Chen Lijun, Dairy Product Innovator
A hardworking professional has made major strides and helmed many reforms and developments not just at a large company but also in China’s dairy industry in general. Chen’s efforts have taken the industry to a new level in the country.
Sanyuan Foods' fortified breakfast milk, fruit-flavoured yoghurt, calcium-rich yoghurt and pure milk have received a positive response in the food industry and have become popular with consumers. The company's products taste good and are nutritious. The creation and popularity of the products are closely related to Chen Lijun, the deputy general manager of the Beijing Sanyuan Foods Co., Ltd.
Chen wants to make useful innovations and implement his bold ideas. From September 1995 to February 1998, he completed a study on the production and application of active soybean peptides when he was pursuing his doctoral degree. This was supported by Heilongjiang Province's Special Governor's Fund. The study was accepted by the Heilongjiang Provincial Science and Technology Commission in November 2000. Chen carried out research into the extraction, transformation and application of soybean oligosaccharide and the extraction, purification and application of immunity-enhancing substances in eggs, which earned him the Education Department of Heilongjiang Province's Science and Technology Progress organisation's second prize and the Advanced Heilongjiang Province's Science and Technology organisation's second prize in 2001.
After earning his doctorate in 1998, Chen joined Sanyuan Foods and began to lead product innovation, which greatly enhanced the development of the Chinese dairy industry. In 2005, he led the development of nearly 100 new products. Many of his innovative products, such as fortified breakfast milk and various yoghurts, have become some of Sanyuan Foods' main offerings and created increasing profits for the company. In 2001, he was awarded the “Pacesetter for Economic and Technological Innovation” award and “Capital Labour Medal” by the Beijing Federation of Trade Unions as a result of his achievements. Chen continues to innovate. In June 2001, he began to develop a series of products, such as fruit-flavoured yoghurts and special, fortified breakfast milks, which were accepted by the market and consumers. In May 2002, his paper on the development of fortified breakfast milks with house-shaped packaging won the Beijing Science and Technology Progress organisation's second prize. In 2003, he was responsible for a project that was concerned with developing China's first high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk container. He was listed as one of Beijing's Top-10 Young Engineers as a result of his work on the project. In 2004, he carried out projects related to improving the company's production efficiency and was a team leader. Chen wanted to optimise production by adjusting software related to production and processes. This was done without having to upgrade any equipment or facilities. After implementing this plan to increase efficiency at a medium-sized plant, it saved more than one million yuan per year. In May 2004, he led his team members to innovate the company's yoghurts that were packaged in bags by using a new processing technology. The new product was greatly improved in terms of quality and flavour. In October 2004, China's first yoghurt packaged in bags with long shelf lives began to enter the market. This allowed yoghurt to be stored for a longer period of time and expanded the scope of its sales. Later the same year, he was included in the first “Top-10 Scientific and Technological Experts in China's Dairy Industry” list.
After the “melamine-contaminated powdered infant formula” scandal in 2008, Chen was reminded that dairy products should be reviewed and developed from a national, strategic level. The dairy industry shoulders a great responsibility with regard to the health of Chinese people. Since then, he has devoted himself to the research and development (R&D) of infant formulas. The company developed a new infant formula in 2017, which was based on several years of his research. It was accepted by the market and also influenced the dairy industry to focus more on R&D. Sanyuan Foods has contributed to revitalising China's dairy products and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
A New Colleague with a Doctoral Degree
Chen's major was fermentation when he studied at the Dalian Institute of Light Industry. During his undergraduate years, he was an honour student and an amateur cross- country athlete. In 1990, Chen became the institute's first beer fermentation master's degree candidate to not have to take the entrance examination as a result of his outstanding grades during his undergraduate years.
After obtaining his master's degree, Chen worked at the institute and then a company specialising in processing fruit and vegetable juices. He was driven to do more though. He began to analyse the prospects for and development trends in China's food industry and thought dairy products would have extensive space for future development, so he decided to pursue his doctorate in dairy. In 1995, he enrolled at the Northeast Agricultural University's Department of Food Science. He was engaged in research on active peptides, and his doctoral thesis covered this topic. He was considered one of China's earliest professionals to focus on this field.
In July of 1998, Chen obtained his doctoral degree. He had many opportunities at this point as a result of his educational background and excellent professional experience. He settled on a job at Sanyuan Foods. He recalled: “I didn't hesitate to accept this job. I entered the company on July 15, 1998. My first position was to serve as deputy director of Sanyuan Foods' Shuangqiao Dairy Factory. The factory was a big enterprise at that time. Its management was open-minded and would give young people opportunities. I was appointed the factory's deputy director. I was in charge of managing its dairy processing technologies and product quality because of my work experience.”
