Amid all the market research consultancies promising insights into the elusive Chinese consumer, Cathy Huang's company occupies an unusual niche. A designer by training, Ms. Huang helps Western companies retool their products for the Chinese market, or dream up new ones.
For U.S. home fixtures brand Moen, Shanghai-based China Bridge designed a bathroom unit with a deep sink after research showed that China's consumers hand-wash more laundry than Westerners. Chinese buyers also want to maximize space, so the unit's bottom drawer doubles as a kids' stepstool.
Ms. Huang said standard market research falls flat because "no customer can tell you the future." Pairing research with design powers innovation, she says.
Founded nine years ago, China Bridge now has about 30 employees and a client list ranging from Johnson & Johnson to BMW.
Ms. Huang, 35, has taken an unusual life path. She failed two years of primary school, skipping the rote-learning homework that is a focus of Chinese schooling so she could build kites and boats. Her first job was at China's Haier, where she designed appliances and logged 25 patents.
After being hired by GE/Fitch's joint venture, she was named its marketing director for China before age 30. Ms. Huang and her husband Rudy Wimmer, China Bridge's managing director, own three Belgian beer bars called Kaiba. The businesses started as a side project but now have about as many employees as China Bridge.
Ms. Huang has also lent her expertise to the Library Project, which has donated more than 750 libraries to Chinese schoolchildren.
Founder Tom Stader said Ms. Huang always gives 100%. "I went in to ask her to design a box" for collecting donated books, he said. "And I came away with a massive six-month process to reimagine our entire book-donation program."