Biofore chats with Xu Lianjie, founder and CEO of Hengan, China’s top tissue company, on the company’s 30th anniversary.
Anhai in China’s Fujian province has always been a prosperous area for traders. Today, it is home to China’s largest manufacturer of sanitary pads, nappies and tissue paper, Hengan International Group Company Limited, which is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Xu Lianjie originally ran a clothing factory in the early 1980s. That all changed when he happened to see a production line manufacturing sanitary pads. Noting the gap in the market for this emerging product – and with the OEM clothing market becoming increasingly overcrowded– Xu decided to switch industries.
Xu founded Hengan in 1985 and is currently CEO of Hengan International Group. He reveals that ‘Heng’ means permanence and eternity, while ‘An’ refers to his hometown, Anhai.
Reflecting on the past three decades, Xu says: "Hengan could not have got where it is today without its integrity, innovation, corporate culture and commitment to responsibility. And achieving corporate social responsibility would not have been possible without the help and support of our partners."
Building better quality of life for women
Most Chinese women had never heard of sanitary pads in the late 1980s — Chinese society was conservative and information was scarce. Xu named Hengan’s first sanitary pad product ‘Anle’, meaning ‘comfort’. Uniting the Chinese characters for ‘happy’ and ‘at ease’, the word communicates the product’s aim to improve quality of life for Chinese women.
Anle sanitary pads were first launched on the Shanghai market in 1986, rapidly becoming a nationwide best-seller. Renowned for their high quality, Anle went on to dominate the Chinese sanitary pad market, achieving a market share of 40%. Since then, Hengan has become a household name.
Most Chinese women had never heard of sanitary pads in the late 1980s — Chinese society was conservative and information was scarce.
Tissues put Hengan on fast track to growth
Xu’s next breakthrough product, a tissue brand called ‘Hearttex’, provided the company with a springboard for rapid growth.
In 1998, Xu was troubled by sinusitis. Struggling to find handkerchiefs that didn’t shed fibres, he was forced to make frequent trips to Hong Kong. He became keenly aware of a gap in the market for high-quality tissues. With China in the twentieth year of its reform and open-door policy, Xu saw an opportunity to tap into the country’s rising standard of living and changing consumer awareness.
Xu revolutionised the tissue industry by introducing a new, high-quality paper tissue brand. Refusing to stoop to imitation or price wars, he instead built a brand image based on independent innovation. Hearttex quickly conquered the southern China market and the entire industry not long after its launch.
Currently, Hengan’s annual tissue production capacity is around one million tonnes. The company’s three major brands are Hearttex, Premium (Youxuan) and Pino, which come in many different pack sizes. Hearttex has been the number one tissue brand in the Chinese market for years.
According to Xu, the Chinese tissue paper industry is now overcrowded and price competition is fierce. Companies that do not comply with environmental requirements or offer low-quality products will be driven out of the market sooner or later.
Working together for sustainable development
Reflecting on the past three decades, Xu says: “Hengan could not have got to where it is today without its integrity, innovation, corporate culture and commitment to responsibility. Furthermore, achieving corporate social responsibility would not have been possible without the help and support of our partners.”
UPM has partnered with Hengan as a pulp supplier since 2009. “UPM is Hengan’s best choice. The help they have provided in raising customer awareness of sustainable development is even more valuable than their products and technical service,” says Xu.
Hengan attaches great importance to sustainable development. Last year, UPM and Hengan started an ongoing active dialogue on corporate responsibility. Environmental and safety issues have been top of the agenda at their joint meetings.
In 2014, domestic tissue production capacity increased by 4.40% to 8.3 million tonnes in China. According to Xu, the Chinese tissue paper industry is now overcrowded and price competition is fierce. Companies that do not comply with environmental requirements or that offer low-quality products will be driven out of the market sooner or later. But regardless of how the market changes, Hengan will continue to advance step by step, pursuing its vision of “building China’s top tissue company”.