I don’t really think about what I will be doing when I get to my 80s, but running a start-up is most likely not on the top of my list. Running a 3-year-old national fruit business Chu Cheng, or Chu Citrus, at the age of 86, Mr.Chu Shijian is safely the oldest start-up entrepreneur in China, if not the world.
Before known as the King of Citrus, he was known as China’s King of Tobacco. Mr.Chu spent most of his life building a state-owned tobacco company into a multi-billion–dollar empire, but somehow ended up in prison for embezzlement of $ 1.74 million and was sentenced to life at the age of 71. After serving for 3 years and reducing his sentence to 17 years, Mr.Chu came out on parol for diabetes treatment and was restricted to stay within his hometown in Yunnan. For health reasons, Mr.Chu ate citruses but was not impressed by the flavor of locally grown fruits or imported one, so he decide to grow his own ideal citrus. Soon, one tree turned into a forest, one year turned into a decade, an experiment turned into a business, and a story turned into a brand.
Mr.Chu’s business strategy is to sell these citruses as luxury products, with highly controlled production and limited release. Instead of maximizing the number of fruits produced on the trees, like any normal grower would do, Chu decided each of his trees is only going to grow 240 fruits, the scientifically perfect amount. The rest would be cut off early so all the flavor and nutrition is concentrated in these elite ones. They are then given the best care possible, including natural spring water, organic fertilizer, special soil treatment and constant manual trimming to ensure 360 sunlight for each fruit. By the time to harvest in November, social media campaigns and celebrity endorsement have been building up the buzz for weeks and people have been staring at the countdown on its website. During each year’s Chu Citrus season, limited amount of fruits are sold online everyday. Sales start at 10pm but it’s usually sold out within an hour. People who didn’t get any would have to try their luck another day.
Chu Citrus as a brand heavily rely on the life story of Mr. Chu Shijian, which connects with so many people in so many ways that it’s hard to not buy into it with a just little bit more money. A godlike figure fell because of a human mistake, he served his time, came out with nothing but old age and bad health, humbled but not crushed. He returned to his roots as a farmer, quietly and peacefully, he grew fruit trees for a decade in search of the best sweetness for the Chinese taste. Just when everyone seem to have forgotten his name, he raised up again with something so simple and authentic that people believed in it immediately. The mantra of Chu Citrus says it all: a fruit of labor in celebration of the spirit of Zhou (Chinese for the axis of a wheel), singel-minded, moving forward and never give up. It’s idealism carried out with determination and persistence, a perfect Western icon being Forrest Gump.
The luxury Chu Citrus represents is not a conventional one based on price, but a cultural one built on emotion. Yes, these citruses are 5 times more expensive, but they’re citruses after all and everyone can afford them, and they actually are of supreme quality. Yes, it’s seasonal and limited release but everyone has equal access. From migrant workers to Jack Ma, from 10-year-old kids to 80-year-old grandparents, from local politicians to celebrity chiefs, people who buy Chu Citruses pay more for the self-reflection they see in the the story of Mr.Chu and the conversations these fruits are going ignite.
Chu Citrus has been so successful that many celebrity entrepreneurs and business leaders started their own fruit brands. Liu Chengzhi, CEO of tech giant Lenovo is growing kiwis he designed, and Pan Shiyi, CEO of the biggest real estate company Soho China, branded apples he grew in his hometown. Part of the reason why commodities as such can be branded and marketed in this way has to do with food safety crisis in China, as well as the culture’s roots in nature and land. While some remain skeptical of how many of these brands can remain authentic and last longer than a few seasons, Mr.Chu has just opened his Citrus Organic Resort in Yunnan this month.
Find out more about Chu Citrus here.