Kevin Wu + Toshio Oh
Building A New Image for Hog Farming
Few people know that famous fashion designer Jason Wu has a brother who brings his creative streak to a much less glamorous industry – hog farming. Together with creative marketer Toshio Oh, Kevin Wu turned the company's meat processing facility into a place where visitors can experience the new values of Taiwan's agricultural business community.
Building A New Image for Hog FarmingBy Hsiang-yi Chang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 595 )
We are traveling in rural Yunlin County, which former County Magistrate Shu Chih-fen dubbed Taiwan's "farming capital." Non-descript, corrugated factory sheds line both sides of provincial road No. 1, interspersed with giant advertisements for residential housing projects.
The scenery changes completely, however, as we enter the Fengtien Industrial Park in Dapi Township. In front of us emerges 1.6-hectare park area featuring buildings designed in light gray, charcoal and natural wood amid lush, landscaped greenery.
The ambience is reminiscent of Taipei's Huashan 1914, a Japanese-era wine factory that was restored and made into a creative park, and even brings to mind the Kanazawa Citizen's Art Center in Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture. Few would realize from its appearance that this is actually the site of a meat processing facility.
Nice Garden, founded by the Wu brothers' father Hank Wu, has operated the meat processing plant for the past three decades. The newly added creative park complex, called Nextland, introduces visitors to the farm-to-table concept as well as humane livestock breeding practices.
Nextland, which is currently running on a trial basis and will formally open to the public on July 1, turns the image of Taiwan's livestock and meat processing industry on its head. It has even attracted international attention.
Late last year, a research team from Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences decided after a visit to Nextland to include the theme park in an annual teaching project on agricultural transformation in Asia. Meanwhile, several groups, including livestock breeders and researchers from Japan, the Netherlands and the United States, have toured the facility.
Most visitors are quite curious to hear how a modern, world-rank agricultural theme park could spring up in Yunlin, a notoriously "poor" county that has had trouble stemming the exodus of its working-age population and industry.
Passion for Rural Life
Nextland's story actually began three years ago when two young men in their thirties, both born and raised in the countryside but with different professional backgrounds, struck up a conversation during a meeting in Taipei.
One was Kevin Wu, COO of Nice Garden Industrial, the family business founded by his father Hank.
Wu's younger brother, international fashion designer Jason Wu, is widely known in Taiwan. But few people are aware that the Wu brothers' father hails from Yunlin County. Nice Garden CEO Hank Wu, a self-made entrepreneur, started out as a trader of animal nutrients. Today, his company has grown into a horizontally and vertically integrated group centering on the entire livestock production chain from hog breeding to slaughtering and retailing.
Kevin Wu not only has a rich father and a famous brother, he also boasts a double major in economics and international relations from Johns Hopkins University in the United States and an MBA from Waseda University in Japan. Many people envy him for the entrepreneurial talent that apparently runs in the family. Yet Kevin Wu shoulders a heavy burden.
"To be honest, we are actually just a mid-sized Taiwanese company that keeps transforming itself to move up the value chain," he says.
On the one hand, Kevin Wu is preparing to take the reins of the family business in the future. He has worked to transform the company from an agent for foreign farming and aquaculture nutrient and drug brands into a manufacturer of animal nutritional products. The group has expanded into the meat processing business and branched out into the restaurant and tourism industry.
On the other hand, Kevin Wu says his interests have always been diametrically different from those of his celebrity brother. While Jason loves the big city, Kevin prefers the countryside. In recent years, he has traveled to more than 20 countries around the globe to learn more about the livestock and farming industries there and their role in the food supply chain. He also developed his own ideas about the opportunities and challenges faced by agricultural development and the food industry chain in Taiwan.
Over the past five years, Kevin Wu has toured animal feed mills, hog farms and slaughterhouses around Taiwan to better understand the farm to table supply chain. He has also worked as a server in the company's own WONMI Restaurant.
Wu believes that the desperate situation of Taiwan's agricultural sector and the problem of recurring food scares and scandals can only be solved once and for all if consumer attitudes and industry practices change.
