Mengniu – game changer of the Chinese dairy industry

China’s two dairy giants, Mengniu and Yili, are located in the self-styled Dairy Capital of China: Huhhot. What is their relation and the nature of their competition in the Chinese cultural context?

A blog needs to renew regularly. Although most of my posts introduce companies, after the post on COFCO I have never written another one featuring a single company. I will make up for that, starting with this post about one of China’s top dairy companies. This post is derived from a case study in one of my academic writings: Chinese Corporate Identity. Readers who are triggered to get a deeper understanding, please read that chapter, or better: the entire book.

Inner Mongolia – a bit Chinese and a bit Mongolian

Inner Mongolia is an administrative region of northern China of the same level as a province, but with a larger degree of political autonomy.

The greater part of Inner Mongolia is a plateau with elevations of about 1000 metres. The Yellow River flows north from Ningxia and forms a loop that encloses the Ordos Desert. Grasslands predominate on the plateau, where they sustain large numbers of grazing animals such as cows, sheep, goats, camels, and horses. Milk from all those animals has been part of the traditional diet of the Mongols. Apart from drinking the fresh product, milk is processed into a number of cheese and yoghurt like products. Horse milk is even fermented into an alcoholic beverage.

The population of Inner Mongolia is approximately 25 million, up from only 6.1 million in 1953. The rapid population growth since the 1950s is a result of better nutrition, increased health care services, and a substantial migration into the region of Han Chinese. More than 80% of the current population is Han. Mongols comprise the largest minority group in Inner Mongolia, and their presence is acknowledged by the government’s designation of Inner Mongolia as an autonomous region.

From orphan to entrepreneur

Mr Niu Gensheng (1956), Mengniu’s founder, is one of the most mythical among present day China’s entrepreneurs; more even than that of Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba. Story has it that he lost his parents at the very early age of 3 months and was raised by a farmer called Niu (which ominously means ‘cow’). His foster parents gave him the name: Niu Gensheng.

Niu was hired by what was then called the Yili Dairy Factory in Huhhot, as a bottle washer, in 1978. From that humble position, he gradually worked his way up from work shop supervisor, subsidiary director, vice-director of the mother factory to Vice-President in charge of production of, what was then rename into, the Yili Group. Niu’s career did not pass by unnoticed. He has been granted a number of regional awards and was included in the 10 Top Young Entrepreneurs of Huhhot.

Ousted from Yili

For reasons that have never been actually expressed, a conflict developed between Niu and the other board members, resulting his removal from the board in November 1998. The Board issued a statement indicating that ‘Comrade Niu Gensheng no longer fitted his position.’ He was ‘advised’ to find a place to study outside his home region for at least two years. Judging by this ‘advice,’ it could have been that his fellow board members did no longer feel comfortable with a self-made man among their ranks. Niu grabbed this opportunity to enrol himself in the MBA course of the prestigious Guanghua Business School of Beijing University. He left Yili the following year.

Founding Mengniu

Already within the same year, 1999, Niu Gensheng and a group of more than 50 of his old subordinates at Yili and a number of private individuals, raised RMB 1.3 billion to establish Mengniu Dairy Co., Ltd. When asked during an interview how Niu could so easily convince a considerable number of his former colleagues at Yili to not only quit their comfortable positions, but also entrust a considerable amount of their savings to him, Niu’s own rationale was that he had the habit of sharing his income with his subordinates. His last salary as a Vice-President of Yili exceeded RMB 1 million, which he found more than he needed to make a good living. He often shared part of it with subordinates that he believed to have contributed to his success. In Niu’s eyes, he was cashing in on the goodwill thus accumulated during the establishment of Mengniu. This was good leadership in a communitarian culture like the Chinese.

Fastest growing private enterprise

At that point of Mengniu’s early age, the company was still in a situation Niu himself recalls as ‘four deficiencies:’ no raw milk source, no factory, no brand (he had registered a brand name, but it was unknown among Chinese consumers), no market. He contacted dairy plants all over China with a surplus capacity and contracted those to produce for Mengniu. Mengniu provided specifications, a brand name and technological assistance. Mengniu first created a market and only then built its own production facilities.

