The Hope Group is China’s most successful agribusiness firm, founded by the four Liu brothers from Sichuan.
Liu Yonghao, one of the biggest shareholders of China Merchants Bank, is the youngest and best known. But it was Chen Yuxin, brother number three, who did much of the work in getting Hope going. He also keeps the lowest profile, so much so that he still uses his adopted family name.
Chen was born in 1950 as Liu Yongmei. His father was an intellectual who became an underground Communist Party member during the Second World War. When Chen was two he was given away to a foster family in the village of Gujia. It was not until 1963, when Chen returned to his native county to attend middle school, that was he reunited with his biological family. He still uses the surname of the family that raised him.
The Liu brothers all managed to get into university in Sichuan after the Cultural Revolution ended, and post-graduation took government jobs, then regarded as the most promising career path.
Chen quit his state job in 1982 and returned to Gujia to set up the Yuxin Farm, raising quail and chickens. That made him the first Liu brother to give up his ‘golden rice bowl’ (a nickname for government jobs). It also puts him squarely in the era’s first generation of private sector businessmen (two years later Liu Chuanzhi would establish what is today’s Lenovo).
“I was raised in Gujia as a farmer. I am the one who could take the biggest risk. If Yuxin Farm didn’t work out I just returned to where I came from, which is perfectly fine for me,” Chen would recall in one of his rare encounters with reporters. China was emerging from a period of food scarcity – the product of decades of economic mismanagement – and that meant Chen was well placed to capitalise on Deng Xiaoping’s period of economic reform. Yuxin Farm began raking in profits and Chen’s equally entrepreneurial brothers joined him.
After enjoying phenomenal success with quail and chicken sales, they rebranded the family business as the Hope Group and ventured into pig feed. In 1992 Hope expanded beyond Sichuan. By 2001, Liu Yonghao was named by Forbes as China’s richest man.
Division of labour
In 1995 the foursome split the family business into four parts to avoid disputes. The eldest brother Yongyan formed Continental Hope to sell electric appliances. Liu Yongxing, brother two, set up East Hope and diversified into industrial materials. Chen called his business West Hope, and it remains one of the biggest animal feed makers in Sichuan. Together with Liu Yonghao’s New Hope, the Bloomberg Billionaires’ Index estimates that the four have built a net worth of $15.9 billion.
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