Chen Sheng became China’s second most famous butcher after he hired the most famous one, Lu Buxuan. But the two men built their pork business from similar student backgrounds.
Chen was born in Zhanjian in Guangdong in 1961, getting into Peking University, or Beida (the breeding ground for many of China’s top scholars and business elite) in 1980.
A bachelors degree in economics got Chen a government job earning Rmb80 ($13 now) in monthly salary. He quit in 1990 and began trading and then growing vegetables in commercial volumes. This venture made Chen his first Rmb1 million.
Now he took an unorthodox career choice: he rejoined the state sector. This time he drew a salary of Rmb300 a month working with a state-owned property developer to learn more about the industry. In 1993 Chen founded his own real estate firm, which grew into the largest in his hometown.
Chen got his next business idea from the dining table. Inspired by a new Guangdong culture of drinking spirits infused with vinegar, Chen started producing apple cider vinegar in 1997. The new beverage was called Tiandi Yihao (Tiandi means ‘heaven and earth’; yihao means ‘number one’) and it proved hugely popular. The drink now accounts for 40% of China’s fruit vinegar market and Tiandi Yihao has been valued at Rmb4 billion. (Last month an IPO in Hong Kong was postponed).
Chen first invested in pig farming in 2006 and branded his produce as Yihao Native Pig. The new venture shot to nationwide fame in 2008 when Chen used his old-boy connections to hire Lu Buxuan, a fellow Beida graduate, who is known in the domestic media as “China’s most famous butcher”.
Yihao Native Pig now has 700 stores across the country and generated Rmb600 million in sales last year.
Need to know
Why is Chen’s colleague Lu Buxuan famous? Lu graduated in 1989, a tumultous year. Indeed his early career was derailed by his involvement in the student movement at that time. But a 2002 newspaper article describing Lu slaughtering pigs in a wet market made him a household name – it seemed oxymoronic given Lu had been known as a gifted poet at Beida. His memoir The World in a Butcher’s Eyes has been a bestseller for years.
Chen’s decision to hire Lu was a masterstroke as he has become the face of Chen’s pork business. The two have even started China’s first butchery school. In fact, thousands of applicants with degrees now vie to get a spot on the trainee management course at Yihao Native Pig every year.
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