If food manufacturers were to spend more money on producing food that has been strictly traced from the source, consumers would attach more importance to where the things they ingest come from. As a result, they would be ready to pay higher prices for products with guaranteed quality. This approach would create a virtuous cycle that would be much more efficient than the remedial measures that are taken each time, but only after "something has happened."
"My father and I have these ideals but does not know how to communicate them to the mass consumer," says Wu.
Therefore, he enlisted the help of the second protagonist in our story, Toshio Oh, creative director and CEO of OH Advertising Creative (OHAC). Oh assumed a leading role in the overall planning of Nextland, including the architectural design, the awarding of contracts, branding and software.
Oh is a classic example of a self-made marketing star who started empty-handed as a part-time assistant copywriter. He had the creative idea of letting famous Japanese cartoon characters "endorse" instant coffee. Although Oh does not speak Japanese fluently, he still managed to become creative director at two subsidiaries of Japan's largest advertising agency Dentsu.
Five years ago, Oh founded his own company, OHAC. Originally he only participated in a pitch for the visual design of Nice Garden Industrial's corporate logo. That's how he met Kevin Wu. Like Wu, Oh has a passion for farming and the soil. Once the two got talking about Taiwan's agricultural industry, they couldn't stop. In the course of their conversations, an opportunity for cooperation emerged.
"We actually have another point in common, namely that neither of us ever believed that the Taiwanese can't compete in the world," Oh points out.
Globetrotter Wu is well aware that Taiwan's agricultural technology and talent hold a leading position in Asia. "It's only that these people have been squashed by an industry environment that is structurally out of balance because cost-cutting has been taken to the extreme," posits Wu.
Oh draws his confidence from his own experience in the creative industry. "I have worked alongside many advertising gurus for many years and am well aware that I am by no means the most talented person here in Taiwan. But when I worked in Japan, I never lost out against the Japanese. When making a pitch, I have also never lost against an American. I think that the biggest problem many creative people in Taiwan have is that they spend all their time wanting to be like people from other countries. But if you think like this you'll have already lost before you have even made your pitch," Oh says.
Since they had matching ideals and similar esthetic concepts, the duo decided to join hands to create a venue in rural Yunlin County to instill new values in Taiwan's agriculture.
Operations at the state-of-art meat processing plant at Nextland are worlds apart from the bloody, unsavory image of traditional slaughterhouses and meat packing plants.
In a high-tech environment, professional meat processing technicians wearing full-body protective clothing expertly cut the pig halves into pieces using electric saws and other machinery. Temperatures and moisture levels inside the factory building are strictly controlled. Thanks to its glass ceiling, the processing plant is brightly lit by daylight, enabling workers and visitors alike to see everything clearly.
On the second floor, visitors can gain valuable insights into what it takes to bring a piece of pork to your plate.
In a museum-like exhibition space, large displays and illustrations explain how a pig half is divided into pork cuts for different purposes such as roasting, barbecuing, braising and simmering. Visitors also learn about the many pig breeds around the world as well as the production of feedstuffs and nutrients.
Kevin Wu is proud of what he has achieved with Nextland. "In our family we were taught not to brag, but I particularly treasure that our efforts over the past three years have paid off, in that Yunlin now has an agriculture-themed creative park that does not pale in comparison to any other such place in the world," Wu says.
Will he be able to recoup the investment of more than NT$300 million, not to speak of turning a profit? Will Nextland, once it begins normal operations, be able to truly bring about a shift in attitudes towards Taiwan's farming and livestock industries? Can mutual exchanges between agriculture and the creative industry be achieved? We can only wait and see. Much will depend on how Nextland fares once it is fully operational.
However, the efforts of these two young Taiwanese have at the very least put rural Yunlin on the map, attracting attention to a region that has not seen much investment aside from the Formosa Plastic Group's sixth naphtha cracker complex. "Taiwanese talent must take real action on this land and speak to the world. Then they will naturally discover that we have actually never lost before," Oh says.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz