“Hello, what do we do?” Ivan Zhou says as he greets me outside his company’s headquarters.
This is a covid-19 challenge that we’re all clumsily navigating: how to replace the traditional business handshake. There isn’t yet a universal agreement so we settle for an awkward wave before sitting on pristine white bar stools at a large table, which have been dragged into the car park for our covid-safe meeting. It’s cold but luckily the sun is shining.
The 37-year-old chief executive of textile supplier Pegasus World Holding is immaculately dressed in a white shirt, a checked jacket with a handkerchief carefully placed in the pocket, and dark blue jeans.
He’s charming and affable and there’s a sparkle in his eye as he enthusiastically discusses his business.
It takes a nerve of steel to rip up your well-thought-out business plan and replace it with something completely new but last year Zhou knew he needed to take his company in a different direction.
When the UK went into its first lockdown last March, Zhou realised that only supplying textiles to the hospitality industry put his business in a precarious position.
He quickly added another division - cleaning and hygiene - providing products such as hand sanitisers, wipes and face masks for offices and retailers.
“We had to diversify,” Zhou says. “But most of our competitors in the textiles market probably didn’t diversify as quickly as we did so that put us in a very strong position.”
The initial strategy worked and sales at Pegasus increased by 40 per cent last year compared to the year before. Turnover reached about £6.1m, a figure he hopes to grow to £10m in the next 12 months. Zhou decided to completely reorganise the group into a number of new targeted business divisions: healthcare, cleaning, chefwear, aprons, textiles, homeware, and green earth - textiles made from recycled materials.
As well as restructuring the business, Zhou is also focused on expanding Pegasus’s real estate. He moved the company’s headquarters from York to a warehouse on the outskirts of Leeds in November last year.
The company currently employs 11 people and Zhou anticipates another 10 new jobs by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, he is also building a 65,000 sq ft warehouse near its headquarters at Logic Leeds, which is expected to create 15-20 jobs within the next two-to-three years.
The building, which will undergo a £1m fit-out when it’s completed, will house its new Curo Fulfilment operation, which will store goods for other businesses, pick and pack to order and deliver to customers.
The building will also include 6,000 sq ft of flexible office space for companies to use.
“Expanding our real estate is our key focus for the next few years,” says Zhou. “In Leeds we’ve already invested tens of millions of pounds so we’ll be looking to expand further south, maybe South Yorkshire, then the Midlands, and then the London area.”
The company partners with manufacturers across the globe, primarily in China but also Cambodia, Pakistan and India, to source its products and then works with UK distributors to supply the products into the UK market.
Zhou says he’s been lucky that covid hasn’t disrupted his supply chain over the last year, although much of that is down to his relentless dedication to working across multiple time zones so he can keep in constant contact with the group’s partners.
He puts his strong work ethic down to his upbringing. Born in Jiangsu, a coastal Chinese province north of Shanghai, Zhou, describes his childhood as ‘very positive’.
His father worked in real estate while his mother was - and is - a successful textile entrepreneur. She was the first woman to own her company in their home city when China started privatising its industry during the nineties. She went on to buy the factory where she started her career, retaining all the employees.
“She was very famous in China,” Zhou says. “I saw a lot of good stories about her so that inspired me a lot as I was growing up.
In 2000, at the age of 16, Zhou moved from China to the South East of England to complete his education. “I was very excited,” he recalls. “I arrived wearing a big raincoat and a suit and tie because all you see on TV about Great Britain is people wearing suits and I wanted to make an impression.”
He says he spoke ‘very little’ English initially but he worked hard and within two years he had completed his A-levels, and moved to Yorkshire to study mathematics with economics at York University.
His first job, while studying, was a part-time job at Phones 4u in York, where he discovered a natural ability for selling, becoming one of the company’s top sales people in the country.
“I really enjoyed the Phones 4u job because it gave me the confidence to speak to English people,” he says. “Last year I actually recruited my old boss as our operations director.”
After graduating from university, Zhou ran a number of BP petrol station franchises before setting up Pegasus in 2009. “I wanted to create something for myself,” he says.
His first contract was to supply staff shirts for the Eat sandwich chain with linen hire and laundry supplier London Linen. Over the years Pegasus expanded into a broader range of hospitality textiles.
In 2012, it created eco chef - jackets made from recycled plastic bottles - which it supplied to chefs working at the London Olympics.
“I didn’t know how to run a textile business at first, all I had was passion,” Zhou says.
The married father-of-two feels like he has now found his feet in the region’s business community. But it wasn’t easy.
“I grew up in China so the culture is very straightforward but here people would joke and I wouldn’t know it was a joke,” he says.
“Doing business in the UK is very difficult. First of all you have to gain the trust from people as a foreigner and also business here is very hierarchical.
“Gaining the trust of people in my mid-20s was very difficult.”
Title: Chief executive of Pegasus World Holding
Date of birth: December 18, 1983
Education: Friends School, Saffron Walden, Newport Free Grammar School, Essex; Mathematics with economics degree, York University
First job: Park time sales executive at Phones 4u in York
Favourite film: Forrest Gump
Favourite song: We are the Champions, by Queen
Favourite holiday destination: New York and Dubai
Last book read: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Most Proud of: Being shortlisted for the Young Entrepreneur of the Year category at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2013
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