The migrant entrepreneur who never gave up

NZ General Manager, Maggie Chen shares how health supplements company Alpha Group benefited from developing strong links between New Zealand and China.

3-minute read

After moving to New Zealand from China’s southern Guangdong province with her family in 2002, Maggie Chen admits there were moments of doubt.

“The key challenges for me have been those moments when I doubted that I’d made the right choice,” says the Auckland-based executive and entrepreneur. “China has grown so rapidly during the past 20 years, and there were times when I couldn’t help thinking ‘would we have been better off staying?’. I think those are thoughts that many of us have in the beginning.”

Today, however, any of Chen’s early doubts have surely been allayed. She’s now New Zealand General Manager of Alpha Group, a multinational health supplements company that has grown from one retail shop on Auckland’s Dominion Road in 1998 to more than 1,000 retail stores throughout China and Southeast Asia today.

Her experience of the positive benefits of ‘staying the course’ forms the basis of advice she has for other migrant entrepreneurs.

“The best thing is to keep going, keep moving forwards because one day sooner or later we’ll look back and feel very proud of ourselves, and be very grateful for the opportunities this beautiful country has given us.”

Strong business links in China and New Zealand

The positive trajectory of Chen’s entrepreneurial journey only looks to be increasing; Alpha Group is targeting a two-fold increase in annual revenue in the next three years, aiming to turn over $600 million a year by 2020.

Alpha Group was founded by Professor Yihuai Gao, a world-renowned mycologist whose work has primarily focused on uncovering the health benefits of various fungi. In 1992, he came to New Zealand as a visiting scholar at Landcare Research, where he discovered and patented a method to extract key medicinal properties from fungi. This became the foundation of Alpha’s first products – launched in 1998 – and continues to be today.

Chen says the company has benefited from developing strong links between New Zealand and China on a number of fronts. True to its origins, research and development continues to be a cornerstone to the company’s success; in partnership with Tongji University, for example, the company founded a natural medicines research institute at the Shanghai-based university, which also links to a nutraceutical research centre that Alpha has established with Massey University.

The firm can also leverage the pure, natural image New Zealand enjoys in Alpha’s key Chinese and Southeast Asian markets, says Chen, as well as New Zealand’s reputation as a fair, transparent, and open trading nation.

A BNZ customer from day-one, Alpha Group has also benefited from the bank’s support.

“We always get the right solution from the bank, and that makes us feel very safe and supported. They also speak our language, and we can use WeChat as one of our communication platforms – all of this really helps.”

Social media is also becoming an increasingly important channel for Alpha Group when communicating with customers. While Chen says having English as a second language has been one of the challenges she’s had to face as a migrant entrepreneur, being a native Mandarin speaker is now a huge advantage when it comes to engaging online with Chinese consumers.

Going for growth

Chen joined Alpha Group in 2015, but she already knew the company well, having dealt with it for more than a decade as a client at the Chinese Herald, where she was previously co-owner and CEO.

Coming from the massive, fast-growing Chinese market, Chen says getting used to the slower pace and smaller scale of the New Zealand business environment has at times also been a challenge.

Now she’s relishing the opportunity to continue expanding the links between New Zealand and China as Alpha Group pursues an aggressive growth strategy to achieve its $600 million annual turnover target. This includes an R&D programme with Callaghan Innovation to further explore the bioactive properties of various natural raw materials; expanding manufacturing capacity with a new fermentation plant in Auckland; growing its e-commerce presence; and building a new biotech park in Northern China, which will be three times larger than one the firm has already established in Southern China.