Who is making food (ingredients) in China? – the structure of the Chinese food industry

One of the first things you need to know about a (potential) Chinese partner is to what system it belongs

This is a blog about food, drinks and their ingredients. However, as Chinese society, including its economy, is organized in a very unique way, it is useful to get more insight in its basic structuring. In fact, several aspects of that structure have been mentioned indirectly in various posts, in particular those about Mengniu Dairy and Yanjing brewing.

Economic sectors

An important type of context is the industrial sector. Chinese economy is divided in a number of industries, headed by a central ministry or organization with ministerial status in Beijing. Each province and autonomous region has a Department corresponding with the central organization. Lower administrative regions have, again corresponding, Bureaus. Chinese usually refer to this as the system (xitong) to which they belong. According to the official parlance, a state-owned enterprise is the property of the entire people, but the central administrative organization of its industrial sector has been given the power to manage the enterprise in the name of the people. The central organization will then delegate that power to its corresponding lower level organization. Those organizations also establish and operate schools and colleges related to their sectors.

An example will help clarify the situation: food manufacturing is typically regarded as Light Industry in China. A state-owned flour plant in Suzhou (Jiangsu), will therefore be typically managed by the municipal Light Industry Bureau, which will report to the provincial Light Industry Department, which operates under the China National Light Industry Council in Beijing. This is the reason why so many company names in China start with the name of the city or province in which it is located: it refers to the main governing body. I have mentioned the Changyu Winery in earlier posts. Its official name is Yantai Changyu Wine Group, which indicates that its CEO is typically reporting to the government of Yantai Municipality in Shandong province.

The value of the place name in a Chinese brand name is attested by the story of Yanjing Brewing laid down in an earlier post. Located in Shunyi County, the brand name originally envisioned was Shunyi Beer, but a ministerial official proposed to change it to a name that was related to Beijing. As Beijing Beer already existed, it became Yanjing Beer.

There are also dedicated light industry colleges like the Zhengzhou University of Light Industry. As attested by several posts in this blog, Zhengzhou is located in one of China’s major food producing regions, the home of, e.g., China’s top snack producer Sinian.

This way of organizing creates a kind of matrix structure in which a Chinese company has to account for its activities and results to the local government, but simultaneously to its sector organization. To stick with Changyu, it is accountable to Yantai Municipality and the Light Industry sector. These two merge in the Yantai Municipal Light Industry Bureau, but it can happen that the provincial or national Light Industry organizations contact Changyu for information about its operations.

Personnel

In the current stage of the development of China, this structure does no exercise a huge influence on issues related to production or marketing and sales. Larger state-owned companies are still affected in the field of human resource, in particular in filling the positions of top managers. Leading functions in companies like Changyu are usually appointed by the organization on the Ministry of Personnel, which also has branches in provinces, cities, counties and other administrative levels. The Party organization is also involvement in such appointments. Nowadays, only people with proven expertise and experience in the field will be considered for appointments of top functions in state owned enterprises, but the political aspect remains. This means that the social networks of the top executives of Chinese companies exercise considerable influence on the day to day managed of the enterprises.

Social embeddedness

The combination of the various stakeholders to which a Chinese enterprise is accountable and the social network can be called: the social embeddedness of Chinese companies. Insight in the affiliation of a Chinese enterprise is vital for Western companies who are seeking or have engaged in partnerships with Chinese counterparts. Too often, Western managers believe that their Chinese partner is ‘a company just like we are’ and that the CEO of the Chinese partner has ‘the same responsibilities as I have’. They aren’t and they don’t. Such misunderstandings will certainly play a role in the problems of companies like FrieslandCampina or Fonterra in China recently reported in the media.

Eurasia Consult’s founder Peter Peverelli is an expert in determining the social embeddedness of Chinese companies and the consequences for their Western partners

Food & beverage covers several sectors

The theme of this blog, food, drinks and ingredients, involves a complex situation, as the manufacturing of these three product groups is dispersed over more than one sector. Light Industry is definitely the largest one, but a number of food companies, in particular those using primary agricultural produce as raw materials, are operating under the Ministry of Agriculture. A special type of companies under Agriculture is State Farms. This name is based on the fact that the first of such companies were large state-owned farms established in rougher regions with no existing agriculture or other economic activity. These farms later also established processing plants of their own. A small number is part of the hierarchy of the Ministry of Commerce. The latter is in charge of distributing goods rather than making them, but in the early decades of the PRC, that ministry also established production units. An industry that is very disperses over those sectors is dairy processing. Interestingly, FrieslandCampina and Fonterra mentioned above are both dairy companies.