Mengniu turned out to be the fastest growing private enterprise in China’s history. The company generated a turnover of RMB 43 million in the first year of its existence, which was approximately 4% of Yili’s turnover of the same period. The turnover of 2002 was already RMB 2 billion, exactly half of Yili’s turnover of that year.

Foreign investment

A milestone in the history of Mengniu was its acceptance of foreign participation late 2002. Niu Gensheng himself had repeatedly stated in the national press that he was not in a hurry to follow Yili’s example in seeking registration on the stock exchange and expose Mengniu to the whims of speculators. It therefore was even a surprise to insiders when it was reported that Morgan Stanley, CDH Fund and China Capital Partners had signed an agreement with Mengniu to invest USD 26 million in Mengniu. As a result of that deal, the three foreign investors held a total share of 32%. According to a spokesperson of Mengniu, the Chinese side had attracted foreign participation to better compete with the other dairy giants like Sanyuan (Beijing) and Bright (Shanghai), that were heavily supported by their respective local governments. Morgan Stanley had already invested in a number of Chinese enterprises including Ping’an Insurance Company, Nanfu Battery Company and Heng’an International Group. CDH Fund had invested in 12 Chinese enterprises, also including Nanfu Battery and, an important Chinese business Internet portal. China Capital Partners, a UK fund for investment in China, had invested USD 55 million in China since its establishment in June 2000. Following opening its door to foreign influence, Mengniu’s next step was to seek listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in June 2004.

Cultural drivers of Mengniu’s success

Niu Gensheng’s strategy has never been to ‘push Yili from the market’, which would be the typical Western MBA textbook approach. Instead he kept praising Yili in his advertisements of Mengniu, position his company as a faithful follower of leader Yili.

He vouched in media interviews that Mengniu would not try to snatch raw milk sources from Yili and that Mengniu would never buy raw milk that did not comply with Yili’s specifications.

In the Chinese cultural context, Niu himself, and the Yili employees he had pulled from Yili, would still maintain friendly contacts with their former Yili colleagues. An aggressive strategy would not fit such relations. In the political field, the Huhhot authorities, while welcoming new entrepreneurial activity, would dislike a Western-style life or death fight between state-owned enterprise Yili and private newcomer Mengniu. Commercial competition must never harm the Confucianist ideal of harmonious society.

In short: Niu Gensheng’s entrepreneurial behaviour suited the Chinese communitarian culture and complied with the Confucianist principles of good governance.

Mengniu and Yili outside Inner Mongolia

During the following years and decades, Mengniu and Yili kept growing and expanding into other regions of China. In most regions, either Mengniu or Yili would be the first to enter, but the other would soon follow suit. While Mengniu kept profiling itself as the follower, in their de facto relationship they alternately acted as follower or leader (for concrete case studies see the above-mentioned book).

Mengniu turns SEO

The Chinese business world was shaken by the news that COFCO (see my post that positions COFCO as the next Nestlé) had acquired a significant share in Mengniu in 2009. The media, that had so far regarded Niu Gensheng as a favourite person to interview, now accused him of going against the tide. While privatization was the trend in Chinese economy, China’s most successful private company was now becoming a de facto state-owned enterprise. Niu was not shaken by the fierce criticism, as usual. He calmly replied that the real trend was that the differences between various types of enterprises in China (state-owned, private, foreign invested, etc.) were decreasing. He simply believed that Mengniu would be best off as a subsidiary of the emerging multinational COFCO. History has proven him right.

Food for thought

Mengniu Dairy’s entrepreneurial history provides a large bowl of food for thought. I will leave most of it for you, my readers, to think over. I will restrict to one challenging thought: considering the problems major dairy multinationals like Fonterra and FrieslandCampina are experiencing in China, how much could they learn from Mengniu, to grow roots in the Chinese cultural context? Nestlé, an early Western investor in China, seems to have done a good job in this respect. The key issue in embedding your Chinese subsidiary in the local society is forging valuable relationships, with business partners, but also with competitors.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.