Georgia's hottest export: Chopsticks!

@CNNMoney December 6, 2011: 10:38 AM ET
Jae Lee, a U.S. citizen originally from South Korea, is the entrepreneur behind Georgia Chopsticks, which manufactures chopsticks and exports them to China.

Jae Lee, a U.S. citizen originally from South Korea, is the entrepreneur behind Georgia Chopsticks, which manufactures chopsticks and exports them to China.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Just one word: Chopsticks.

Inspired by his Asian background, an American entrepreneur is turning central Georgia into a fast-growing, job-creating region that makes four million sets of the utensils each week.

Jae Lee, a U.S. citizen originally from South Korea, says his company is America's only chopsticks manufacturer and exports them to China and Japan.

Lee started Georgia Chopsticks earlier this year in a town called Americus, population 17,000. He said that his 102 employees can't keep up with demand from hungry Asians. As a result, he has plans to expand dramatically, hiring an additional 800 workers next year.

"Apparently, there's a huge demand worldwide for chopsticks," said Americus Mayor Barry Blount, noting that the disposable nature of the products keeps the demand strong. "You and I use a fork and put it in the dishwasher, but I guess if you use chopsticks one time, you dispose of them."

Lee's success stands in stark contrast to the general perception that U.S. factories have fallen silent, while American stores are glutted with products made in China

But China and Japan simply don't have enough wood to produce their own chopsticks, while Georgia's does. Lee uses recycled materials from area sawmills as well as the poplar and sweet gum trees that are ideal for making chopsticks and plentiful in the region.

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"China relies very heavily on imported logs, lumber and other wood products," said Russ Taylor, president of the International Wood Markets Group in Vancouver, British Columbia. "So the chopsticks factory fits rather well into that model."

Lee said that none of his chopsticks are purchased or used domestically; 100% of what he manufactures is exported.

The demand is so strong that Lee plans to add five more factories, and may expand beyond Georgia. Lee said he's considering other states that are rich in lumber, such as neighboring Florida or Alabama. Mississippi, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan and Oregon are also possibilities.

Lee also plans to branch into similar wooden products that he'll produce for export.

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"We'll go from chopsticks to tongue depressors and toothpicks," he said. "We'll export it all to China."

Lee emigrated from his hometown of Seoul to the U.S. in 1986, working in Atlanta as a business consultant and scrap metal exporter. His experience in exporting to Asian countries came in handy when he founded the chopsticks manufacturer earlier this year, in April.

Lee decided to start the business when he heard that China has a moratorium on domestic tree cutting to protect its dwindling lumber resources. That moratorium has been in place since 1997, according to Taylor, forcing China to rely on its timber-rich neighbor Russia. But Russia has ramped up its timber export tax from 5% to 25%, forcing China to look elsewhere.

Lee said that no bank would lend to him in the beginning, so he raised his first $1 million through the help of family members. After that, his business partner David Hughes helped him raise another $1 million.

He settled in Americus partly because of the cheap real estate, but mostly because of its access to raw materials.

They set up shop in an old building owned by Sumter County, which provided them with a discounted lease, said Lee. The building was once used as a box factory, but had been abandoned for about 80 years until they installed the chopstick making machines.

Workers are initially hired at minimum wage, said Lee. They can get promoted after a 90-day trial period to jobs paying nine or ten dollars per hour, depending on their skill level, he said.

Blount said the company has had a significant impact on the job market in an area where the unemployment rate is as high as 12%.

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"While we would like higher paying jobs, jobs in that range do fill a void in our community," said Blount. "Even though it may be a low-wage job, any job right now is better than no job. Hopefully over time, as production increases and things get better, those folks will have the capacity to earn more."

The rapid expansion of Georgia Chopsticks, and its role as an American exporter to China, reflects a wider trend. U.S. manufacturing appears to be strengthening, while it looks like China's economy, and its manufacturing sector, have hit a speed bump.

The slowdown of the Chinese economy has created some concerns that it could eventually affect the U.S., dampening the demand for American products.

But for now, the demand for chopsticks seems insatiable. To top of page

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