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严兆强:心中自有大光明

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His Bright Idea:Dominate Energy-Saving Light Bulbs

How many light-bulb makers does it take to change four billion U.S. sockets to compact-fluorescent lights? Ellis Yan says it takes just one: TCP Inc., the largest manufacturer of the energy-efficient bulbs sold in the U.S. -- and, not coincidentally, the company Mr. Yan owns.

The China-born Mr. Yan, who moved to the U.S. in 1979, has four factories in and around Shanghai that produce more than one million compact-fluorescent bulbs a day. Most are shipped to the U.S. and sold under private labels by Home Depot Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers. General Electric Co. and Siemens AG's Osram Sylvania also resell TCP fluorescent bulbs under their names, along with manufacturing their own.

TCP is well-positioned as consumers seek alternatives to traditional incandescent bulbs. Helping to fuel the demand are governments world-wide; in the U.S., the energy bill President Bush signed into law last week will require lighting to use as much as 30% less energy, which will phase out the traditional energy-eating incandescent light bulb. Compact fluorescents use 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs and are considered the likely initial replacement for most home uses.

That has sales of compact fluorescents, known as CFLs, soaring. About 200 million CFLs were sold in the U.S. in 2006, up about 50% from the prior year. Incandescent-bulb sales fell 10% last year to about 1.5 billion bulbs, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. Mike Deneen, a senior analyst with market researcher Freedonia Group Inc., Cleveland, predicts wholesale sales of CFLs will jump to $1.55 billion in 2011 from $415 million in 2006. By 2016, Mr. Deneen says, incandescent bulbs 'will be like the eight-track' tape.

Mr. Yan says TCP makes 70% of the CFLs sold in the U.S. Market-share figures aren't available, but rivals concede that TCP is the largest maker of CFLs sold in the U.S., accounting for half or more of the market. GE is the biggest brand-name supplier in the U.S.

The 53-year-old Mr. Yan grew up in Shanghai. As a teenager, he was sent to work on a farm during the Cultural Revolution. He moved to Cleveland in 1979 to live with an aunt and worked as a computer consultant after graduating from college.

In 1986, Mr. Yan started a lighting business here, selling halogen bulbs. He later opened a factory in Shanghai, in a partnership with a local government agency. He enlisted his older brother, Solomon, to run the factory; Solomon Yan now oversees all of TCP's China factories and owns a minority stake in them. Mr. Yan has since bought out his other partners.

When halogen prices dropped amid fierce competition in the early 1990s, Mr. Yan switched to making compact-fluorescent bulbs, a market largely ignored by bigger manufacturers. His first CFLs were circular or U-shaped and required a special fixture. His biggest customers were hotels, assisted-living centers and other commercial outlets.

In 1994, Mr. Yan heard about a factory in Shanghai making spiral-shaped bulbs. He recruited some of the workers to start making spiral bulbs for TCP. Not long after, he brought his new bulb to a big U.S. trade show and displayed it on a folding table. 'We tried really hard to push the spiral lamp,' he says.

Ed Hammer, who invented the spiral shape at GE in the 1970s, says Mr. Yan quickly understood that the spiral bulbs would emit more light than linear bulbs. 'He was the first one to do that,' says Mr. Hammer, who now consults with TCP.

Mr. Yan's big break came in 2000 when he was among dozens of prospective suppliers invited to demonstrate products to Home Depot at a baseball stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla. A year later, Home Depot was TCP's largest customer.

CFLs got another boost in 2001, when electricity shortages in California and neighboring states prompted utilities to subsidize the bulbs to reduce electricity demand. CFLs at the time cost roughly $11 each, 20 times the cost of incandescent bulbs.

Today, individual CFLs sell for about half that much. They also last longer than traditional incandescent bulbs and use less energy, making them cheaper in the long run. The bulbs also work better than earlier fluorescents, reaching full brightness quickly without a flicker. CFLs now come in many shapes, sizes and colors that can be used in fixtures such as ceiling fans and chandeliers.

One big drawback: CFLs contain mercury, a toxin and environmental hazard. Inside a fluorescent bulb, a tiny amount of mercury is heated until it turns into a gas that reacts with other gases to produce light. CFLs typically have about five milligrams of mercury; Mr. Yan says some of his smaller bulbs have fewer than two milligrams. He and other makers are working to reduce the amount of mercury. Because of the mercury, fluorescent bulbs are supposed to be recycled, rather than dumped in the trash.

As CFL prices fell and concern about climate change rose, TCP's sales grew, to an estimated $300 million this year from $22 million in 2000. Next year, Mr. Yan projects revenue of $400 million.

