Puttin’ on the Ritz in Shanghai

Editor’s note: Admittedly, this is not the kind of project most rural builders will ever encounter. However, it illustrates the kind of creative ventures that can come from “thinking outside the box.”  Rural Builder will follow this story with photos after the doors are in place in China.

Three 12- x 20-foot Schweiss hydraulic designer doors are on their way to China. Transported via container vessel, this shipment is the first sale to China for this rural Minnesota manufacturing firm, but it’s not likely to be the last.

Mike Schweiss starts the story: “It was about 7, 7:30 in the evening.  I was outside washing my car.  My cell phone rings. The guy asks, ‘Are you Mike Schweiss with this Schweiss doors operation?’”

The call was from Shanghai, China. The guy making the call was Robin Ho, born in Malaysia, now quality control director for Beijing Curtain Wall Co., LTD,  a huge Chinese business development firm that is part of the Yangtze River Delta Group, Shanghai.

Ho had just landed a contract with a firm building a new $250 million Ritz Carlton Hotel in downtown Shanghai.  The hotel’s architect wanted a look of elegance for three, single-leaf doors for the hotel’s swanky restaurant that opens to a huge plaza.

Why is elegance important?

Because beginning in July, travelers from around the world will be flocking to Shanghai. This city of over 10 million people hosts the World Expo, a showcase of innovation, technology and world commerce that promises to be the largest ever put on display on Planet Earth. World Expo has 162 countries participating and includes 55 new Expo buildings, each specially designed for countries wanting an exceptional facility for showcasing its particular wares.
The new 25-story Ritz Carlton Hotel, just blocks from the Expo site,
intends to be part of the glitz then and for a long time into the future.

Shanghai to Minnesota

Thank the Internet for the phone conversation between Ho and Schweiss. A few months earlier, Ho knew nothing of Schweiss Doors. But the Internet is a world dictionary.

Ho, like thousands every day, went to Google and launched a search for ‘doors’. A few clicks later, the Schweiss web site popped up.

Says Ho, “After that it was a routine process of sorting through the tremendous amount of information the Schweiss web site provides. And that led to my phone call.

“Imagine my surprise to be talking with the president of the company. He’s washing his own car as I talk with him. That immediately told me this is a no nonsense ‘down to earth’ operation. I wasn’t needing to wade through layers of people to get my questions answered,” says Ho.

Just as unusual, perhaps, is the importance of the look of the fold-up doors. Ho explained that because of this unique location in downtown Shanghai, “The hotel people wanted to build something nobody else has, and that included glass-front, elegant-looking doors opening to the hotel’s plaza-level restaurant.”

Designer doors are not new to Schweiss. The company entered that field several years ago by custom building specific doors with special features, including all glass, artistic windows, even remote controlled switching. After a few more phone calls and e-mail exchanges, Ho told the Schweiss people to write up the order.

East meets West

On Monday, February 8, in temperatures of 10 degrees and 6 or 8 inches of fresh snow, Robin Ho showed up at Schweiss Doors in rural Minnesota. He and his project coordinator had never been to Minnesota, where their doors were being built.

As the visitors walked through the Schweiss facility, they observed welders, electrical technicians, painters, even the packaging operation. Shipping three 12- by 20-foot hydraulic doors via shipping containers does indeed require some special packaging.

Ho and Mike Schweiss met, shook hands and sat down to talk. Ho’s reaction?

“Well, yes maybe some surprise,” says Ho. “Here we fly about 8,000 miles.  Then we drive 100 miles from your Minneapolis airport. Out here in the country we find this door factory. We see our three doors ready for packaging. I meet Mr. Schweiss and he’s in blue jeans. That wouldn’t happen in China.”

Ho admits the business officials of his development group in Shanghai were skeptical about making a deal for special doors over the phone. “But I told them, ‘Don’t worry. That is how business is  done in the United States.’

“I tell them I made the call after 5 o’clock. I’m not certain if anyone would even answer. And here I get the president of the company. So there are no concerns. Then I talk with Jeremy (Jeremy Ricke, special project coordinator for Schweiss Doors). I ask many questions. If he can’t answer directly, he gets back to me, usually in just a few minutes.”

Growing confidence

That first cell phone visit with Mike Schweiss took place in  summer, 2008. The Schweiss web site was not yet complete. But Ho says each time he revisited the Schweiss web site, there was continually more information and his comfort level just kept growing.

Besides this project at the new Carlton Ritz hotel, Ho has four other projects in the works. He’s confident he will be revisiting America and Schweiss Doors for more business.

With China’s current economic explosion dwarfing that of  other countries, Ho talks about the fact that doors have become a new focal point for the design and utility value of commercial structures.

“The Schweiss web (www.bi-fold.com) shows me doors and designs I never could have visualized,” he says.

The three hydraulic doors that are on their way to China are fabricated from galvanized steel and specially painted. Once delivered to the hotel, the doors will be fitted with thermopane windows and given a final paint job.

The doors will open onto a beautiful landscaped plaza area. In every direction, stainless steel skyscrapers dominate the view, said Ho. And during the six-month World Expo, millions will be visiting Shanghai and enjoying the hotel’s hospitality.

On the outdoor veranda area, three gleaming window-wall hydraulic doors will provide shade and shelter, along with 24-hour security for the hotel dining area.

“Shanghai is indeed an amazing city. Construction activity far outstrips anything I’ve seen anywhere in the United States, or elsewhere. You bet, we  appreciate this new chapter in our marketing life,” says Schweiss.

As this issue of Rural Builder goes to press, the doors are making their way across the Pacific. The hotel plans a July 1 grand opening.

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