A company promotion video by Want Want China highlights its leaders and staff energetically saying the company’s Chinese-language name (pronounced as Wang Wang!). And why not? Want Want, led by Taiwan billionaire Tsai Eng-Meng, is one of most successful food and beverage companies to come out of Greater China in the past three decades; quirky Chinese snack foods like rice crackers and milk beverages are convenience store mainstays that endure despite competition from bigger global rivals such as Nestle, Unilever, Danone and Pepsico. Just outside of Tsai’s office is an enormous painting of his childhood dog “Happy” (reincarnated by marketers as “Yappy”) who – the story goes — bounced back from an accident and also embodies resilience and confidence. Hot-Kid, the smiling cartoon boy in a tank top that serves as the company mascot, appears on all of Want Want products; a pure gold 34.4-kilogram Hot-Kid logo hangs at the front door of its Shanghai headquarters.
Yet the cheerful video that welcomes visitors pre-dates Covid-19. Since early 2020, mighty Want Want is also an example of how many businesses globally are grappling with the pandemic. From its base in China, the world’s No. 2 economy and a GDP growth leader, Tsai had hoped two years ago to be accelerating an international rollout in 2021. Want Want had just opened an office in Germany, launched a $50 million investment in Vietnam, and started opening its own offices in Southeast Asia rather than using distributors.
Instead, the Covid-19 spike in Vietnam has slowed the expansion there, part of a larger hit that the pandemic is having on global supply changes from textiles to electronics in that Southeast Asia country. Travel restrictions have hurt other overseas expansion plans. Back at home in Taiwan, the once- Covid-free island is also battling local and imported cases. Even China was hit with Covid-19 related lockdowns this summer. “The outlook for the pandemic isn’t certain,” a frustrated Tsai told Forbes. The entrepreneur is spending most of his time this year in Shanghai, helping Want Want with a part of the business he has long enjoyed: launching new products. Want Want is still looking for international partnerships, and would consider acquisitions if it makes sense, Tsai said.
The energetic 64-year-old turned Want Want into a big Greater China success with a new product for his father’s company back in 1983: crackers made from rice flour. It was unconventional at the time— most crackers in Taiwan were made from wheat flour and took far less time to make; young Tsai found a partner, packaged them as gifts for Chinese New Year and other holidays, as well as offerings at Taiwan temples where visitors asked for favors from deceased ancestors and powerful spirits. “The spirits know what you want and what you leave behind,” Tsai told me an interview back in 2009. Tsai moved into China in 1992, and, switching his focus to mainland children (and their parents), and expanded from snacks into drinks. His nearly $6 billion fortune on the Forbes Real-Time Billionaires List today covers includes shares in Want Want, but also assets in an empire made up of hotels, real estate, insurance, media and healthcare, among other businesses.
Want Want sales have held up, buoyed by China’s overall strong GDP performance. Want Want revenue rose by 9.5% to 22 billion yuan, or $3.4 billion, in the 12 months to March; net profit rose by 14% to 4.1 billion yuan. Sales outside of Greater China accounted for only 3% its total.
China’s good prospects fit in well with his own hopes to work with others globally. “China’s the largest market in the world for so many products, and if you’re successful here, you can be the largest in the world,” he said. The pandemic doesn’t seem likely to change that – or Tsai’s international ambitions — anytime soon.