Stephen Greer’s new Asia business memoir Starting from Scrap has just been reviewed in the Wall Street Journal.

Greer arrived in Hong Kong in 1993, a recent college grad with no financing, scant experience, and only a notion of starting some kind of business. Fourteen years later, his company Hartwell Pacific was a $250-million enterprise and a player in the global scrap-metal recycling trade. Along the way he encountered cultural roadblocks, ruthless and sometimes unscrupulous competitors, and learned critical lessons in what makes a young business thrive. His remarkable rags-to-riches story is chronicled with humour, suspense, and keen insights into Asian business.

Here’s an excerpt from Starting from Scrap.

Chapter 3: Hartwell Pacific is born

After the predawn epiphany in my bedroom at No. 8 Robinson Road, I got down to work. What’s the first thing you should do if you are going to start a business: Develop a concept? Write a plan? Analyze your resources? Understand the needs of your customer? Don’t be silly. Incorporate. For most people, incorporating a company is a clerical task, but for me it was monumental. In coat and tie, I marched down to the offices of McDonald and Murray, an accountancy that specialized in incorporations. Its formal conference room with thick carpeting, a walnut table, and walls lined with prints of nineteenth-century sailing ships was suitable for this great moment. Despite the upscale decor, the partner who helped me was disheveled and appeared utterly exhausted.

He explained through a thick Irish brogue, which had me guessing at times, the positives and negatives of Liberian, Tongan, British Virgin Island, Cayman, and Hong Kong companies. “With British Virgin Island companies there are no required audits,” he enthused.

I imagined board meetings in the Caribbean under palm trees. I was disappointed to learn that you never actually had to go to the Virgin Islands. In the end, I opted for a plain vanilla Hong Kong company.

It was with great pride that I incorporated Hartwell Pacific on May 21, 1993. I used Hartwell, my middle name, so that people couldn’t guess that I was a one-man band. I was so proud of that incorporation certificate. It meant more to me than my university degree, when in fact all I’d done was spend a couple thousand dollars on a nice little piece of paper. The registered office and mailing address were in a business center/shared office in the prestigious Prince’s Building, not far from Morgan Stanley.

Hartwell Pacific’s incorporation and registration process was incredibly easy, taking only a couple of days. There aren’t many places in the world as efficient as Hong Kong. I then went down to HSBC (Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation) to open an account.

“I am here to open a corporate account,” I announced.

“Very good. May I see your reference?” the girl behind the counter asked demurely.

“Reference? I don’t have a reference. I’m here to give you money and business, not take a loan!” I shot back, blood rushing to my face.

“Unfortunately, you need to have a reference from someone who has a corporate account here,” she apologized.

“Then I’ll take my business elsewhere!” I finished, storming past the other customers waiting in line. I limped next door to another, smaller bank, which accepted my $500 and issued me a checkbook in the name of Hartwell Pacific. I assured the clerk, who couldn’t have cared less, that there would be much larger deposits in the near future.

With checkbook in hand and officially incorporated, I was ready to begin my journey as an entrepreneur.

Next, I bought a phone/fax machine for my home office and signed up for a pager.

Communication is key! I thought.

A mobile phone in those days would’ve been a lavish expenditure, and they were the size of a brick. I instead chose New World Telecom’s pager service because it was noted for reliability, and more importantly the salesgirl Maggie was a knockout.

Let’s see: corporate setup, prestigious office address, bank accounts, communications, dinner with Maggie on Tuesday. What now? Yes: business planning!

I assumed I would start by trading a product or commodity, versus manufacturing or building something, but held a longer-term view that pretty much anything that had worked well in the West could be done in the fast-developing Far East. There was endless opportunity without having to invent a thing, and I was definitely not the mad scientist type. I would focus on the motto of the H. J. Heinz Company, where my father worked for thirty-seven years. It was featured on many walls around the company’s offices and in his den at home.


I sent off a fax (no e-mail back then) to almost everyone I’d ever met of business significance. It went something like this:

Dear Sir,

I am writing to inform you that I have established Hartwell Pacific Limited as a trading company in Hong Kong. We are looking to participate in trade between China and

[your country] and hope that we may be of service.

Please do not hesitate to contact us.


Stephen H. Greer


I figured that was broad enough to have me pretty well covered.

My first stab was in what’s known as the gray market. When the price of, say, Pringles or Duracell batteries is relatively low in one market, such as Florida, due to overstock, and the price is high in Hong Kong or Moscow due to company pricing policy, gray marketers try to get their hands on the goods in Florida and sell them in Hong Kong, locking in the price gap. I called it “Consumer Product Arbitrage”, which had a more sophisticated Wall Street sound to it. This “arbitrage” infuriates the corporates, as they want to dictate where they sell and at what price. I uncovered an opportunity exporting Levi’s blue jeans from America to Hong Kong. Utilizing a courier flight, a cheap way to fly if you are willing to carry a mail pouch, I went to the States and closed on a couple of shipments from JCPenney, but ultimately I found Levi’s restrictions on the number of jeans you could buy in any one transaction overly burdensome. I also discovered that after adding in all the transportation and distribution costs—not to mention the discounts required by the Hong Kong buyers to make the deal work—the net margin wasn’t so attractive. It wasn’t meant to be. I kept moving.

In the hunt for a viable model, I encountered a wacky array of businesses and learned over time that there is someone out there making a buck off just about anything you can think of. At one party I encountered Daryl Patton, the chicken-foot king. That’s right, chicken feet. Steamed or braised, they are a delicacy in China. Daryl was head of Asian operations for the largest trader of poultry parts in the world. Clearly this was a niche business, but he explained that they were moving two hundred ocean containers per month, valued at over $500 million per year. We throw that shit away at home and these guys have built a $500 million business out of collecting it and shipping it to China!

I was curious as always and grilled him about the business over bottomless glasses of beer as a scantily clad Filipina girl twirled around a brass pole on the stage ahead. Most people in the club had something else on their mind, but I was focused on commerce.

“How do you control quality? How are prices determined? What markets do you buy from? How does the supply chain work?”

The obvious response would have been “It’s none of your business and I’m trying to enjoy the show,” but Daryl was generous and explained the ins and outs of chicken-foot trading. His employer had created a processing machine that fit on the end of a typical poultry production line. It collected all the feet and in a sanitary fashion removed the nails and other parts that people in China did not consider desirable. They then froze the feet, packed them up, loaded them into refrigerated ocean containers, and shipped them off to China. They had processing lines at most of the major poultry plants in America and also in Brazil, which Daryl explained is a big poultry market.

Convinced I understood the basics, I jumped right on it and through a hot tip learned that New Zealand had a sizable plant. Thanks to persistent calling, I discovered that they discarded their chicken feet as waste. Unfortunately, the business was not to be: The plant slaughtered only about one hundred thousand chickens per week, while a major