Jack Wong is a very lucky guy. Or you can say he's very unfortunate. On one hand, his eight-year-old Meizu label -- literally meaning "the captivating tribe" -- has rapidly become one of the most popular brands amongst Chinese gadget lovers, yet all he's producing right now is just the one phone: the M9. On the other hand, the now-discontinued M8 had notoriously caught unwanted attention from Apple, and even the recent M9 launch saw accusations of Meizu hiring people to stand in line. But the latter points are irrelevant for now -- what we're really interested in is how a teensy MP3 player factory managed to outpace its numerous competitors to become a reputable smartphone maker with a huge fan base. To help us understand what drives the company, we decided to pay Meizu a visit. Go on, you know where to click.

Exclusive: A day trip to Meizu's factory

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A humble beginning

Before we delve into the inner workings of Meizu, we should talk a little bit about how it all began, starting with the enigmatic CEO himself. Rumored to be raised in a farm village, the now 36-year-old Jack Wong never graduated from high school, but he did start his career as a factory worker and possibly as a chef as well. Fast forward to 2002, Wong somehow became the general manager of a Singaporean electronics company called Soken, where he successfully introduced a range of personal audio products. Alas, Wong fell out with his shareholders over how their products should be promoted -- Wong believed in reaching out to customers via the company's forum, whereas the others simply wanted to blast out commercials. Being branded a mad man, Wong sold his shares and went off to set up Meizu in 2003.

What followed then were various MP3 players that didn't aesthetically stand out from the crowd, yet Wong stayed faithful to his belief and put minimum effort on commercials for his new company. Even though Meizu only produced one or two devices a year (discounting its OEM clients in the early years), it continued to thrive by engaging with its customers on its forum, as well as keeping them in the loop of product development and frequent firmware updates. Hell, we've even seen Wong teasing us with the M9II before the M9 was even released, and at one point he also simultaneously dished out multiple M9 firmware releases for his geekier fans.

Promotion Manager He Wen, Marketing Manager Wan Zhiqiang, and Marketing Director Hua Hailiang.

Word of mouth

With Wong's active online engagement, Meizu's fan base grew steadily over the years. A quick glance on the forum will reveal all sorts of shout-outs for the big cheese: "JW," "J.Wong," "Big Brother," "Boss," or even just his Chinese name "Huang Zhang." With a bit of luck, you might get a colorful response from Wong, but don't be alarmed if his words are too raw for your eyes -- he's known to be very direct and personal when ranting about certain news, dealers, or even customers. It's no wonder that the company doesn't need commercials -- the forum itself is colorful enough to attract public attention.

Like his boss, Marketing Director Hua Hailiang believes that word of mouth comes before marketing. "We used to have TV commercials, but hardly any," said a proud but casually dressed Hua, in sandals. "The sum of all the money we've spent on ads so far is nowhere near any company's annual budget for that. We had two in 2005 or 2006, which is significantly fewer than other MP3 or mobile phone companies. We haven't had any ads over the last two years, not even a penny spent there. Maybe some sponsorship for the odd media events, but that's it."

But that's only one side of the story; Hua frankly admitted that Meizu also doesn't have the cash to spare on ads. We don't doubt this, considering Meizu has offered some attractive trade-in discounts in the past, and it's also known to be pretty liberal when it comes to replacing faulty units, regardless of their warranty status. Still, Meizu occasionally supports regional gatherings organized by its fans aka Meiyou, who'd use these opportunities to show off their various artistic skills, namely martial arts, dancing, singing, etc. From what we've seen, it looks like these events had high turn-out rates, too.

Another area where Meizu does spend money on is the welfare of its employees, and this leads us to the factory.

Factory

Meizu's located in Zhuhai, a small city that's just a 70-minute ferry journey west of Hong Kong. It's actually not that hard to make your way from the ferry terminal to the factory -- just go north along the city's beautiful coastal highway (which is appropriately named "Lovers' Road"), then make the first left turn after Sun Yat-sen University and you'll eventually see Meizu on your left. All that was just a 20 minute journey for us. Even though Meizu only houses about 900 employees -- about 100 designers, 600 workers, and 200 staff in the executive office -- the three-and-a-half-year-old building was much bigger than we expected, and it sure looked trendier than most of the factories we've seen in Shenzhen.

