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The Rise of the Brothers Wei

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The Rise of the Brothers Wei

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From humble beginnings in Jhanghua, four brothers are forging an empire on the appetites of Chinese consumers. They are showing the world how a fine-tuned machine really works.

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The Rise of the Brothers Wei

By Jimmy Hsiung
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 487 )

They are seen as a tight-knit group of "supermen," four Taiwanese brothers from the Wei family who have built Ting Hsin International Group into one of the most influential companies in China.

Just how influential was evident on Nov. 5, when China's food market was hit with a bombshell. PepsiCo Inc., the world's second largest food and beverage business and maker of Pepsi-Cola, announced the sale of its bottling operations in China to Tingyi-Asahi Beverages Holding Co. for a 5 percent stake in the company. Tingyi-Asahi is the beverage business of Tingyi (Cayman Islands) Holding Corp., which in turn is a subsidiary of the Ting Hsin Group.

PepsiCo hoped to take advantage of Tingyi Holding's extensive food and beverage distribution network to stem its losses and narrow the gap with Coca-Cola Co. in the world's fastest-growing drinks market.

PepsiCo is not the only multinational eager to partner with Tingyi Holding, best known for its Master Kong brand of instant noodles, in order to gain traction in China's consumer market. Japanese enterprises, which often struggle in China, have also come calling.

In 1999, when Tingyi Holding faced a cash flow crisis, Japan-based Sanyo Foods Co. Ltd. extended a helping hand by buying a stake in the company, which it still holds today. Sanyo was followed by trading house Itochu Corporation and drinks maker Asahi Breweries, Ltd., which set up a soft drinks joint venture with Tingyi Holding in 2004 that is now known as Tingyi-Asahi Beverages Holding Co. The three Japanese companies all followed the same model in profiting from China's market: settling for returns on investments in partnerships with Tingyi and letting the Taiwanese-invested company handle the business's day-to-day operations and management.

The four Wei brothers got their start in China in 1992 with NT$410 million in their war chest. Today, the Ting Hsin Group has annual revenues of nearly NT$360 billion and annual earnings ranging from NT$24 billion to NT$30 billion.

What were the special traits that enabled the four brothers to unite in writing their unprecedented corporate legend?

According to Randy Lee, a former television news anchor who joined the Ting Hsin Group as vice president of public relations just last year, most people's abilities can be grouped under four distinct skill sets: sales, financial management, vision and creativity, and public relations. Most CEOs and entrepreneurs usually excel in only one of the areas, Lee says. "It's hard to find a leader who is good at all four."

"But the four Ting Hsin chairmen, because they are united and complement each other, successfully created a complete leadership set-up," Lee explains.

Dreamer-in-chief: Wei Ing-chou

The leader of the group, Wei Ing-chou, may seem imposing and domineering, more like a father than an older brother, but a part of him is a dreamer who dared early on to envision Ting Hsin as the biggest food group in Greater China.

Even more importantly, Wei's dreaming tends to be pragmatic. Instead of engaging in flights of fancy, he has dreams that are attainable. In 2007, after Master Kong brand instant noodles, ready-to-drink teas, and bottled water had become market share leaders in China, Wei was already pursuing his next dream, "to become a world-class conglomerate with a market value of US$50 billion."

Learning from Employees

Paul Liu, the former executive of IBM Taiwan's global business services, worked for Ting Hsin before going to IBM and helped the company install ERP (enterprise resource planning). In his role, he spent plenty of time with Wei.

"Wei Ing-chou actually is a boss who really loves learning from his employees," Liu recalls. "He's willing to listen to what you have to say, to understand what your former company did really well." After Master Kong entered its period of expansion, Wei recruited a number of top executives from prominent Taiwanese enterprises and multinational companies.

"The big boss had a list of companies and their people. He did not hire anybody who was not on the list," Liu remembers.

Feeling the pressure of living in a family with seven children, Wei decided not to continue his education after graduating from junior high school, instead joining with his father to run a small family factory processing castor oil.

When his father died, Wei was only 25 years old, but he had already developed an independent side and amassed plenty of real-world experience. He knew that for a business to succeed, it needed a strong group of talented people. Though Wei's educational background was limited, he has always respected academically gifted people, especially talent with expertise in a particular area.

Wei has been described as respectful of people but strict when it comes to business. A senior Ting Hsin executive says that in the early years of the company, Wei not only was a workaholic who put in 12 to 16 hours a day himself, but also asked the same of the managers around him.

