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How Mei Xu Found Her Bliss

A Chinese émigrée living in Bethesda creates a home-decorating empire.

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On Rockville Pike near White Flint Mall, lunch-hour traffic generates a constant hum occasionally amplified by horn blasts from impatient drivers and the roar of nearby construction equipment. But up on the 11th floor of a sandstone-colored high-rise, tranquility reigns. Burning candles scent the Rockville office space with pumpkin, sandalwood and vanilla. Pillows and soft cashmere throws reminiscent of exotic destinations invite staff and visitors to relax.

In a window-lined office, a petite, dark-haired Chinese woman stands in front of a 5-foot-tall board, blissfully contemplating the array of photos, fabric swatches and materials from her latest travel adventure. From these fragments, Mei Xu, founder of the multimillion-dollar global enterprise Chesapeake Bay Candle, will create a new line for her latest venture, Blissliving Home.

At 43, Mei Xu has traveled a vast distance, not only geographically, but metaphorically, from where she began. She lives in Bethesda’s Edgemoor neighborhood with her husband, David Wang, 48, and their two sons, Alex, 10, and Michael, 9. But she grew up in Hangzhou, China, where she initially thought her life course was set. The daughter of a school principal and steel plant environmental engineer, she earned a coveted spot at a boarding school that trained diplomats, and afterward attended Beijing Foreign Studies University, working part-time as a project manager for The World Bank.

When she graduated, however, the Chinese government assigned her and other members of the Class of 1989 to menial jobs at farms and factories in response to the Tiananmen Square student protests. She spent a month tracking mineral deliveries in China’s port city of Dalian before quitting in frustration and extinguishing her hopes of ever joining the Chinese diplomatic community.

After marrying, she and Wang began the complicated process of immigrating to the United States, which Xu describes as “arduous to the point of hardship.” Her college education made her an asset to the country, she says, and leaving required a tremendous amount of patience and money and the circumvention of red tape.

Finally, in 1991, the couple moved to Annapolis, and Xu enrolled in the University of Maryland’s Master of Arts in Journalism program. She hoped to work for The World Bank in Washington, D.C., after graduation, but the global recession of the early 1990s resulted in a hiring freeze there. In a tight job market, she accepted a position with a medical company in New York City, and on weekends commuted to Maryland, where her husband worked in Greenbelt as a computer engineer for a Navy contractor.

In New York, Xu often strolled around Bloomingdale’s. She noticed the fashion floors were filled with chic designs by Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, but the floors selling housewares and linens were “very grandma and ornate.”

“I wondered why people who wanted to dress a certain way didn’t also want to live that way in their homes,” Xu says.

Figuring there must be a market for upscale home goods, she and Wang resigned their jobs in 1994 and started their own company. With neither a mortgage nor a child yet, “it was the perfect time to take a risk,” Xu says.

Armed with samples of silk flowers and candles sent by business contacts in China, the couple attended the September Charlotte Gift & Jewelry Show in Charlotte, N.C. When they walked away with more than $90,000 in retail orders—mainly for candles—they knew they’d hit upon something.

The unscented, decorative white candles they sold were popular holiday gifts that year. But Xu wanted a product with broader appeal. She consulted Peter French, president of French Color & Fragrance Company in Englewood, N.J., and learned to add dyes and scented oils to candle wax. At home, she experimented with pouring brightly colored, fragrant wax into Campbell’s soup cans. During the process, she neglected to add a chemical that creates a smooth satin finish.

“The candles had mottled colors and an amazing snowflake texture,” Xu says. That finish became the signature style of the couple’s company, Chesapeake Bay Candle.

By 1996, high-end retailers, including Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, were selling Chesapeake Bay Candle products. The following year, Xu created a candle collection for Target. The chain’s buyer forecast $3 million in sales that first year, but after two weeks she called Xu and said, “Mei, we’re in trouble.” It turned out that sales were outpacing the supply. Xu stepped up production and, by year’s end, sales at Target had surpassed $8 million.

Since then, Chesapeake Bay Candle has become a global leader in the industry, with $90 million in sales in 2009. The company currently owns two manufacturing operations in China and one in Vietnam, with more than 2,000 employees in all. A production and distribution facility is slated to open in Glen Burnie this year. “That operation will help us provide our customers [in the United States] with what they want, when they want it,” says Xu, who moved to Bethesda in 2009.

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