Chairman and chief executive officer, Apex Digital
Born: 1952, in Jiangsu, China.
Education: Received BA and MBA.
Family: Married (wife's name unknown); children: one.
Career: Apex Digital, 1999–, chairman and chief executive officer.
Address: 2919 East Philadelphia Street, Ontario, California 91761; http://www.apexdigitalinc.com.
■ David Ji cofounded Apex Digital, a manufacturer of home entertainment equipment, in 1988 and served as its chairman and chief executive officer. Apex captured nearly 25 percent of the DVD market from giants such as Sony by using Chinese labor to make inexpensive DVD players. Although it was quick to market new technologies, the company also was faulted for quality control problems. Analysts described Ji, a notably modest and practical man, as a cutthroat businessman who enjoyed overnight success.
Ji was born and raised in the Jiangsu province of China and immigrated to the United States in 1987 as a graduate student. While pursuing a master's degree in business administration, Ji worked as a part-time house painter and sent money to his wife and daughter in Shanghai. Ji said he was so short of cash, "I wanted a VCR, but I couldn't afford to buy one" (Berestein, December 2, 2002).
In the early 1990s Ji worked at a Los Angeles scrap metal business with another Chinese immigrant, Ancle Hsu. The two began a friendship and formed their own scrap-metal business, United Delta, in 1992. United Delta expanded to sell vitamins and herbal food supplements, disposable gloves, car stereos, and boom boxes imported from China. Mastery of the Chinese language and a deep understanding of Chinese business practices helped Ji to achieve business success. Newfound prosperity allowed Ji to bring his wife and child to the United States in 1994.
In late 1999 Ji and Hsu decided to enter the DVD market. They established Apex Digital as a division of United Delta and hired Chinese manufacturers to build DVD players to Apex specifications with American-produced microchips. The company struck success in February 2000 when the retailer Circuit City bought five thousand of its players and sold them almost immediately. Apex players cost approximately $100 less than similar devices and, perhaps just as important, were the only DVD players that could also play MP3 music discs. A manufacturing error that Ji claimed took him by surprise allowed users to copy DVDs to videotape and to override coding that prevented DVDs of films from being viewed in countries where they had not been officially released. Apex's promise of "more for your money" took on a new dimension and excited technology-savvy consumers who quickly spread the word via the Internet. Sales of Apex DVD players soared.
Ji and Hsu persuaded Wal-Mart, Kmart, Best Buy, and other discount retailers to stock Apex products. Apex saw its revenues jump from $120 million in 2000 to more than $500 million in 2001. Profit margins, however, remained slim, and little money was spent on advertising. Apex found success through aggressive pricing, desirable features, and a product design capable of being realized in three to six months instead of the industry standard two years.
Apex contracted its products from several Chinese manufacturers but in 2001 bought 60 percent of Zhenjiang Jiangkui Electronic Group, a state-owned enterprise near Shanghai. The deal gave Apex control of its own manufacturing for the first time, in-house design capability, and more than 100 Chinese engineers to enhance Apex's 60-person American staff. A joint venture begun in 2002 with the Chinese television manufacturer Changdong Electric allowed Apex to enter the television market. Analysts, however, remained skeptical about whether Ji was an experienced enough manager to compete with large electronics manufacturers such as Sony and Hitachi. Ji argued that the Japanese companies had lost touch with U.S. consumers. "We are the only real American brand," he insisted (Lyons, March 18, 2002).
Despite the success of the company that he founded, Ji did not embrace the trappings of the executive life. A slight man, Ji customarily accompanied handshakes with a subtle bow in the Asian tradition. A Cartier watch, a gift from Hsu, remained in its box while Ji wore the same battered watch that had adorned his wrist for at least a decade. In 2002 a shocked employee discovered the chairman scrubbing the men's room at Apex headquarters. Ji said that he made products for the average American, and he appeared intent on maintaining his or dinariness.
Arensman, Russ, "Watch Out Sony," Electronic Business , May 1, 2002, http://www.reed-electronics.com/eb-mag/article/CA211743?pubdate=5%2F1%2F2002 .
Berestein, Leslie, "David Ji and Ancle Hsu," Time South Pacific , December 2, 2002, p. 68.
Lyons, Daniel, "Smart and Smarter," Forbes , March 18, 2002, p. 40–42.
Mack, Rebecca, "Apex Digital Selects ESS Technology's DVD Chip for Microsoft's Windows Media Audio Application," PR Newswire, November 29, 2001.
—Caryn E. Neumann