One possible drag on TCP's continued growth: The surge in sales is drawing more competition. GE, which introduced fluorescent bulbs in 1938; Sylvania; and others are building up their capacity. GE owns a minority stake in Topstar, a Chinese-government-owned fluorescent manufacturer. Other new manufacturers are popping up in Asia. Bulbs incorporating another energy-saving technology, light-emitting diodes, are projected to reach the home market in as soon as five years.

Mr. Yan, a marathon runner, is involved in every aspect of his business. When managers at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas weren't satisfied with the color of TCP's lights for hotel hallways, Mr. Yan shuttled between the hotel and his China factories to develop a soft-white light, now called the 'LV color,' for Las Vegas. 'He's very passionate about the business, he's passionate about making a difference,' says Joe Colant, TCP president.

Marriott International Inc. tested TCP's bulbs against rivals before choosing them in 2000 to use exclusively in guest rooms at more than 700 hotels. Lenny Jachimowicz, vice president of engineering for Marriott's North America lodging, says Mr. Yan and TCP work closely with hotel designers to develop new sizes and colors of bulbs as rooms are renovated. When a bulb burns out before its projected 10,000-hour life, TCP replaces it.

'Ellis's approach is 'Tell us what you need, and I'll go back and make it for you,'' says Mr. Jachimowicz. 'He has managed to find a niche in a market that was controlled by' bigger competitors.

Mr. Yan has enlisted several former GE engineers, including Joe Marella, who runs TCP's testing lab. Mr. Hammer, a 45-year GE veteran who retired in 2001, now works with Mr. Yan to try to reduce the amount of mercury used in the bulbs.

Mr. Yan is constantly adding factories and employees in China. Today, he employs about 3,000 'benders,' who spend three months learning how to hand-shape the glass into spirals. They sit in rows, taking hot glass into their gloved hands and spinning it around a cylinder. Mr. Yan is starting to automate the process and expects benders will eventually be phased out. To guarantee supply, he bought a glass factory.

Some bulb makers worry about keeping up with demand for fluorescents if incandescents are phased out quickly. Mr. Yan isn't concerned. At his distribution center in Aurora, one wall is temporary to allow for expansion. 'Capacity is not an issue,' he says. 'I don't need anybody else. I can do the whole thing by myself.'

要几家电灯泡生产商才能满足美国40亿个电灯插座全部改成节能萤光灯的需求?严兆强(Ellis Yan)说只要TCP Inc.一家就足够了。TCP生产的节能灯泡在美国的市场份额排名第一,它也是严兆强自己的公司,这当然不是巧合。

严兆强生于中国,1979年赴美,他在上海周边有四家工厂,每天生产100多万只灯泡。其中大多被运往美国,在家得宝(Home Depot Inc.)、沃尔玛连锁公司(Wal-Mart Stores Inc.)等零售商的店铺里作为自营品牌销售。通用电气公司(General Electric Co.)和西门子公司(Siemens AG)旗下的欧司朗(Osram Sylvania)除了自行生产灯泡之外也会将TCP的萤光灯泡贴牌销售。

在消费者寻求传统白炽灯泡的替代品之时,TCP处于有利位置。世界各国政府都在推动这方面的需求:在美国,布什总统上周签署的能源法案要求照明设备将能耗降低30%,这将逐步淘汰能耗很高的传统白炽灯泡。节能萤光灯的能耗比白炽灯泡低75%,被认为是大多数家用灯具的理想替代品。

这令节能萤光灯(被称为CFL)的销量突飞猛进。2006年美国的CFL销量达2亿只,比上年增长了50%。据美国电气制造商协会(National Electrical Manufacturers Association)统计,2006年白炽灯泡的销量为15亿只,下降了10%。克利夫兰市场研究公司Freedonia Group Inc.的资深分析师麦克•迪尼恩(Mike Deneen)预计,2011年CFL的批发销售额将从2006年的4.15亿美元跃升至15.5亿美元,而到2016年,白炽灯泡会像八轨磁带一样成为绝响。

严兆强说,在美销售的CFL有70%都是TCP生产的。市场份额的确切数据不得而知,但竞争对手也承认TCP是在美销售CFL的最大生产商,占据了一半以上的市场。通用电气是美国最大的品牌供应商。

53岁的严兆强是在上海长大的。文化大革命时期,十几岁的严兆强到农村上山下乡。1979年,他去了克利夫兰,与一位亲戚一起生活,并在大学毕业后当了一名电脑咨询师。

1986年,严兆强在俄亥俄州奥罗拉创立了一家照明企业,销售卤素灯泡。后来他在上海与当地政府机构合资开了一间工厂。他让自己的哥哥严兆陵(Solomon Yan)来负责工厂的管理;严兆陵现在负责TCP在中国的所有工厂,并拥有少数股份。严兆强后来买下了其他合作者手中的所有股份。

