got things going.
And in bamboo, they've found an international product that has taken the company from an e-commerce business to an organization that carries and ships stock. Miller says the company hopes to sell directly to other businesses.
Bamboo, like the Amish products, came to JMX subtly. The product, Miller says, is produced in only China and Ecuador. It's grown in popularity, he says, and is harder than some traditional woods, like some types of oaks. With Xue, JMX had a Chinese connection that could enhance the company's ability to tap into the market.
Bamboo, Miller says, also fits a current trend toward environmentally friendly "green" building. While having many of the same traits as wood, bamboo acts as a grass. After cutting, bamboo will grow back on its own. Miller says the environmental benefits makes JMX feel good about the product. Those benefits, along with bamboo's exotic visage, have helped it rise in popularity in the light hardwood industry.
JMX recently hired a head sales manager to continue the shift from selling online to selling worldwide; he will look for new markets in the U.S. and Canada.
What's more, within a year, Miller says, the company hopes to have a sales staff operating in China. It also hopes to build a stable of builders and designers that call on JMX as a local contact for bamboo needs. JMX will also provide custom orders and consultation services for companies looking to import or export to China.