WHEN Siegfried Lee Siu-fung was asked to talk about his success story, he was far from being overjoyed. Instead, he was quiet for a few seconds, recalling the bitter struggles he had at the outset of his career. For Mr Lee, success did not come easy - and that is exactly why he deserves it. He is the founder and chairman of Siu-Fung Ceramics Holdings, a major supplier of ceramic equipment to the mainland and international markets. He entered the ceramics business in 1983, distributing German-made ceramic production rollers, a key component of the roller kiln used in ceramic production in China and Hong Kong. By the late 1980s, the Lee Siu Fung Group had established itself as a major supplier of ceramic rollers in China and at the same time had acquired exclusive rights to distribute German-made ceramic production equipment in the region. He was an entrepreneur with a highly developed ability to spot gaps in the market. Noting that very few manufacturers in the world were able to supply a complete production line for the ceramic industry, and taking advantage of the open-door policy in China, Mr Lee started selling automatic production lines to ceramics manufacturers in China in 1991. Siu-Fung's first project, in Foshan, Guangdong province, soon earned it a reputation as a reliable supplier offering full after-sales service including technical seminars. Since late 1991, Mr Lee has vertically integrated the manufacturing of ceramic products by setting up joint ventures in China, four of which have started production and 26 of which are being formed. These joint-venture companies are designed to produce a full range of ceramic products including tiles, sanitary and table-ware. But Mr Lee was somebody with the desire to make constant improvements. He decided he had to penetrate the international market further. This year, he acquired Dubois & Co, a German ceramic machinery manufacturer with more than 40 years of European experience, to give him an international launch-pad for his products and engineering support. Company sales have increased from $101.9 million to $1 billion over the past three years. In June, Mr Lee was appointed the only honorary member of the China Ceramic Industrial Association in recognition of his contribution to the ceramics industry in China. Siu-Fung was listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange in October. Mr Lee, 35, said hard work had brought him success. ''You reap about what you sow. I work very hard. I used to work until one o'clock in the morning every day, although now I finish at about eight or nine o'clock,'' he said. His success was not immediate, but came only after hard and bitter struggles. ''Life was so difficult that I don't even know how to describe it.'' He said key factors were being reliable and honest with business partners. ''And more pains, more gains.'' Last month, the company said it had 28 turnkey contracts in hand with a total value of about US$200 million. It was also involved in the setting up of 31 joint-venture ceramics plants in Beijing, Inner Mongolia, and nine Chinese provinces. The company reported significant profit growth for the year to March 31, which it attributed mainly to the expansion of business from the supply of machinery and equipment to the sale of automatic production lines on a turnkey basis. Although turnkey projects remain Siu-Fung's core business, the company reported a 257.6 per cent increase in sales of machinery and equipment.