The factory's management trusted him. It seemed a bit odd that a professional with a doctorate degree would accept the offer though. The factory hardly retained any professionals with even bachelor's degrees at that time. Many employees wondered why someone with a PHD was willing to work there. Some predicted that Chen would leave within three months, but did not care, however. He once worked in a factory and was not unfamiliar with production practices. He joked that he was not a new hand. Instead, he wanted to temper himself through practice.
Chen investigated the first line as
soon as he began his work. He found that some workers were rubbing something with their hands and was told that this was a very important process. They were adding a stabiliser into the yogurt. The factory spent 90,000 yuan to buy the formula for the stabiliser. Workers had to rub some raw materials with their hands. Otherwise, the stabiliser would not fully react with the yoghurt.
Chen found that this process was inefficient. He told the factory director so and that it was not a great way to improve dissolution. The process was also a burden for the workers. He proposed a better method for improving production. He led his team members to select a variety of alternative, domestic stabilisers. After three months of experiments, they found a composite stabiliser that resulted in good dissolution for a reasonable price. It would improve the quality of the yoghurt that was being made and reduce the workload of Chen's colleagues. They also began to change their ideas about him. They did not question him anymore and began to trust him.
Chen recounted: “Six months after I began to work at the factory, I increased its profits by selecting a better stabiliser and improving that process. The most important part of this change was earning the trust of the management and the regular employees. I was 31 years old at that time.”
Carrying out R&D
A year later, Chen was promoted to factory director as a result of his remarkable capacity for work. After that, he accelerated his reforms and innovations and made many useful changes. The first was the fortified breakfast milk he developed, which is considered a milestone in China's dairy industry. This milk became popular throughout China soon after entering the market. At that time, many visitors to Beijing would receive requests to take some Sanyuan Foods fortified breakfast milk back to their families and friends in other parts of China.
Chen related: “We did a lot of market research to develop fortified breakfast milk, but we did not require many people to do it. We just needed to find out about people's daily experiences. At that time, I found that some urban residents in both North and South China ate milk, eggs and cereal in the morning. I thought it could be convenient if they were all mixed together.” It was not easy to develop a new product, and Chen put in a great deal of effort to carry out the R&D of this product. Chen explained: “Eggs will solidify if they are heated even slightly. Maintaining their liquid state increases their stability. Eggs need to be stabilised after they are beaten and added to the milk. This ensures the product looks and tastes good and is also nutritious. Combining milk, eggs and cereal can be an exact science. The formula is important. Our aim is to ensure that our product will not have any competitors for three years. Many enterprises copied our product, but they have not succeeded. Our fortified breakfast milk created a ‘new industry' at the time.”
Chen's innovations and reforms improved the company's offerings as well as production efficiency and profits. At that time, one procedure involved picking up bags of milk on an assembly line. About 40 workers were required to operate twenty machines. Chen examined the process and thought he could improve it. A worker took a bag of milk from a large box and squeezed it to see if there were any leaks. He then put it back into the box. Fast workers could complete the process within a few seconds. Some workers took almost one minute to complete the simple task though. Chen thought encouraging the workers at the facility would help with improving production efficiency. He proposed an adjustment of the workers' wages. The total amount of money allocated for salaries could not be adjusted, but the number of workers devoted to this task could be reduced to 20. Average monthly wages would, therefore, be doubled.
People wondered whether they would make the cut and if they could handle the increased workload. Chen explained: “I put many bags of milk on the conveyor belt and asked less than 20 people to do the job. The result confirmed that my idea was feasible. Later, everyone supported my reform. People who stayed got raises and efficiency increased greatly.”
In February 2002, Chen was promoted deputy general manager of Sanyuan Foods and director of its R&D centre. He became responsible for the company's R&D, production, quality control and marketing. He quickly led a R&D project to extend the shelf life of yoghurt. Sanyuan Foods was China's first dairy company to do so. When live microorganisms are killed and aseptic packaging is used, yoghurt can last longer. Nutrition is maintained and the packaging is convenient for consumers to open.
Chen thought that cooperation between various departments in the company is vital when developing a good product that will be accepted by the market. The company's R&D, marketing, production and PR departments should work together. Big undertakings like developing new products are not the missions of a single employee or department. They require the entire enterprise to work together as a complete system. The success of a product is usually related to the success of the system. A good product can be furthered by other enterprises in its industry and will have the opportunity to be improved.