20世纪90年代初,卤素灯泡的价格因竞争激烈而下跌,严兆强由此转向生产节能萤光灯泡,这是一个很大程度上为大厂商所忽视的市场。他生产的第一批CFL是圆环形或U形,需要专门的固定装置。他最大的客户是酒店、护理中心和其他商业场所。

1994年,严兆强听说上海一家工厂生产螺旋形灯泡。他招募了那家工厂的一些工人,开始为TCP生产螺旋形灯泡。不久之后,他将新型灯泡带到美国的一个大型交易会上,在一张折叠桌上进行展示。他说他们真的是竭尽全力地去推广螺旋灯泡。

20世纪70年代在通用电气发明了螺旋灯泡的埃德•海默(Ed Hammer)说,严兆强很快就明白螺旋灯泡的亮度要高过直管灯泡。现在担任TCP顾问的海默说:“他是第一个这样做的。”

严兆强在2000年迎来了重大突破,他与数十家潜在供应商受邀在佛罗里达州圣彼得斯堡的一个棒球馆里向家得宝演示产品。一年后,家得宝成了TCP最大的客户。

2001年CFL再次觅得良机,加利福尼亚和邻近各州的电力短缺,促使电力部门对这种灯泡提供补贴以减少电力需求。CFL当时的价格约为每只11美元,是白炽灯泡的20倍。

如今,每只CFL的价格大约为当时的一半。它们的使用寿命比传统的白炽灯泡长,而能耗比后者低,因此从长远看来CFL比白炽灯泡更划算。这种灯泡的性能也优于早期的萤光灯,很快就能达到最大亮度而不会闪烁。CFL现在有了多种形状、大小和颜色,可以用在吊扇和枝形吊灯等多种装置里。

CFL的一大缺陷是含有危害环境的有毒物质:汞。萤光灯泡内有少量汞,其被加热后变成气态,与其他气体起反应形成光。CFL一般含汞量为5毫克;严兆强说他的一些小灯泡汞含量不到两毫克。严兆强及其他生产厂家都致力于降低汞含量。由于含汞,萤光灯泡应予以回收,不能作为垃圾直接丢弃。

由于CFL的价格降低,同时人们对气候变化的担忧加剧,TCP的销售额节节攀升,预计今年将达到3亿美元,而2000年仅为2,200万美元。严兆强计划明年实现4亿美元的收入。

TCP的持续增长可能会遭遇障碍:销量的猛增导致竞争加剧。1938年就开始生产萤光灯的通用电气,还有欧司朗及其他一些厂商都在增加产能。通用电气拥有通士达(Topstar)的少量股份,后者是一家中国国有的萤光灯生产商。其他的新兴厂商也在亚洲大量涌现。使用另一项节能技术发光二极管的灯泡预计最快将在五年内投放国内市场。

严兆强性格坚毅,在工作上事必躬亲。有一次,拉斯维加斯Bellagio酒店的管理人员不满意酒店大堂的TCP灯光颜色,严兆强奔波于酒店和中国工厂之间,开发了一种柔和的白光灯,这种颜色现在被称为“LV色”,LV即拉斯维加斯。TCP总裁乔•科兰特(Joe Colant)说严兆强对业务和创新充满了热情。

2000年,万豪国际集团(Marriott International Inc.)试用了TCP和竞争对手的灯泡后选择了TCP,专用于其700多家酒店的客房。万豪北美工程部副总裁Lenny Jachimowicz说,在对房间进行重新装修时,严兆强和TCP与酒店密切合作,开发新的灯泡尺寸和颜色。如果某个灯泡还没达到预计的10,000小时寿命就坏掉了,TCP会负责更换。

Jachimowicz说,严兆强的方法就是“把你的需求告诉我,我会替你做到”;在这个被大型厂商控制的市场,他成功地找到了自己的位置。

严兆强聘请了几位曾在通用电气任职的工程师,其中包括掌管TCP的检测实验室的乔•马雷拉(Joe Marella)。在通用电气任职45年、于2001年退休的海默现在与严兆强一同致力于减少灯泡中的汞含量。

严兆强还在中国不断开设新厂,招兵买马。现在他雇了大约3,000名“弯管工”,这些人要花三个月的时间学习如何手工将玻璃弯成螺旋形。他们成排坐着,用戴着手套的手拿起炽热的玻璃,将它绕在一个圆筒上。严兆强已经开始将这一过程转为自动化操作,并希望最终逐步淘汰弯管工。为了保证供应,他收购了一家玻璃制造厂。

一些灯泡制造商担心如果白炽灯被很快淘汰,将无法满足萤光灯的需求。严兆强对此不以为意。在位于奥罗拉的销售中心,随时都可以进行扩张。严兆强说:“产能不是问题。我不需要任何人相助,我自己就能搞定一切。”
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