If you could be the boss of any company in the world, with your pay package completely tied to performance, which would you choose? If you answered Kweichow Moutai Ltd., congratulations. You couldn’t have made a better choice.
For those who don’t know this company, it is the largest and by far most successful distiller of China’s favored prestige alcoholic drink. There is no faster-growing, large spirits company anywhere in the world. Better still, if you do become boss, there’s just about nothing you could do short of outright criminality that would in any way slow its stupefying growth rate. In 2010, sales rose by about 20% to over $2.2 billion. So strong and constant is the demand for the company’s product that their major headache is preventing designated retailers from raising the price above the already sky-high levels fixed by the company.
During 2010, the street price of a bottle of Moutai’s highest-end brew, called Feitian, doubled from Rmb 700 ($105) to over Rmb1,300 ($200). The raw material cost? Probably under Rmb10 per bottle. Getting a fix on its real level of profitability is hard to do. But, in my estimation, there is no more profitable liquid mass-produced anywhere in the world. Make no mistake. Moutai is not 25-year-old Courvoisier. Chinese love the stuff. But, it is a species of what Americans would call “rockgut”, distilled from a low-end grain called sorghum and then diluted with water drawn from springs surrounding the distillery in Guizhou province.
When I first came to China 30 years ago, a bottle of Moutai cost no more than a few dollars. It’s the same stuff today, brewed according to a Qing Dynasty formula. The main difference is that over 30 years, the price has gone up 30-fold. And no, that’s not because sorghum prices have skyrocketed.
So, what explains Moutai’s astounding success? Simple math. More and more Chinese chasing an insufficient supply of the country’s highest-end liquor brand. Consumption of bottled liquor has grown by 20% over the last five years, and shows no sign of slowing. Moutai plans to double its output over the next four years, then double it again by 2020. Overall, the plan is to increase output by 2.5 times in next nine years.
At the start of the year, Moutai put in a price cap, to try to stop its retailers selling Feitian for over Rmb959 a bottle. The price immediately shot up over Rmb1,200. Seeing the Moutai fly off the shelves, retailers then imposed limits on the number of bottles a customer could buy at one time. Supply restricted, the price just kept climbing.
Packaging and marketing are pretty much unchanged over the last 30 years. Along withTsingtao beer, it’s one of the few branded products in China to stick to the old and clumsy pre-revolution spelling of its name. The company is called Kweichow Moutai but no one knows it under that name. In China, it is pronounced “Gway-Joe Mao-Tai”.
Good, bad or indifferent, whoever is the CEO of this company (the current incumbent is Yuan Renguo) will certainly succeed in keeping things buoyant. As long as Chinese keep making money, they are going to spend a percentage on Moutai. The company has even achieved some success in export markets lately, with sales rising 55% to $50mn in 2010.
If Mr. Yuan chooses early retirement and wants to bring in some foreign blood at the top, I’m available to take over. I’ve been to Guizhou, most recently just two weeks ago, and like the scenery and the food. I also know how (thanks to a Guizhou client) to evaluate the quality of Moutai: you rub a bit between your palms. If it smells like soy sauce, it’s the real thing.
The only snag: I’m not much of a fan of the company’s product. Since moving to China, I’ve had enough of it to pickle a goodly portion of my liver. But, it’s still an unacquired taste. Drinking good cognac or Armagnac familiarizes you with the aromas of peat and oak. Drinking Moutai familiarizes you with how instantaneously alcohol can go from gullet to bloodstream. Most frequently, I can remember drinking Moutai but not how I get home afterward. Maybe that’s the secret to the brand’s success?