By Doniphan Blair

Francesco Indrio and his wife Becky started Alpi International ( in the early-’80s importing items from Europe.  When the Euro revolution started driving up costs, they switched to Taiwan and then, as it opened up, China.

“Over the last 20 years China has become well-organized with a lot of attention to detail,” Indrio said.  “Sometimes you drive on a freeway and, with the exception of the signs, you think you are in America.”

“The wage of a worker is about five times what it was ten years ago but still it works well—impressive if you think of Mexico or South America, where they get the same wages as ten years ago.”

The Indrios also made the fortuitous decision to buy a building on 34th Street.  That was in 1997 before the real estate market blew up—in fact, part of their street was still dirt.  Now it fronts the top of the lovely Mandela Parkway.

“It is nice to be close to the Port,” noted Becky Indrio, who is American; her husband is Italian. “Sometimes we have loose cargo but normally we ship full containers and they get delivered the ten blocks from the Port.”  They rarely actually go to the Port because any delay is always Customs.

“Because we are artistically minded, we love being in the middle of the West Oakland community and participating in events.  [In addition], Oakland has a more vital Chinatown than San Francisco, which seems to have become more touristic.”

The Indrios go to Asia twice a year, mainly for negotiations and to visit factories, mostly in the south of China.  With the Hong Kong trade show the biggest in the world, they are even now shipping products back to Europe.

They design their products here and do most of the proofing, color checking, etc. virtually via photos or Skype but every once in a while they use FedEx for a finished sample.

“We stopped selling to stores, due to the volatility of the store market, and switched to business-to-business promotional items since 2004, ” Francesco said.  “We own certain categories and copyrights so we stay with what we do best.”

“If someone has the instinct to sell outside [the country], China is the place.  If you exhibit in Hong Kong, you can sell to half the world.  China’s big consumer market is starting to grow.  But it has to be something highly valued or very automated.  Agricultural products—China is buying all our hay.”

“[Wine] is huge now in China,” noted Becky.  “When we used travel there I would ask for a glass of wine—very little to choose from. Now the restaurants, our suppliers all have wine. They want California wine.”

“All their wine used to be called ‘The Great Wall,'” Francesco interjected with a laugh. “Before they wanted me to bring them whiskey, now they want wine.”

“Things are pretty smooth around here.  Some [Problems] are related to security laws [post-9/11]. Sometimes we ship containers with other people, almost all those containers get inspected.  They take one fee and one week to X-ray, one fee and another week to inspect.”

This adds three to five percent to overhead, Indrio estimates.  The trick is doing full containers.   Their products, often promotions for events, are time sensitive and if a container “goes intensive,” i.e. full inspection, it can delay delivery up to two weeks.

Another problem is California’s charging of sales tax, even on goods transited to Mexico: this is sure to lose them some business.  And banking regulations:  if they send money to China, it takes six to eight hours (For the money to arrive) but if they get money from outside the country or even inside the country, it takes two to three days.

Nevertheless, these are federal statutes and as far as West Oakland goes, the Indrios love it.

Read more from the original publishers, West Oakland Works.