Tommy Li hopes to create a Chinese medicine industry Tommy Li Ying-sang is the head of a fast-moving family firm and his conversation is peppered with phrases from the modern management lexicon. He refers to quality control issues and expansion plans for his company's factory in a modern industrial building in Chai Wan. He then moves on to sales projections, branding, retail branch networks or recent research and development initiatives. But while the linguistic framework is up to the minute, Mr Li's business is, in a sense, millennia old. His raw materials are roots, plants, fungi, dried sea creatures and assorted animal parts best not described. And, as chairman of the Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Merchants Association and the Pak Shing Tong Group, he is at the forefront of efforts to promote the understanding and use of some of the most traditional methods to restore health and maintain well-being. However, by applying modern-day know-how, implementing a high standard of regulation and putting centuries of inherited wisdom on a firm scientific footing, he is intent on creating a new 'industry'. With the support of the government, branches of academia, and local bodies now overseeing the sector, the aim is to make Hong Kong a world centre for the study and practise of Chinese medicine techniques, and for the manufacture and distribution of the associated powders, capsules, patent products and ingredients. 'Most Hong Kong people are health conscious, but do not receive proper education on the benefits and theories of Chinese medicine,' Mr Li said. 'They will definitely adopt it as their major health solution once they know and understand the real benefits. The more they know, the more they will use it.' For this reason, Mr Li has focused much of his time over the past decade on two main areas - pushing for the introduction of tighter regulations and educating the public. As a result, there is now a licensing system and a professional code of conduct for practitioners. They must prescribe clearly and are actively encouraged to obtain not just the relevant licence, but also an academic degree, and to pursue continuing education. 'Experienced, forward-looking professionals are needed to lead the industry,' Mr Li said. There are also licensing requirements for companies dealing in herbs and other items in their natural form, and for those manufacturing patented drugs derived from Chinese medicinal ingredients. Extensive laboratory tests are involved to identify constituent components and their chemical properties before submitting the product to the Chinese Medicine Council of Hong Kong for official registration. 'We have to make sure the names, main ingredients, instructions and effects are printed on the labels,' Mr Li said. 'And all the medicines have to meet standards set to limit remnants of pesticides, heavy metals and any bacterial content.' As part of the process, tests were conducted on thousands of natural products and recently developed compounds to bring the sector fully in line with today's consumer expectations. 'We need good regulations, but also good marketing strategies. In the next few years, the industry must become more professional, with modern management practices, quality control systems, proper academic training, and more research and development.' Realising the importance of boosting awareness, Mr Li also instigated a series of campaigns to educate the public and explain that patent powders or capsules could offer the same health benefits as brewing up a traditional soup-style recipe. 'We want the younger generation to have an easy way of taking Chinese medicine, whether in the office, at home or on a journey,' he said. He emphasised, though, that if Hong Kong was to lead the way, more land was needed at reasonable cost. This is not for cultivation, but for new production facilities because key ingredients will continue to come from the mainland and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam, Australia and South America. Every step in the production process requires high levels of hygiene to prevent any risk of cross-contamination, and this entails a lot of space. If costs are manageable, it will remove a major barrier to future investment. 'There is much potential for development. The advantage for Hong Kong is our credibility,' Mr Li said. This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Tommy Li at a recent CUHK EMBA Forum. The EMBA Forum is conducted regularly to provide a valuable opportunity for EMBA participants and alumni to interact with key leaders. Personal file One of my favourite TV shows is The Apprentice. It is entertaining and a chance to learn more about leadership and management philosophy in another business culture. I really admire Sir Run Run Shaw. He has always shown a 'never say die' spirit in the way he lives his life, and follows his dreams. He has also put so much effort into educating others and contributing to society through donations, sponsorships and scholarships. If I had taken another career path, I think it would have been in media or advertising, perhaps as a creative director. I first read Sun Tzu's Art of War many years ago, but I still find its ancient lessons for winning in battle useful in the modern business world.