American Success Story
Thirty years ago, when Yuhling Lu immigrated from Taiwan to the United States, she knew nothing about promotional products. But she knew a lot about biochemistry. After earning her bachelor’s degree in agricultural chemistry and a master’s degree in biochemistry from National Taiwan University, Lu began looking for a university where she could earn her Ph.D. She decided she wanted to live in America.
“I came to the United States to study and pursue my doctorate in biology and biomedical science,” says Lu, who today is the owner of Saint Louis, Missouri-based supplier Ariel Premium Supply. “After getting accepted to three American colleges, I decided to choose Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, because they offered the best research program. Plus, their full scholarship allowed me to settle in Saint Louis.”
Students and Scientists
Lu met her husband, Tai Lin, also a Taiwan native, when they were both students working on their doctorate degrees at Washington University. As college students who were just beginning their careers as scientists, Lu and Lin were looking for ways to earn extra money. That’s when they stumbled upon promotional products.
“In the beginning, Ariel was a side business to get some extra income to help with our scientist incomes,” Lu says. “We had a friend who was a promo supplier who introduced us to the industry. She was selling mostly stress relievers and candy bottles. She asked us to pick up the stress relievers business. After a while, the business started growing and we decided to make it our full-time work.” Lu chose the company’s name based on her favorite Disney character.
When Lu and Lin founded the company in 1993, stress relievers were a big part of their business. Although the popular products remain one of the company’s primary specialties, Ariel has now diversified its product lineup, offering not only every kind of stress reliever imaginable but also technology items, bags and many other products.
“Ariel stays on the cutting edge of product design by doing a lot of different things,” Lu says. “We are always proactively looking for new ideas. We take multiple trips to Asia every year, both to see shows and visit factories. I am also still actively involved in this process.”
The pair stays on top of product trends by leveraging the relationships they have built with their vendors overseas. “We work very hard to create strong relationships with our core vendors who look out for us,” says Lu. “They present us with new ideas and keep us up-to-date on new trends. They see things early and have their own great network that they share with us.”
Lu’s Taiwanese heritage gives her an advantage with Asian manufacturers. “Coming from Taiwan and being able to speak Chinese, and since I know the culture so well, it offers me a unique advantage to develop better, stronger relationships,” she says. “Several of our top managers are also from Asia and that adds to this strength. It has enabled us to open two Ariel sourcing offices in Asia.”
With these relationships, Yuhling also spends time building strategies for each of Ariel’s product categories. “We look at their scope for design, price points and color offerings. Any new product we choose must fit into this structure and make good sense to the overall mix of the category collection,” she says.
The husband and wife team also listen carefully to customer feedback. “So many customers offer good ideas on how to improve a product or on a trend they see in their market,” Lu says. “We then do more research.”
Trade War Trouble
Even with her strong relationships with manufacturers in Asia, Lu says the trade war between the United States and China is creating significant insecurity in global markets—and the promotional products industry is no exception.
“This developing trade war between the U.S. and China has brought us a lot of uncertainty and is making us look at our business in many new ways,” Lu says. “We have to find new ways to mitigate costs so that we can try to pass on less of the tariffs. For those suppliers heavily dependent on importing from China, and who do not pass on all the tariffs, they will see less profit and may have less of a budget to buy inventories.”
From the distributor side, Lu says higher prices may drive their customers to buy lower quantities or less expensive products. “Fixed end-buyer marketing budgets combined with higher product costs will mean fewer items being sold,” she adds.
Lu believes the No. 1 issue in the promotional products industry right now is the trend toward thinner margins. “This is based on several factors, mostly the trade dispute, but also increased costs in raw materials, exchange rate fluctuations, increases in shipping and logistical costs, and increasing product safety compliance costs,” she says.
“There is also the big matter of a labor shortage,” Lu adds. “It is hard to grow the business with the ongoing shortage in finding more qualified people. This results in growing labor costs. You have to pay more to get people.”
The American Dream
In 2015, Ariel Premium Supply was named ASI’s Supplier of the Year. “In the beginning, I was not looking to build an ASI Top 40 supplier, but over the years the team has come together and they all work so hard,” she says.
Lu attributes a great deal of Ariel’s success to her employees. “We have put together a truly multi-cultural team at Ariel and we work so well together to grow the business,” she says. “Most of our staff members are minorities. I am proud to provide jobs for many who are not native English speakers. It is not easy for them to find jobs or careers here. But Ariel offers them language and cultural classes to help them establish a life here in the U.S. Though we come from many parts of the world, I think we are a real American success story.”
Despite the company’s success, Lu and her team are careful not to rest on their laurels but to remain in a state of expansion. “We are always working on many new things at one time,” she says. “One of the most exciting things is our launch of a new retail brand called Taroko Bags. It is an exciting sales and marketing initiative to try and build an entirely new presence in the industry.” The opening collection of five bags is highlighted by duffels, backpacks and string backpacks inspired by the natural heathered marble palettes of the Far East.
Ariel Premium Supply is also shifting its product development strategy to focus more on category depth than breadth. “We are also working on giving a new focus to our imprinting capabilities and completely redesigning how we touch our distributor customers,” Lu says. “We also have several new technology initiatives in the works.”
Looking back over the past 25 years, Lu is grateful she came to the U.S. and took the plunge into the promotional products industry. “This is an amazing country because the people have been so helpful,” she says. “In the industry it is very competitive-friendly and everyone is so willing to share their experience to help you. I am very thankful for the success we have had in our 25 years. It has made me realize that the U.S. really is a land of opportunity.”
Brittany Glenn is a Dallas, Texas-based writer and a former associate editor of PPB.