Revitalising China’s Dairy Industry
The melamine-contaminated powdered infant formula scandal in 2008 impacted many of China's well-known dairy companies, which led to a decline in the industry for a while. Sanyuan Foods was an exception because it has always provided authentic and safe dairy products to consumers by virtue of its strict quality control. It became a major force in the revitalisation of China's dairy industry.
Chen recounted: “At that time, after I led my team members to purchase a dairy enterprise in Hebei Province, I told the then-general manager we should not put too much emphasis on our output when we develop infant formulas. We also need to do a lot of research. Infant formulas are the only source of food for infants who are not fed by breast milk. They are in a very important period at that time. The 1,000-day period from embryo to a 2-year-old baby is the most critical period in the growth and development of someone's life. The nutritional basis of
this period influences one's growth, health and happiness for the rest of his or her life. Infants need to be treated well during this golden period. Organ development is irreversible. A child is not only part of the happiness and hopes of a family but is also part of the future of the country. The quality of infant formulas is related to a child's physical health and is part of the health of our nation.”
The company had to think about the best way to make infant formulas, conduct R&D and maintain good quality control. In 2008, there were gaps in processes related to formula in China. Chen proposed to the company's management that the gaps should be filled. Moreover, its R&D should be conducted at a national, strategic level and not just from an enterprise level. Sanyuan Foods would shoulder responsibility for the revitalisation of China's dairy industry.
At that time, most people in China would begin conversations about infant formulas by talking about imported foreign brands. People could not necessarily explain why they were good in detail though. China had a national standard for infant formulas, which included indicators regarding protein, carbohydrates, minerals and other nutritional information.
Any products that complied with the requirements were considered qualified. The national standard did not explain how to rate various infant formulas exactly though. China also lacked large-scale, systematic research on the composition of breast milk in the country. There was no information available regarding what kind of formula would be the most suitable for Chinese infants and would benefit Chinese people's physiologies the best.
The People's Government of Beijing Municipality worked with Sanyuan Foods to revitalise China's dairy industry. The company applied to invest 100 million yuan to set up a State-level National Dairy Health Technology Research Centre. R&D carried out at the centre would focus on areas such as studying the composition of Chinese breast milk, developing infant formula that is similar to Chinese breast milk, and ensuring its continuous upgrade and improvement.
Chen led his team members to cooperate with more than 20 domestic entities, such as universities, hospitals, research institutes and enterprises, as well as more than 200 experts, to carry out research about breast milk in six cities and provinces. More than 1,000 breast milk samples would be collected from a given mother as part of a rigourous and reliable cohort study, and a long-term, follow-up study would be conducted. The samples were difficult to obtain, as a result of the project's long time span.
Chen explained: “In order to carry out a comparative experiment, we had to look for volunteers in hospitals. We found that foreign dairy enterprises were doing similar research. It was not easy to recruit volunteers for the experiment. Luckily, a doctor's relative agreed to cooperate with us. Three days after the experiment, the volunteer said our product did well and shared her baby's feelings about the product with other people at a promotional activity. More than 100 attendees at the activity entered into agreements with us to participate in the experiment. We got a good foothold in the competition with foreign companies. We spent four years studying breast milk to increase the nutritional content of our infant formula. It was important to upgrade it to promote the health of infants' microbiome and help it approach the effect of breast feeding. Our infant formula also helps ensure that the intellectual development of infants is similar to what is achieved when breast feeding. Our R&D showed what kind of infant formula is suitable for Chinese infants.”
After years of efforts, Sanyuan Foods presented its new infant formula in 2017 based on in-house R&D, which ultimately covered 20,000 samples and 20 million data points. The product was selected to be featured at an exhibition showcasing China's major scientific and technological achievements that resulted from the 12th Five-year Plan (2011–2015). In 2017, sales of the product increased by 260 percent.
It is one of the most expensive Chinese infant formulas in China, but its sales are still doubling because of consumers' trust.
Sanyuan Foods has promoted R&D in China's dairy industry. Many domestic dairy enterprises began to put more emphasis on basic research. Sanyuan Foods led the creation of a comprehensive breast milk database for the industry. The company also established a fund that is used to invite experts from higher learning institutions and well-known hospitals to conduct research on dairy products for infants.
Chen said: “No infant formula can exceed the quality of breast milk. Therefore, we must ensure that our products get as close as possible. If we want to do a good job, we have to do a lot of research. As technology and research methods progress, we can utilise more and more advanced methods to analyse breast milk and develop more perfect infant formulas that are similar to breast milk, which will contribute to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Chen Lijun selects a sample for his research into infant formula milk powders.