It takes a certain resiliency to succeed as an entrepreneur. But navigating the ultra-competitive, murky waters of the Chinese market takes more than resiliency—it takes a boxer’s quick reflexes and knockout instincts. Toronto-raised, Lee Tseng has done just that with Boxing Cat, a brewery that he co-founded in Shanghai. In my profile of him for UofT Magazine, he mentions the setbacks that he encountered on the road to award-winning brews. But in our interview, he shared a lot more—with valuable lessons for any kind of entrepreneur looking to succeed in a foreign country. So here’s more on Lee and his journey as he recounts moving from Toronto to Shanghai, being his own boss and learning a very valuable lesson.
You said after graduation from U of T you had planned to stay in Toronto, but decided to make a leap to Shanghai instead — what inspired you to go? What moment was it that you decided to leave?
It was mostly a combination of family influence as well as the excitement of being a part of the KFC franchise model at a point of time when it was really booming in China that finally allowed me to make that decision to leave Toronto. I went to Shanghai in September 2002 with the thought that I would check it out for three months and make my decision whether to stay or go. Within the first two months, I really had a proper look at the boom that was going on in Shanghai. It was enough to convince me to stay because so many opportunities were seemingly available in a whole new frontier. To me, home would always be there waiting for me, so I felt I should take the chance to explore and grow within China, and take that trek back home only when I felt I had properly gave China my best shot.
When did you know that you wanted to work for yourself?
To be quite honest I didn’t know until the third or fourth year in Shanghai. We had just opened our first branded café from the ground up and I was involved in every single detail of that process. That whole experience really opened my eyes to the Chinese market and how different it was compared to what I would imagine it to be back in Canada. I truly felt that being an entrepreneur was something that allowed me to grow so much faster as an individual and offered so many more challenges and excitement than a corporate job otherwise would, so once I got on the that track I couldn’t see myself going back to working full time for corporate ever again.
Before “Boxing Cat” I know you did some property investments. Can you tell me a specific story of one of these early ventures—which one taught you the most going forward on your own?
If I had to pinpoint one story, I would say that I learned the most from my first major failure. It was my first renovation project of an old garden home. As a fairly green newbie in China, I still had a lot of faith in people’s character and word, as well as in basic contracts. We had finished most of the renovation at that point only to find that the air-con system installations weren’t being completed and would severely delay the project. The A/C company continually refused to come as we wrapped up everything else with the renovation, so instead of waiting for that company, we hired another company to finish the job. The new company came in to examine what was already completed but instead found that the components used were all fake or second-hand. The construction project manager had a deal all along with the first company to use fake branded systems and split the profits. Despite the fact that it was my first project with no prior construction experience, I felt it was mostly my own fault that it happened as I was really in the dark until the end about the con.
However, it taught me a very important lesson moving forward—contracts can be useless even when they’re enforceable, the people you work with or employ can’t be fully trusted no matter what they seem to be, and that everything will always be operated in the grey rather than black and white in Shanghai. The sooner you understand that, the more prepared you are to take on the market and protect yourself from similar mistakes in the future. Even though the market practices in China have dramatically improved, I still take that mindset into any project these days.
You said when you started there was only one other microbrewery in China — which one was it, and you also mentioned that your co-founder headed that project up?
Henry’s was the name—it was that project that originally brought my former brewmaster and co-founder Gary Heyne to Shanghai.
What month did your suburban location open?
The first Boxing Cat Brewery location opened in April, 2008
And now you have three locations and a new brewmaster that uses local ingredients?
Michael Jordan, our brewmaster, is originally from Portland. He started out homebrewing and then worked in U.S. craft breweries including the Widmer Brothers, before moving to Denmark to become brewmaster for Bryggeriet S.C. Fuglsang. We try to use new culinary ingredients in our beer, like Szechuan peppercorns in our Belgian Tripel with ginger and pear shojou, to help spur local interest. Examples of our other Asian-inspired flavours are kaffir lime and lemongrass wheat beer, mango beer and Yunnan tea amber. Michael also started a beer series this year featuring our Goji Ale, themed after the Four Corners of China.
Our aim is to make great beer that people can enjoy locally, while meeting the international standards for craft beer. Our IPA has 62 IBUs (international bitterness units) on par with other India Pale Ales around the world—not 32 like some breweries who lower the bitterness to meet the local palate. We’re sticking to those standards—we are a principled company that aims to be China’s premier local craft brewery.