Light Industry Top 50 2017

As Chinese ministries (try to) keep track of the industrial statics of their respective sectors, the regularly publish compilations like the top 10, 50, 100 manufacturers of a certain product or sector. The China National Light Industry Council recently published the Top 50 Light Industry companies of 2017. I will list the top 10 in this post.

Rank company sector
1 Maotai spirits
2 Wuliangye spirits
3 Yili dairy
4 Mengniu dairy
5 Wahaha beverages
6 Yanghe spirits
7 Xiwang starch sweeteners
8 Bohai soybean oil
9 Hefeng meat
10 Haitian soy sauce

From this list it is obvious that food, drinks and ingredients are the major sector of Light Industry in China. Actually, it covers a broad range of products, like: toothpaste, detergents, brooms, toys, etc. However, the Top 10 and in fact the entire Top 50 consists of food companies. Regular readers of this blog will recognise several of the companies in this list.

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.

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Food companies in China’s top 100/500

The list of the 2014 Top 500 Chinese enterprises in terms of turnover included the following food and beverage companies.

Rank Company Turnover 2013(RMB bln) Business
84 COFCO 189.05157 Food in general, see our blog on COFCO vs Nestle
94 Bright 159.38217 Dairy
165 Wahaha 78.27856 Beverages
168 New Hope 77.89271 Dairy
195 Wuliangye 63.09445 Spirits
253 Yili 47.77887 Dairy
257 Shuanghui 47.20541 Meat
299 China Salt 39.82552 Salt
307 Luzhou Laojiao 38.53574 Spirits
321 Zhengbang 36.04589 Meat, poultry
330 Wens 35.18706 Meat, poultry
337 Moutai 34.62301 Spirits
407 Qingdao 28.29098 Beer
430 Xiwang 27.12007 Corn processing
451 Weiwei 26,18069 Soybean milk
470 Daohuaxiang 24,86100 Spirits, beverages
482 Hope-Full 24,11415 Soybean processing

 

The two companies in the top 100 are both state owned enterprises that have succcessfully adapted to the new economic reality in China. Still, the second two are private enterprises.

Spirits remains the best represented type of business with four companies on this list. If we broaden the scope to alcoholic beverage in general, we can add Qingdao and COFCO (Great Wall Wine) as well, to make 6 out of 17 companies.

However, as Mengniu Dairy is now a subsidiary of COFCO, the current list also de facto comprises 4 dairy companies, 2 of which are in the top 100.

You may want to compare this list, which is based on the 2013 turnover, with the list of the Top Food Companies of 2014, which ranks the enterprises according to their estimated brand value.

Food & Beverage in China’s 2017 top brands

The 2017 China Top 100 brands have been published late May. I have extracted a sublist of the food and beverage companies in that list and simply add it to this blog, so we can compare the results with the situation of 2014. First the list.

Rank Brand Industry
6 Moutai spirits
9 Wuliangye spirits
19 Yili dairy
21 Mengniu dairy
25 Wahaha beverages
64 Chef Kang noodles
67 Shuanghui meat
73 Luzhou Laojiao spirits
74 Tsingtao Beer beer
80 Bright dairy
84 Kouzijiu spirits
85 Junlebao dairy
92 Huiyuan fruit juice
93 Changyu wine
95 Gujing Gongjiu spirits
96 Yingjia spirits
97 Daoxiangcun pastry
98 Quanjude Peking duck

Spirits stand out as the leading industry with 6 out of 18 brands in the national Top 100. Dairy is the runner up with 4. Quanjude is a restaurant chain rather than a manufacturing company, but it also markets vacuum packed ducks ready for consumption. Regular readers of the blog will recognize most of the names. Don’t hesitate to use the Search function to look for more information of each company in other posts.

Almost all companies have rising dramatically, in particular Moutai. Three years ago, only 3 F&B companies were included in China’s top 100, now 18. This corroborates what has been said about the Chinese food industry in numerous recent publications: it is rapidly becoming a pillar of the national economy.

This post concentrates on the top companies, but Eurasia Consult has a database of Chinese food & beverage producers of more than 30,000 companies.

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.