Before Mu Zhang owned her small business Encore Awards and Marking/Jensen Rubber Stamps, she worked in corporate America in operations. After her day job, Zhang would spend her evenings on an import business– a bilingual immigrant from Nanjing, China, she imported manufactured goods from China into America. “In China, our daytime is their evening time,” Zhang explained. “Basically, I worked two jobs without impacting my regular job.”
Her on-the-side company was Great Wall Sourcing. This effort preceded her current proprietary venture. “I just want to own my own business. To me, it’s my American Dream. And I just think this country is full of opportunity if you work hard, if you keep learning, if you keep talking to smart people,” Zhang said. “You have a chance to at least give a try.”
While corporate life had its perks– fixed vacation, stock shares, steadier income– it still frustrated Zhang. “Because the company’s so big, whatever your little voice is a lot of times it’s diminished. Even if everybody around you is thinking that’s a good idea, in order to push that big monster takes too much time,” Zhang said. “You want to see yourself. What if I have the chance? How about I do it this way? I would treat the employee this way; I would do the marketing plan this way; I would do operations this way.”
Zhang began to search for a company over the course of eight months, and in 2009 she bought Encore. “There’s another side of the story to that because I have an engineer thermophysics degree. And the other side of me always loved art,” Zhang said. “So this type of awards, design, this whole idea– [I could] feel the other side of me.” Zhang wanted an industry that matched manufacturing with creative products that interest her. Furthermore, she noted the unique accounts Encore had– the Foreign Press Association, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Academy of Country Music– that sweetened the deal. She didn’t buy it immediately though. “I didn’t move much earlier because I was waiting for my son to graduate from high school, so I didn’t want to buy anything,” Zhang noted, “because I know to have your own business you have to be so dedicated. You have to be more than 100 percent effort. So I was also waiting for the right time.”
After assuming ownership, Zhang moved Encore from its original location in Pasadena to Long Beach. “Our lease was up in Pasadena. So we had a choice: either we were going to renew that or make a move,” Zhang said. She saw potential in Long Beach. “I think Long Beach is a great city and has lots of opportunities here,” she said.
Encore Awards was founded in 1984 and along the way acquired fellow small businesses Encore Trophy, Al’s Rubber Stamp and Jensen Rubber Stamp. The company has multiple focuses; it produces custom awards, rubber stamps, promotional products, and corporate and personalized gifts.
Zhang came to America in the 1980s, though she never knew Encore then. She was part of a joint Sino-American program to obtain an MBA, and she only planned to stay for a year. However, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 worried Zhang and made her re-evaluate, and she stayed like many other Chinese students with newfound, US-conferred citizenship, rather than just a student visa. With the program severed and its credits lost, Zhang switched her studies to international business and restarted her higher education. “I got a full scholarship for my master’s degree in international business, so I decided to come here to explore a different side of the world,” Zhang said. “One side of me was always adventurous, trying something new. New, unknown, challenge– that’s always very interesting to me.”
Zhang had her fair share of culture shock. The English she learned in China was British, for one, and imperfect at that. “Howdy?” Zhang said. “I don’t even know what that means.” Other speakers with accented English were especially hard to understand. Seeing women talk about men openly was a significant change from China’s relatively closed nature. “American kids were pretty innocent. That’s also my impression,” Zhang noted. “Turmoil in life, whether it’s your own personal life or the whole society, pushes you to mature faster.”
Zhang sees the future of Encore as in the media-driven online frontier but noted that the customer ultimately remains the most important aspect to her. “I always love to interact with the customer. That’s my core part. I want to see the customer’s reaction, I want to see customers raving about us,” Zhang said. “I like to see it through, to gain that, to earn that. So that part I have not changed.”
Encore Awards is located at 1344 Newport Ave. and open from 10am to 6pm from Monday through Friday. Visit encoreawards.com .
[Disclosure: The writer of this article is the son of Mu Zhang.]