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August 26, 2011

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Ice cream man keeps it cool

For Turner Sparks, life has been about trying a variety of different things until finding the "right fit." The American from California has lived in Suzhou for about seven years. During that time he has worked as an English teacher, in marketing and promotions at Rayval Technologies, and as a part-time journalist. Now he is the chief executive officer of Mister Softee China, which sells ice cream snacks from a truck.

The 29-year-old moved to Suzhou after he graduated from the University of Miami in Florida in 2004. His plan was to stay about one year, but his fascination with the city made him change his mind.

"Suzhou has an old and traditional feel, but it also looks like a new city with great chances for young people," he says.

In 2002, Sparks came to China as part of an exchange program with his university. He visited Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing and it stirred his interest in the country.

"I hoped to understand the country better and learn some Chinese," he says. He picked Suzhou because he believed it would be easier to learn Chinese compared to cities such as Shanghai or Beijing, where there are more English speakers.

He spent one year teaching English to support himself while also taking Chinese classes. Now he speaks fluent Chinese. One year turned into two ... and seven years later, Sparks still calls Suzhou home.

"The people here are friendly, warm and interesting, and the city is a nice and quiet place where expatriates have a lot of things to do, such as enjoying concerts and playing soccer," he says.

During Chinese New Year, his Chinese friends invited him to their homes to celebrate. They told Sparks he should not be alone during the most important Chinese family gathering of the year.

"It's easy to get involved in the city."

His favorite dish is pork with sweet and sour sauce (tangcu paigu) and he often goes to a restaurant on Lindun Road especially for this dish.

"I like sweet cuisine," he says.

In 2005, one of his friends invited him to work at Rayval Technologies, a maker of mobile phones. Sparks accepted the offer, but quit after six months. As a journalism student, Sparks also wrote articles part-time for Suzhou Daily during that period. The newspaper opened a weekly English column dedicated to feature stories around town. It was published on Sunday and Sparks took the job. He interviewed managers at cafes and clubs and also did some translation work. The job didn't last long either. After eight months he started working for Mister Softee China.

In 2005, Spark's roommate, whose grandfather was one of the founders of Mister Softee, a US-based ice cream truck franchisor popular in the northeastern US, asked if he was interested in starting the business in China.

Sparks sensed it was a great opportunity and prepared to venture into the unknown.

He found a Chinese partner, the president of Rayval, who was more familiar with the local market.

The trio started the joint venture, which began with five employees and one truck. Sparks also says his journalism background helped.

"When I was a journalist, I tried to interact with different people, and not be shy. Doing business involves some of the same skills as doing interviews. You should know how to ask questions, know people before talking with them and understand their personalities."

The trio decided to start small and test the market, and then grow the business. The plan was one truck and one stop in the downtown area for one year.

"If we start small, problems are easy to fix, and we can gain experience about how to run the business and grow quickly," Sparks says.

Risks and obstacles are inevitable for entrepreneurs, and Sparks is no exception.

The biggest difficulty lies in cultural differences and understanding, which creates challenges, Sparks says.

Sparks met a lot of government officials to explain that Mister Softee is a safe business and selling ice cream on trucks is a good idea. Many officials didn't understand and had doubts. The process lasted months before the company finally received a license to operate.

During this period he found it was necessary to have dinner with suppliers and customers in his spare time. Accepting an invitation is a sign of respect, and a way to ink a deal and keep up a good relationship, he says.

It took a long time to get used to the business culture in China.

With 30 employees, Mister Softee China now has eight trucks in Suzhou and in neighboring Taicang and Wujiang. Next month, another truck will start serving cold treats in Changshu City.

The trucks start operating at 11am. They stop at business areas during the lunch hour, at parks and school areas in the afternoon, and shopping hot spots at night.

Mister Softee trucks feature eye-catching patterns and they play music to attract customers, he says.

Sparks still remembers the first day when the ice cream truck started running. It was like a party, and many people came to try the ice cream, he says.

Sparks also plays the drums, a hobby he started at the age of 12. He performs with expatriate bands if their regular drummers get sick or are on holiday. He even does some stand-up comedy routines, telling jokes in English at different clubs in Shanghai and Suzhou. He performs four or five times a month and each routine usually lasts 10 to 15 minutes.

He also enjoys Suzhou pingtan (story-telling accompanied by Suzhou music) very much.

The music is beautiful, he says, although he admits he doesn't understand what the stories are about since they are told in the local dialect.

Turner Sparks

Nationality: American

? Impression of Suzhou:
A small, tranquil place.

? Motto for life:Enjoy life.

? How to improveSuzhou:
Construct a subway.

?. Favorite place in Suzhou:
Pingjiang Road.

? Self-description:
Excited about the future, optimistic.


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