Hubert Burda Media

Ambassador Of Hope

New Hope’s ANGELA LIU CHANG says taking over the family business has been a journey that led her back to her loved ones’ embrace.

As the heiress of a multibillion-dollar enterprise, one would expect New Hope’s ANGELA LIU CHANG to have it easy. but, as she tells Pang Siew Moi, taking over the family business has been a journey that led her back to her loved ones’ embrace
Chairman of one of China’s largest agri-business firms, Angela Liu Chang was born into a middle-class family. Her father was then a teacher and her mother, a school doctor. “We were living in a state-owned unit at the time my father decided to start a business and make a difference in society. It was also a time when China was just beginning to open up,” recalls New Hope Liuhe’s Liu.
With his three brothers, her father Liu Yonghao started the company in the 1980s. Today, the Forbes-listed billionaire has seen New Hope Group flourish, with total assets worth 60 billion yuan (S$12 billion) to date. However, success did not come easy — back then, the elder Liu had to spend much time away from the family.
“There was a lack of raw materials and my father had to travel frequently to purchase them. Such trips were usually one to two months long. It was my mother who took great care of me, ensured I studied well and had the right values while also encouraging me to develop new interests,” she says.
As business steadily improved, the family’s quality of life got better. They soon earned enough to move out of their state-owned unit and purchased their first commercial building in Chengdu. Within 10 years, they had also moved into an affluent neighbourhood. Yet, it was only when Liu started her career that she noticed the benefits her father’s business had reaped.
“As a child, your feelings are especially sincere. Looking back, everything was simple during that time and I did not see anything different about myself. Other than the fact that I had better clothes and had a car to send me to school, I never felt that I was different from others,” she explains.
In her memories, one of the toughest times from childhood was when her father went from selling quail to selling animal feed. To have a deeper understanding of his new industry and the difference between the US and China’s agri-food and feed industry, her father and his brothers went on a study trip to the US for a few months. Liu was 12 at the time. “My father always believes in mastering the best technology and practices, and is determined to learn more about them. So he’d go wherever the best is.”
By then, her mother Li Wei had also given up her career to focus on taking care of the family. “My mother stayed with me but it was difficult. She had to quit her job to look after me. Due to the different time zones [between China and the US], she would have to travel to the city centre late at night just to send a fax to my father. I only realised the struggles she went through when I was older.” (It was only after her husband had met with success and Liu had begun her overseas education did Li return to her career.)
For the “little girl from Chengdu”, it was a trip to the US before her 15th birthday which opened her eyes to the world outside. “After I visited Hong Kong, Hawaii and then Los Angeles, my world perspective changed. Our family wealth was also growing and I was considering what to do in the next step of my education.”
The first in Sichuan province to hold a private student visa, Liu was among the earliest batch of Chinese students who attended school in the US. “The school rules were strict and I was the only student from China. My teacher didn’t even know where Beijing is, let alone Chengdu. In their eyes, China was a strange, backward place,” Liu remembers of the prestigious boarding school.
As such, Liu kept a low profile. “I was a minority and needed to actively integrate into society to be part of them. I didn’t have much time to squander or to spend money. My parents only provided what was sufficient.”
After graduating from high school, Liu began making plans for her future, which unfortunately conflicted with her parent’s preferences — the young lady wanted to enter the entertainment industry to be a singer or a movie director. “This was what I wanted to do most, but my family opposed. My father said I didn’t have sufficient understanding and appreciation of China’s history, which is what a director needs. He also thought I didn’t have the talent to direct a good movie. I was distraught. I also wanted to sing but he said I wasn’t the most beautiful or most talented singer. I went against him and told him he could help since he had the finances and network. But my father told me: ‘Yes I can help you but bear in mind: If you succeed in the future, others will always attribute it to the fact that you are someone’s daughter. Do you want that?’”
“I cried so hard,” she recalls of that fateful night her well-intentioned father had a heart-to-heart talk with her. “I didn’t speak to him for a week. I thought he was being cruel for delivering such a blow to my dreams. It was as if he didn’t want to help me. Yet, after giving it some thought, I did realise that I didn’t want others to think he was the reason for my success.”
Eventually, Liu accepted the path outlined by her parents and commenced studies at the China Foreign Affairs University. She also obtained Masters degrees in Business from both Peking University and Tsinghua University.
Upon graduation, Liu started a fashion and advertising company. She now remembers how her father had praised her efforts in an interview, emphasising that she repaid the entire loan that she borrowed from him. “I also started a restaurant and was very happy about it.”