Coincidentally, our visit was actually only five days before the M9 launch (we weren't told this prior to our arrival), so it was a good chance to see Meizu running in full capacity. But before we got to the assembly lines, we were first shown around the executive office on the fifth floor. We were asked not to use our cameras there, but there wasn't much to see anyway. Like any standard corporate office, you could see all the cubicles across the room, and the only section that was isolated behind glass was the design room, which was understandably out of bounds for us. Interestingly, Jack Wong doesn't have his own desk, let alone a room. "He doesn't come in much these days," said Marketing Manager Wan Zhiqiang. "He only comes in for meetings to plan new products. He works from home most of the time."


There wasn't much else on the executive floor. The only other rooms we saw were a meeting room (where we interviewed our hosts) and a large lecture room for training. Our top-floor tour was cut short thanks to a meeting in the remaining room, so we headed down to the ground floor. First stop: an "experience center" that, frankly, reminds us of an Apple store -- large maple wood tables and white surrounding were all it took. The only notable difference was the stash of trophies that Meizu put next to the window, but really, they don't mean much to Jack Wong and co. "We just want to make good products that we like," said Wan.

It should be noted that the actual Meizu stores -- as shown in our Shenzhen feature and the video above -- look nothing like Apple's, and likewise with the rest of the factory. Even though the small customer service center (yes, there's such a thing at Meizu HQ) next to the experience center was still in operation that day, the latter and the lights in the corridor were all switched off until we entered. The folks told us this was to reduce the chances of a power failure while electricity is in high demand at the assembly lines. We know from first hand that this power-saving tactic is in fact very common amongst Shenzhen factories, especially during the summer when the offices are using air-conditioning. We guess the solar-powered water heaters are also for the same purpose, if not to reduce the electricity bill.

Our next stop was the SMT (surface mount technology) workshop right next to the experience center. As the name says for itself, this room was dedicated to aseembling logic boards. Sadly, no photography was allowed inside, so we'll do our best to be as descriptive in words. In fact, you can have a look at our More Coverage link for a glimpse of Meizu's assembly line in its old factory.

We dropped off our gear at a security checkpoint where we were given a lab coat, a hat, and some funky blue bags that a machine wrapped around our shoes for hygienic reasons (yes, we totally filmed this device in action). After stepping through a metal detector, we found ourselves stood in a sterile-looking room no larger than a basketball court. In front of us were two long SMT machines that were taking in blank printed circuit boards, placing solder onto the appropriate points, then carefully placing tiny components onto the boards, and finally lock them in place by running the boards through an oven. Of course, there were workers present to ensure the machines were running fine, as well as checking the soldering points under magnifying glasses.

Next we went upstairs to a much bigger workshop where two long lines of workers were assembling the M9s at their workstations. Despite the rush for the launch, they seemed relaxed and were chatting to one another. On the other side of the room we saw workers with their heads down for a quick 15-minute break, but otherwise they would've been testing the software and cameras on the freshly made M9s -- we spotted their color calibration checkboards stuck onto their workstations. Meanwhile, we got up close to a rack full of M9s that were undergoing hours of testing -- most were playing movies -- before they got boxed up for the shops. At the other end of the workshop was a dust-free room that we could only observe behind two layers of glass -- the room changes air about every hour or so, which is necessary to create a fairly sterile environment for working with LCDs and other sensitive components.

The only floors that we missed were the storage facility and another workshop that was developing Meizu's next generation device. Sorry, no scoops here, but it's probably just the M9II for the time being. What we do know, though, is that Meizu currently has no interest in expanding to the overseas market, which would explain its absence in CeBIT and CES in recent years. "Right now we just want to do well in the Chinese market," said Hua. "We never wanted to compete with the other big players -- there's no way for us to do that, so we'll just focus on our products and after-sales service. We are definitely more diligent when it comes to customer service, compared to most other Chinese manufacturers."

