Fourth-generation head of Hong Kong condiments manufacturer helps Chinese communities prosper
(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
The success of Lee Kum Kee is a family affair. The fourth generation of Lee siblings takes a team approach to securing the longevity of the Hong Kong-based sauce and condiments manufacturer, which was founded in 1888.
Pivotal to that success is Charlie Lee Wai-chung, chairman of the company’s sauce group since 2012.
“We have over 200 products in over 100 countries, so my role is to carry on and uphold the company mission. This is to promote 5,000 years of Chinese food culture to the world. Also to uphold the culture of the company,” said Lee.
The company’s democratic decision-making process sees him incorporate his role to fit the bigger picture.
“We have an autopilot leadership model,” said Lee. “I take care of the sauce business. Another sibling (Sammy) takes care of the health products business — it’s by selection, not by election. We have a cooperative decision-making process. We are bigger than I.”
Lee graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in chemical engineering in 1985. He was then under no pressure to join the family business, he said, but he decided to return to Hong Kong to work with the company.
Lee Kum Kee is perhaps best known for its oyster sauce, but it also produces a wide selection of Asia-based sauces and condiments.
The business was founded in 1888 by Lee’s great-grandfather, Lee Kum-sheung, who was a chef operating a small teahouse that served cooked oysters in Nanshui, South China’s Guangdong province.
“Actually, oyster sauce was invented by accident,” explained Lee.
“One day, (Lee Kum-sheung) was cooking oysters in his teahouse, but he was so busy that he forgot to put out the fire on the stove. When he smelled a strong aroma from the kitchen, he rushed back for fear that the oysters were overcooked.
“Unexpectedly, what he found was a thick layer of dark brown paste on the wok with a fabulous taste — this was the birth of oyster sauce.”
In all, there are five fourth-generation Lee siblings. Charlie is the second youngest, with Eddy the eldest, followed by Elizabeth and David, with Sammy the youngest.
Charlie Lee, known affectionately as Chairman Charlie by staff, is determined to continue his forebear’s legacy.
“We consider how the fourth-generation siblings can continue the business. In 2002, we formed the family council. Under this council, we have two businesses. The first is the sauce group, which is celebrating 130 years in 2018. The other is the health product group, which just celebrated 25 years last year,” he said.
The council has a rather unorthodox way of resolving contentious business matters.
“We require more than 75 percent to change the constitution,” explained Lee. “If it’s 50-50 we have an interesting way to make the decision — we roll the dice. If we have a deadlock it’s important to keep going. Our goal is to keep going for over 1,000 years.”
The use of dice, Lee said, is a nod to the company’s Macao origins. The company moved from Nanshui following a huge fire to the then Portuguese colony in 1902. In 1932, Lee Kum Kee relocated its headquarters to Hong Kong to meet the increasing demand from overseas markets.
“The council meets every three months for four days. Over the years we are fine-tuning (the business). We meet at different locations outside of Hong Kong — the fun part is very important,” said Lee.
“Besides the family council, we also have the family assembly, which includes all the family members.”
China remains a key component in Lee Kum Kee’s business strategy.
“Since the adoption of economic reform and the opening-up policy in the late 1970s in the Chinese mainland, Lee Kum Kee has viewed the mainland as a major emerging market to be explored. In the 1990s, we seized the opportunity to set up production bases in Xinhui and Huangpu in Guangdong to facilitate long-term business development,” explained Lee.
“In 2016, we acquired an office building in Xuhui district, Shanghai, where our (mainland) headquarters is located.”
To achieve long-term success in the Chinese market, Lee noted, it is essential to uphold exacting standards.
“Quality comes first. Food safety is of key concern in the Chinese mainland. We adhere to the philosophy of ‘100 minus one equals zero’ in quality management, which demands our products surpass the standards of any country, from farm to fork,” said Lee.
Lee Kum Kee is also embracing new technology. “Chinese customers are accustomed to online shopping. We make use of popular e-commerce platforms, like Tmall and Jingdong Mall (JD.com), for product sales and promotions.”
Lee explained that a key challenge the company faces is tailoring products to suit demand from different parts of the globe.