Although publicly praised by her father, Liu herself shied away from the press. The reason? Because upon her return from the US, the senior Liu had placed her on a 10-year ban from accepting media interviews. “I didn’t understand his intentions then. I was quite upset actually but I didn’t want to disobey him either,” she says.
But Liu eventually understood her father’s intentions of keeping her out of the public eye. In 2006, the Hurun Report‘s Women Rich List ranked Liu as the ninth richest woman in China — the youngest one in the list. Naturally, she was drawn into the media spotlight.
“I realised no matter what kind of person you are, the reports are always about your wealth, your relationship status and your willingness to take over the family business. They are not interested in your personal experience or insights,” she says.
Turning away from the media attention, Liu focused on her career. “I’m not [going to get] involved in meaningless things. Once I clarify what others want and what I want, I no longer feel troubled,” she explains.
From college graduation to starting a business venture, then entering New Hope as an intern, Liu has walked the path expected of her. Finally in 2011, her father officially introduced Liu to the media and in 2013 announced both his retirement and her appointment to succeed him as chairman of New Hope Liuhe. To the outside world, it may seem expected for the reins to be turned over to Liu, but it wasn’t all that simple — she didn’t want the job at first.
“My parents discussed the succession plan before my mother suggested to me that I should take it up. It was her words that touched me: ‘Your father hasn’t [spent much time with the family] since he started the business. When things stabilised, you went overseas. After graduation, you went to Beijing to build your own career. If this continues, how much time do you have left to spend with your father?’”
It was her mother’s advice to regard the role at New Hope as an opportunity to spend time with her father. “Her words touched my heart. It reminded me of the reason why I came back to China, which was because of family. Because of this, I was willing to take up the challenge.”
After she agreed, her father personally took her through the business and talked her through all the challenges and risks she would face. Knowing also that the board of directors was made up of those more senior than her, she made it a point to listen to their opinions before making big decisions.
To Liu, the greatest challenge of the appointment was in understanding the industry. In order to accelerate the learning process, she went on monthly learning trips to the factories, requested detailed explanations from her engineers and brushed up on her knowledge of the production processes.
It was the elder Liu who became a great influence on her management and working styles. “As founder of the company, his experiences have made him an encyclopaedia [on the best practices in business]. His judgments are always prudent and far-sighted.”
As the group’s second-generation leader, Liu is also keen to groom the next generation of workers. “I’m willing to serve others and allow the employees to develop their ideas. As chairman, I can provide the resources and platforms for them to grow. But when it comes to working practices and business judgments, I still resemble my father.”
As for the future of China’s agriculture and animal husbandry sector, Liu believes the country is too densely populated and does not have sufficient land for agriculture and will hence need to rely on imports. “There is an abundance of resources overseas, so our Group needs to expand internationally. We have already acquired matured assets in other countries and have injected external quality standards into our businesses.”
New Hope’s overseas expansion have been in the cards since 1996, but has since gained momentum. “The first key task is to expand overseas; the second is to transform into an international corporation with local characteristics. We now have nearly 40 overseas factories,” says Liu.
For a company to become an international enterprise, it requires qualitative change, industrial strength as well as an excellent corporate culture. That was the reason the company has decided to make its mark on Singapore soil.
“The people here are bilingual; they understand both Eastern and Western values, and have professional knowledge. There are plenty of resources to serve as a base for our personnel training. This will be the strategic platform for us to consolidate capital and strategise. Also, Singapore has preferential trade policies and excellent port advantages, and is equipped to become the Southeast Asian headquarters for our Group.”
Liu has high hopes for New Hope’s growth in Singapore. “We came here because we want to be an international corporation, not just a China or Singapore company. We hope to attract more foreign and international talents, as well as friends and resources. Already I have made new friends here and I am thankful for their support.”
With her father’s company flourishing under her care, Liu attributes her success to her parents’ painstaking efforts in instilling in her the value of treating others with sincerity. “My family also allowed me to experience different worlds and to expand my horizons, while guiding me along to become the person I am today.”
It seems, as much as Liu has proven to her family her worth as a steadfast successor, her family has been, for her, the greatest gift.