We then touched upon the sensitive topic of lookalikes, and this got Hua fired up. "We're already doing our best to set our own style on our products. Of course, we don't want to clash with anyone, and as a small player, we don't want the trouble. We really don't. If anyone insists ours is like Apple's, I'd agree that they both have big screens, but wouldn't the same apply to Motorola? And Sony Ericsson? And Samsung? There are bound to be similarities between cellphones." We could tell the recent M8 lawsuit's been very troubling for these guys; but in our opinion, the M9 is well away from this danger zone.

Welfare

A more interesting aspect of Meizu is the welfare of its employees. Hua said since Jack started off as a factory worker himself, he cares a lot about taking care of his own team. For starters, each worker gets between ¥2,200 ($334) to ¥2,700 ($409) as their base salary, which is significantly more than Foxconn's ¥2,000 ($303) that only a select few qualify for. On top of that, everyone in Meizu -- including the cleaners and security guards -- also get a monthly ¥800 ($121) food allowance: ¥300 ($45) credited to their NFC cards for use at the canteens, and the remaining ¥500 ($76) directly added to their salaries so that they can spend it on home cooking or in restaurants. When we shared this info with our other Chinese manufacturing contacts, they were also surprised by how generous Meizu is. "Not all Chinese companies run like Foxconn," Hua stressed. "Foxconn is just an extreme example. There are many good companies out there."

Just to give you a rough idea on how long ¥300 can last you in Meizu, here are the charges at its canteens: the main one (pictured above) charges between ¥3 ($0.46) to ¥5 ($0.76) per dish, and you can help yourself to as much rice and soup as you want; whereas the quieter buffet canteen -- serving similar dishes from the same kitchen -- charges ¥20 ($3.03) for lunch and ¥15 ($2.28) for dinner. So assuming you spend about ¥6 for two dishes per meal at the main canteen, you can easily get up to 50 meals there, with ¥500 of cash left to spend on evening entertainment, like karaoke perhaps.

We recall Jack Wong once boasting about the food quality in his factory, so we stayed on to get a taste of some fine Meizu cuisine. Our hosts were intrigued by our motives, but they happily obliged and sat down with us at the buffet canteen. While we have little experience in factory dining, what we had was pretty good and the range was just as impressive: roast duck, steamed egg, stir fried pork, stir fried beef, two soups, etc. "I usually go to the main canteen, though," Hua told us. "The dishes there usually suit my taste better." Too bad there was a long line and we had a ferry to catch.

Like most factories in China, Meizu also has optional in-house accommodation for the workers. We didn't get to see the inside of the rooms as the workers weren't around at the time, but according to Hua, each are about 270 square feet large, comes with a balcony and an en-suite bathroom, and is shared by four to six workers. Doesn't sound too bad at all, plus the outdoor badminton court, table tennis room, and computer room are nearby. As for those who live outside or for those who want to head out, Meizu provides a free shuttle bus service that go into downtown.

With these many benefits, we can imagine joining the Meizu family is no easy task, and to make matters worse, the company favors Meiyou before everyone else -- we're guessing the HR department checks the applicants' activity on the Meizu forum to begin with. To our surprise, Wan is one such example: he was just Meizu's forum moderator before he took up his current position. "We want to hire people who truly understand our company," Wan said, while taking us back to the ferry terminal. After a friendly farewell, he returned to the factory to join Hua for the late shift.

Wrap-up

Our four hour tour around Meizu was certainly an eye-opening experience -- not only did it provide a different perspective on the once notorious company, but what we saw also sets a good example for the rest of the industry to follow. Even though we didn't get to meet Jack Wong, we could sense that he's genuinely passionate about his company and doing what's right for his team. But will Meizu ever be free from accusations of stealing ideas? Probably not, but bear in mind that this kind of catfight is quite the norm amongst the big companies. Regardless of the past, it's safe to say that Meizu is no shanzhai.

Our Hong Kong editor Stone Ip contributed to this report.

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