“China is a country where the preparation and appreciation of food has been developed to the highest level. Each of the regional cuisines has a distinct style. The preference for sauces and cooking techniques also varies.”
Lee added that the company is careful to ensure that its products can be used in different regional cuisines, such as Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan and Anhui styles.
“We listen to our customers’ needs and provide new products to cater to a variety of tastes and eating habits. We also offer sauces and condiments with Kosher and Halal certificates (which conform to Jewish and Islamic dietary specifications, respectively).
“With the Belt and Road Initiative, China and the rest of the world will be even more connected. What happens in China will influence the rest of the world and vice versa.”
With the company celebrating 130 years in business this year, it has organized a number of special events. One is the Lee Kum Kee Worldwide Recipes Campaign.
“We will select the best recipe from participating places including the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, the United States, Australia and Southeast Asian countries,” explained Lee.
The only restriction is that competitors must use one of the company’s sauces or condiments.
Another event is the International Young Chef Chinese Culinary Challenge. “We will invite over 50 young chefs from 17 countries and regions to participate in the competition to be held at the Chinese Culinary Training Institute (in Hong Kong) in September,” Lee said.
The company also has an initiative to give chefs in the Chinese mainland, who might not otherwise get an opportunity, a platform to promote their culinary skills.
“We are committed to promoting Chinese cuisines and nurturing young chefs in the Chinese mainland,” said Lee.
“(In) 2011, we launched the Hope as Chef program to help poverty-stricken youths in rural areas who wish to become chefs — and fully subsidize them to enter vocational schools to learn Chinese cooking skills. With the support from the United Front Work Department, the program has subsidized over 500 youngsters from 18 provinces to become chefs.”
Lee noted that philanthropy fits in with his company’s commitment to the environment and the welfare of its employees and the community.
Among Lee Kum Kee’s achievements in this area is its financial support to help build schools in the Chinese mainland — most notably the rebuilding of a school in Southwest China’s Sichuan province after it was devastated by a destructive earthquake in 2013.
The family has also donated a number of bridges to the country. In September, after six years of construction, the Infinitus Bridge in the Xinhui district of Jiangmen, Guangdong province, opened to traffic.
“We (also) have a global volunteer team. They provide various voluntary services to the local community such as tree plantation and blood donation,” said Lee.
The company has also recently branched into real estate. In July, it purchased London’s landmark 20 Fenchurch Street commercial skyscraper. Known as the Walkie Talkie, the 34-story building sold for a record-breaking 1.3 billion pounds (US$1.8 billion).
In recent years, the company has been reaching for the skies in other ways, which Lee said epitomizes his company’s vision.
He said: “(We were) selected as a partner of China’s space industry, to provide sauces for Shenzhou IX, X and XI manned spacecraft projects.”
The rockets were launched in 2012, 2013 and 2016, respectively, with Shenzhou IX including China’s first-ever female astronaut, Liu Yang.
Lee’s involvement in the wider community is something of a mission and is embodied by the company’s core value.
“(The company) adheres to Si Li Ji Ren — considering others’ interests — as our business ethos,” said Lee. “And we believe in sharing the fruits of success to provide impetus to our commitment to corporate social responsibility.”
Charlie Lee Wai-chung
Chairman, Lee Kum Kee Sauce Group
1985: Bachelor of science (chemical engineering major), University of Southern California, United States
Chairman, Lee Kum Kee Sauce Group
Member, Sichuan Committee, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference
Vice-president, World Federation of Chinese Catering Industry
Vice-president, China Condiment Industry Association
Who has been your biggest influence and why?
My father, Lee Man-tat, is my biggest influence. He is a role model who taught us how to run a business with pragmatism and integrity. He has served the company for 64 years (he is currently group chairman). Under his leadership over the last 40-plus years, our company has made a lot of breakthroughs and rapidly developed into an international corporation.
Who do you admire in the business world and why?
It’s my father as well. He set new business directions and strategies as the cornerstone of our corporate culture. His management philosophy and core values enable him to maintain a good relationship with distributors and suppliers. Some of our suppliers have been providing services to us for decades.
What would you be doing if you were not in the sauce and condiments business?
I could be a chef, maybe. I like cooking.