Yet he still got people to follow him by winning their hearts through considerate acts. Tingyi (Cayman Islands) Holding Corp. chief of staff Ko Yuen-Tat recalls that when the Master Kong brand first entered China, Wei hired a lot of people from Linyi in Shandong province because he considered Shandong people to be the most loyal.   

At that time, the market rate for workers was 200 renminbi a month, but Tingyi paid its people 600 renminbi a month and arranged for cars to bring the parents of new employees to the company's Tianjin headquarters, thus building a sense of security and loyalty. These newcomers would later become the middle managers who fanned the Master Kong brand around China.

Wei's sense of fairness is also evident in dealings within his own family. To take responsibility for the difficulties encountered following the acquisition of Wei Chuan Foods Corp. years ago, Wei insisted on turning over the reins of the Ting Hsin Group to the second-oldest of the four brothers, Wei Ying-chiao, while he took control of Tingyi Holding.

The Careful Strategist: Wei Ying-chiao

Around 2000, Wei Ying-chiao began to gradually distance himself from the day-to-day operations of Tingyi Holding and even left the company's base in Tianjin for Shanghai, to strategize over the company's investment in retailer Tesco and prepare for the launch of a real estate business.

When asked about the acquisition of PepsiCo's 24 bottling plants in China, Wei Ying-chiao described the strategy as "allying with your lesser enemies to attack your main enemy," referring to Coca-Cola.

He stresses that while Tingyi's revenues in China are about 20 percent higher than Coca-Cola China's, the company has never let down its guard against the soft drink giant. When China 's Ministry of Commerce approves Tingyi's acquisition of the PepsiCo plants, expected next year, Tingyi's revenues will be about 70 percent higher than Coca-Cola's. The merger is also expected to generate beneficial synergies in the soft drink, fruit juice, and sports drink categories.

Wei Ing-chou may have felt comfortable handing over the leadership post of the Ting Hsin Group to Wei Ying-chiao because of his younger brother's meticulous nature and emphasis on the use of strategy. Though Wei Ying-chiao's background is in sales, he is anything but the stereotypical slick and sly salesman, instead coming off as passionate and genuine.

Respecting Hakka Family Values

Wei Ying-chiao says that although his strict father died while the four brothers were still relatively young, he still left them with an invaluable asset: the strong family values of the Hakka people. In the business's early days, the four brothers and their wives all lived together in Tianjin.

Wei Ying-chiao is primarily responsible for the Group's real estate development, which currently has a portfolio of eight development projects. One of them is an old factory in Sanchong in northern Taiwan, which Ting Hsin bought last year for NT$10.16 billion, a record for industrial park land. The group has commissioned the architectural team that designed Roppongi Hills in Tokyo to develop the property.

Wei Ying-chiao again added to Ting Hsin's property holdings when the Group's real estate arm won an auction for China Bills Finance Corp's headquarters in downtown Taipei in September 2011. It plans to combine the property with adjacent land zoned for urban renewal to build luxury residential units.

The first success in Ting Hsin's foray into Taiwan's property sector came in 2009, when it acquired a stake in Taipei Financial Center Corp., which owns the Taipei 101 skyscraper. It now holds a 37 percent stake in the property, making it the company's largest private shareholder.

At the time, many observers were not optimistic over Ting Hsin's prospects, saying it would be a long time before the property would be profitable. But Wei Ying-chiao's management changes and an influx of Chinese tourists helped pull the money-losing skyscraper into the black. In 2009 when Ting Hsin bought into the property, it recorded losses of NT$280 million, but this year it has chalked up profits of NT$450 million.

The Shrewd Financial Expert: Wei Yin-chun

Maybe it's because of his financial background, but the third brother in the Wei foursome, Wei Yin-chun, seems relatively steady if not staid compared with his siblings. The introverted brother, who now heads Wei Chuan, relies on a more methodical management style to deliver results.

When Ting Hsin acquired Wei Chuan in 1998, a serious cash flow shortage ensued. By the following year, it had dragged the Master Kong instant noodle cash machine to the brink of collapse.

Facing a potential bankruptcy crisis because of the cash flow problems, the four Wei brothers sought out the Campbell Soup Company, one of the biggest producers of canned food products in the U.S., to solve the problem, according to a former senior Ting Hsin executive. Campbell insisted on due diligence, but after studying the company's finances for months, decided against buying a piece of the Taiwan-invested group.

