The Colgate Scene
September 2003

On top of the hill
Interest in yoga leads to business success

Chase Bossart '92 and Alec Sirkin '78 met by chance at an acupuncturist's office in Beijing. Bossart and his brother have started a company advising American businesses on how to break into the Chinese market. [Photo courtesy Alec Sirkin]

On a chilly day in early March, under the gray polluted Beijing skyline, I turned off a main boulevard onto a side street, then through a large wooden door into a spacious courtyard to find the office of Dr. Wang Juyang, noted acupuncture specialist. The waiting room was filled with Chinese faces as I awaited my appointment.

I had always been curious about the procedure, and the previous weekend I had met one of Wang's American trainees at a party. I had told him about my chronic back problems and he suggested a visit to the acupuncturist who, he said, often can be helpful when other treatments fail.

I was nervous at the prospect of needles being stuck into my body, as the doctor carefully examined my muscle groups and nerve system through a series of soft touches and squeezes. Then I was ready -- he waved me to a padded table, separated by curtains from the other patients. As he opened the first needle package, I asked anxiously, "so, how much is this going to hurt?"

Before the doctor could answer, a distinctly American voice from behind the adjoining curtain piped up, "Pal, you're gonna feel pain like you've never experienced -- get used to it," followed by a hearty laugh. That put me at ease, actually, knowing that I wasn't the only crazy American lying on a Beijing operating table about to get jabbed with needles in the interest of good health.

I was immediately intrigued, and asked the fellow, whom I could not see, where he was from. Seattle area, he said. He'd come to learn Chinese eight years ago after college and had never left. As a journalist, I ask a lot of annoying questions, especially when I encounter Americans in the far-flung places I find myself these days as the Asia producer for CBS News.

"Where'd you go to college?" I asked. "Oh, a little place in upstate New York," he said. "I doubt you've heard of it." Chances are I had, being quite familiar with the schools up there, so I followed up and asked exactly which small college he'd attended. "Colgate," he said. I paused a couple of seconds. "I've heard of it," I said. "I went there."

What were the chances of that?

Chase Bossart '92 was off to India the next day for a month-long yoga retreat, but he promised to get in touch with me when he returned. A couple of months later I was in Bejing again, Bossart was back, and we sat down to dinner at a Chinese hot pot restaurant. The waitress brought two pots of broth -- one spicy, one mild -- and placed them in the middle of the table on top of a gas flame. A few minutes later she returned with a huge array of dishes we were to cook in the boiling broth -- rolled beef, pickled turnips, bean sprouts, two kinds of bamboo, spinach, frozen tofu, cabbage leaves, strips of asparagus. We feasted, and Chase told me his story -- it turned out to be one of the more unusual ones I've heard from a Colgate grad.

Let's get rich
He'd been a philosophy major at Colgate and went on a study group to India in his senior year. Bossart was immediately taken by India and the philosophy of yoga, which he said is much more a mental discipline than a physical one.

"It's a highly developed philosophy," he said. "It's about the mind, concentration, being present and focused so you react correctly in different situations."

After graduating from Colgate, he decided to go for a doctorate in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. One of his favorite professors was a specialist in Chinese religion, and Chase decided that to fully appreciate the subject, he needed to understand Mandarin, the language commonly spoken in northern China. So off he went, enrolling in an intensive, yearlong program to learn Mandarin at Beijing University.

"Mandarin is not a language you just pick up, " he said. "It's very, very difficult. I went to classes four hours a day, had a tutor for two hours and studied four more hours every day for a year -- I worked my ass off."

It shows -- I could see by the ease and confidence with which Bossart chatted up the waitress in the restaurant that his Mandarin is quite fluent.

Hearing a guy tell me he was a philosophy major, then going for a doctorate in religious studies, then off to China to study Mandarin, I had to ask the question: "Didn't your father [a Seattle stockbroker] ever say to you, `Listen son, all this yoga stuff is nice, but I didn't spend 100 grand to send you to Colgate for that?'"

Bossart laughed. "We've always been a tight family," he said, and his supportive parents were confident he'd manage to make a living.

In fact, partway through his first year in China, Bossart's brother Russell came over also to study Chinese, and the two of them decided, "Hey, we're in China. Let's get rich -- quick." They hadn't figured out how, but they did figure it was possible.

After conferring with their parents, the Bossart brothers decided to start advising American business-people on how to break into the Chinese market. Putting their money together as a start-up fund in November 1996, they opened a bank account and declared themselves the Bossart Company.

"We just made it up as we went along," Bossart said.

Through his father, he met a businessman in Seattle who marketed wastewater treatment equipment and had been successful in several countries, but not China. The Bossart brothers brazenly approached him and said they could help him crack the market. The brothers hired a Chinese assistant and proceeded to comb the local business landscape for companies in need of environmental cleanup.

No one signed up.

"We were totally unsuccessful," Bossart said, "but he showed us that water products were in demand. We learned from that."

So they persevered, and next went to a trade fair in China where they met with a Spanish company called Astral, a leading manufacturer of swimming pool equipment. The company gave them a retainer, and this time, after months of navigating bureaucratic red tape and working their way to the right people, they got contracts for the pool equipment and had their first moneymaking venture. Still, the first two years were tough, he said.

"We were looking up from a dark hole -- we had a lot of incentive to learn fast," he said.

The company has evolved into a market entry consultant, handling all details for its industrial clients --finding buyers, arranging sales and setting up distribution networks for manufacturers based outside of China.

A family affair
Today, the Bossart Company occupies spacious modern offices in a central Beijing high rise, with 20 employees, mostly Chinese. Bossart is in the process of hiring experienced new managers to run the business, and expects to triple revenues in the next 18 months. With capable managers in place to run it, Bossart can continue to fly to India several times a year for a month at a time, to pursue his true passion -- the study of yoga.

I asked about the seeming irony of a spiritual practitioner managing to build and run a successful business in a country known as a tough place for foreigners to operate, because so much depends not on what you know but on whom. The Chinese even have a term for it -- guanxi (pronounced "gwan-she").

So how does this yogi run a hard-nosed business?

"If you're asking me that question, it means you don't understand yoga," Bossart said. "Yoga is not about flexibility of body, but rather, by focusing the mind and concentrating, you can apply it to anything."

As we threw the remaining meat and vegetables into the spicy hot pot broth, Bossart explained more of the business, throwing around terms like "management restructuring" and "market entry consultations," sounding far more like an M.B.A. student than a philosophy major. I asked if he had ever taken a business course. He slapped his hand down to his rear end, whipped it back up and said with a big laugh, "Seat of the pants. That's the way we did it."

Bossart said he's spent less than two weeks of the past four years in the United States, dedicating himself instead to his business and his yoga retreats. Clearly, though, he's fulfilled the faith his parents had in him all along. In fact, his parents are so proud of their sons that five years ago they moved to Beijing for up to nine months a year to live near them. Bossart's father, Newell, is president of the company and his mother, Meryl, who learned accounting after moving to China, is chief financial officer.

"Working with your family is outrageously difficult," said Bossart. "Is he my boss or my dad? Is she the accountant or is she my mother? But it's also extremely rewarding to share it all with them."

His mother thinks so, too, but she understands the pitfalls. "My boys are just great," Meryl Bossart said on a rare quiet afternoon in the office, adding: "Their real accomplishment is putting up with their father."

Eight years after arriving in China, Bossart certainly didn't get rich quick. But after starting on a whim and with virtually no experience, he's built a thriving consulting business in a rough-and-tumble environment.

"If I knew how hard it was going to be, I never would have done it," he said. "But we're on top of the hill now."

Alec Sirkin '78 is Asia producer for CBS News.
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