Over the past 30 years Chinese businesspeople have learned fast, and often by adopting products and ideas from further afield. Want to know how to build a great car: look to the Germans. Want to build an internet search engine: try the Americans. Keen to open a prestigious restaurant: look to the French.
But Hu Zhirong couldn’t look abroad for inspiration, as her own business model didn’t exist in the West. Hers is a uniquely Chinese proposition. It is foot massage.
All across China, you will find foot massage parlours. Affluent Chinese relax in them at weekends and after dinner. Government officials will nap in them after a big lunch. Walk into one and you will see rooms of people reclining in large chairs, sipping tea and having their feet bathed and kneaded by attendants.
Foot massage – or specifically reflexology – is widely believed to be healthy in China. Through the application of pressure to points on the feet, ailments can be diagnosed, energy (qi) can be moved around the body, and stress can be reduced.
Although no data exists on the number of foot massage parlours in the country, the government says there are 5 million licensed masseuses – i.e. qualified technicians who have passed an official exam. There are many unlicensed practitioners too.
At the apex of the foot massage world is Hu, whose firm attends to at least 20 million feet per year. Her Chongqing-based chain of shops – named Fuqiao – has 50,000 employees and an annual turnover of Rmb2 billion. She has 552 parlours nationwide, and has even earned an ISO9000 certificate for ‘foot care services’.
The Southern People Weekly Magazine notes that beneath Hu’s “rough and loud” voice there is a very canny businesswoman. She quickly grasped that winning staff loyalty was vital to her expansion plans. Accordingly, she has taken care to treat her foot technicians well. They mostly hail from her hometown of Jiangjin – near Chongqing – or the mountainous areas of Guizhou province.
Hu’s workers can earn in a month what they would in a year in Guizhou. She gives them free room and board, and 2.5kg of fruit per month. If colleagues marry, she provides spousal accommodation. On her birthday in May each year, she invites groups of technicians from around China to a banquet and toasts them.
Her philosophy on staff welfare has a business logic. The technicians are the point of contact with the customer, so low turnover is a must. Many clients will find a technician they like and stick with them. And Hu has made staff quality a differentiating factor for her firm. She has a satisfaction guaranteed policy too: if you’re not satisfied with the technician you don’t pay.
So how did this billionaire hit upon the idea for a foot massage empire? Like many modern Chinese tycoons, hers is a story of struggle from inauspicious beginnings. Born in 1963, her parents carried goods around the nearby mountains. Hu was one of the few mountain children to gain a high school education. Soon afterwards she married a watch salesman, Guo Jiarong.
Guo was also poor, but his grandfather had been a follower of the warlord general Cai E and had helped him set up a martial arts school in Yunnan. On returning to Chongqing he had set up medical centre too, based on healing massage techniques. This was passed down to Guo and his three brothers.
During the eighties, Hu and Guo didn’t spend much time on the massage business as they doubted it could ever make much money. Instead they dabbled in restaurants, sold pigs to Vietnam and even scalped train tickets.
But by the mid-90s none of their business ventures looked like becoming much of a success. And on a trip to Guangzhou they saw the growing popularity of foot massage – which was enjoying a boom in the city thanks to demand from wealthy Hong Kong businesspeople.
So they teamed up with Guo’s brother, Guo Jiafu. Hu managed to raise Rmb40,000 to open their first parlour in Chongqing in 1998. They combined Guo’s grandfather’s techniques with popular styles from Guangzhou, and after standardising the approach taught it to their staff.
Hu marketed the venture aggressively and within three months it was profitable.
Hu quickly expanded Fuqiao into a chain – first in Chongqing, then in Luzhou and Kunming, and finally into the rich coastal provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian.
As the Southern People Weekly points out, foot massage parlours have excellent cashflows. Services are paid for either then and there (in cash) or in advance (Chinese consumers like to buy packages at a discount).
In 2001 Hu consolidated her expansion by establishing a vocational massage college in her hometown – in order to train enough technicians for her ever-growing number of parlours. Tuition was offered free – the students learn a 72-step foot massage technique pioneered by the Guo brothers – with those graduating getting a certificate and a guaranteed job offer from Fuqiao. Meanwhile Hu was doing some learning herself – taking a modern management class at Tsinghua University.
Just as she finished her studies in 2003, disaster struck. The brothers argued over their expansion plans and fell out. They decided to break up the business. In the settlement Guo Jiafu took the majority of the parlours, leaving Hu and Jiarong with the brand, the remaining parlours and cash. To this this day, reports Southern People Weekly, Hu goes silent when she is asked to talk about the incident.
So she effectively started again, although this time she decided on a new approach. Like fast-food operator KFC, Hu figured she could grow more quickly if she standardised the company’s image – making all Fuqiao parlours look exactly the same. She began to think of Fuqiao in similar terms to a hotel management company – offering the brand, the décor and staff, but without owning the property. She set up a new franchising agreement where owners paid a fee to open a Fuqiao parlour and the two parties shared the profits, based on an agreed formula. In the seven years since the traumatic split Hu has opened over 500 of these franchised parlours across China.
She says control of the company will pass to professional managers in the years to come. She doesn’t want it to become a family affair – instead she is encouraging her son to become active in politics. So if in the coming decades there’s a newPresident Hu on the scene, check to see if it’s the son of someone who has massaged her way to the top.
It’s not quite as far-fetched as it might sound: Hu herself is already a member of Chongqing’s Communist Party Municipal Committee.
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