He Boquan worked as a farmer after graduating from high school, and then became a teacher in a rural high school. Later he went back to the city and enrolled in college, subsequently becoming the local secretary of the Communist Youth League.
In 1987, after being appointed deputy director of Zhongshan Xiaolan Pharmaceutical Factory, a small plant manufacturing simple medicines, he realized that there were no health products particularly designed for teenagers in the market. After thorough research, He decided that a yogurt product would have the huge market potential he was seeking; thus a new business idea was born.
On 21 February 1989, He founded the Zhongshan Robust Health Products Company with capital of RMB960 000 (about $17 000 at that time) acquired from four hometown friends. With Robust yogurt for teenagers as the new company’s main product, He began his career as a health product entrepreneur in China. By 1992, the company had become a cross-regional and cross-industrial collective entity, with 17 subsidiaries and over 200 operations across the country.
In that year He Boquan restructured the company as the Guangdong Jinri Group Corporation. Focused primarily on infants and young customers, He successfully launched a series of nutritional dairy beverages that generated RMB130 million of gross production value. According to He, ‘Jinri means only today, and we should make progress day by day’ (Wu, 2002). By 1994 the group had risen to become one of the top five health products companies in China, and consequently He was named a Famous Entrepreneur in the National Health Products Industry and an Outstanding Entrepreneur in the National Food Industry. The success of the Jinri Group was recorded in the Case Study of China’s Famous Brands, compiled by the Policy Research Center of the Central Communist Party and the Development Research Center of the State Council in 1997.
He Boquan experienced a banner year in 1998. First he spent RMB12 million to hire McKinsey for consultation on corporate strategy, organizational structure and financing, which made the Jinri Group the first Chinese township enterprise in the country to engage a leading global consulting company. He also took the lead in introducing the advanced SAP management system to the Chinese food and beverage industry, and the Jinri Group became the first Chinese food and beverage company and township enterprise ever selected for the Harvard Business Case Study. By the end of 1998, He had earned $85 million. In January 1999, Jinri was renamed the Robust Group to unify the brand image. Again ranked among the top-ten in the Chinese beverage industry, Robust was recognized as one of China’s most famous brands by the State Trademark Bureau in the same year.
In March 2000 Robust reached an agreement with the Danone Group to set up a joint venture, the Robust Food and Beverage Corporation (Guangdong), with Danone acting as holding company. He was fully confident that the merger would make Robust better prepared for the challenge of China’s entry into the WTO. However, not only did Robust fall short of the scheduled sales target, the partners also failed to agree on a long-term corporate strategy. Thus He and four friends resigned from the top management on 30 November 2001. While He still remained as vice chairman of the board of directors, he noted that ‘this is the first lesson learned after China’s entry into the WTO. Chinese enterprises must accept the game rules of the Western world if they want to merge into the global markets’ (Li, 2001).