At that point, the brothers turned to one of Taiwan's biggest food processors, the Uni-President Group. Uni-President also requested the chance to study Tingyi Holding's books, but fearing another drawn-out process without any guarantee of success, the brothers declined. 

It was around that time that Sanyo Foods appeared. Expressing confidence in the Wei brothers' management of their business, the Japanese company paid US$143 million to buy a 33.14 percent stake in Tingyi Holding, helping the Ting Hsin Group survive.

Because of changes made under Wei Yin-chun's leadership, Wei Chuan subsequently thrived. In 2010, its net after-tax earnings per share was NT$3.23, not only setting a new company record but also surpassing the EPS of Taiwan's undisputed food king, Uni-President Enterprises Corp., for the first time.

The Social Facilitator: Wei Yin-heng

Following the philosophy of "division of labor but not division of family" espoused by the Wei brothers, the youngest of the four, Wei Yin-heng, heads Ting Hsin's logistics business and Convenience Store & Chain Restaurant Group.

Among Wei Yin-heng's accomplishments is propelling the Family Mart convenience store chain past 7-Eleven in China in recent years. Equally as impressive has been the performance of the Ting Hsin Group's Dicos Western Fast Food restaurant chain. By the end of 2011, Family Mart is expected to have 800 stores in China generating total annual revenues of 1.83 billion renminbi, and Dicos will have an estimated 1,212 stores and annual sales of 5.1 billion renminbi.

Because Wei Yin-heng has the most easygoing personality of the four brothers, laughter is bound to be heard at any gathering he attends. Also, because the three older brothers are relatively low-key and prefer to maintain low profiles, only Wei Yin-heng had good relations with the media in the Ting Hsin Group's early years. Many described him as the ideal spokesman for the company and the Wei family.

Many of Ting Hsin's businesses got their starts through Wei Yin-heng, helped by his extroverted personality, willingness to take chances, and especially his adept networking skills.

But one former senior Ting Hsin executive says bluntly that while Wei Yin-heng's ability to initiate new businesses is beyond reproach, he needs to grow more conservative. From earlier years when he represented the Wei family in taking its first footsteps in China, to later years when Ting Hsin first got involved with Wei Chuan, the results were not always the best, the executive says, and his older brothers had to step in to deal with the situations.

Other voices within the conglomerate insist, however, that Wei Yin-heng's harmonious nature was instrumental in securing much-needed political and commercial connections in China when Master Kong was just getting on its feet and softening the backlash of old Wei Chuan Foods employees when the Ting Hsin Group took it over.

Giving Back to Their Ancestral Home

The Wei family's roots trace back to Yongjing in Jhanghua County, where their ancestral home of more than 100 years is being renovated. In fact, to show their deep feelings for their hometown and give back to the community, the brothers are investing NT$6 billion in a "Ting Hsin Cultural Park" that will combine recreation and tourism. It will be built on 15 hectares of land bought by the Wei brothers over the years on the periphery of their old homestead.

Jhanghua County commissioner Cho Po-yuan says proudly that after the park's hotel, historical sites, memorial park and noodle museum are completed in succession beginning next year, this "Master Kong Homestead" will be a huge draw for tourists from China.

"Don't be misled by the Wei brothers being so successful and advanced in business. Actually, when it comes to their attitudes toward their family and hometown, they are more conservative than anybody else," Cho says.

Despite the wealth the family has accumulated in China, the Wei brothers still have a communal mindset. Even when it comes to personal income, each brother turns his gains over to a central depository, from which they each then draw a salary of NT$150,000 a month.

Other expenses, such as allowances for their children and clothing and decoration expenses are all governed by disbursement guidelines.

This is the Master Kong most people don't know – four brothers who set out from rural Taiwan to make their fortune in China but who still have preserved to this day their traditional Taiwanese heart and character.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier


Ting Hsin International Group Profile

Annual sales growth: 35%

Annual profit growth: 30%

No. of employees in China and Taiwan: More than 80,000

Family Mart stores*: 800

Dicos Western Fast Food restaurants*: 1,212 (In 382 cities around China)

Master Kong Chef's Table *: 168

* (Family Mart): Based on Asia's Top 1,000 Brand survey published by market research company TNS and Campaign magazine in July 2011

* (Dicos): Based on latest figures released by AC Nielsen in September 2011/12/22

* (Master Kong Chef's Table): Number of outlets is estimate of year-end total.

Keywords:

好友人數