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Story | 11/07/2016 10:01:00

Three decades of Hengan – from sanitary pads to tissue revolution

Vanessa Yang

Anhai in China’s Fujian province has always been a prosperous area for traders. Today, it is home to China’s largest manufacturer of sanitary pads, nappies and tissue paper, Hengan International Group Company Limited, which is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Xu Lianjie originally ran a clothing factory in the early 1980s. That all changed when he happened to see a production line manufacturing sanitary pads. Noting the gap in the market for this emerging product – and with the OEM clothing market becoming increasingly overcrowded – Xu decided to switch industries. He founded Hengan in 1985. ‘Heng’ means permanence and eternity, while ‘An’ refers to Xu’s hometown, Anhai. After 30 years Hengan International Group is China's top tissue company and Xu its CEO.

Better quality of life for women

Most Chinese women had never heard of sanitary pads in the late 1980s – the Chinese society was conservative and information was scarce. Xu named Hengan’s first sanitary pad product ‘Anle’, meaning ‘comfort’.

Anle sanitary pads were first launched on the Shanghai market in 1986. They rapidly became a nationwide bestseller. Renowned for their high quality, Anle sanitary pads went on to dominate the Chinese market, achieving a market share of 40% and becoming a household name.

Tissues put Hengan on fast track to growth

Xu’s next breakthrough product, a tissue brand called ‘Hearttex’, provided the company with a springboard for rapid growth.

In 1998, Xu was troubled by sinusitis. Struggling to find handkerchiefs that didn’t shed fibres, he was forced to make frequent trips to Hong Kong. He became keenly aware of a gap in the market for high-quality tissues. With China in the twentieth year of its reform and open-door policy, Xu saw an opportunity to tap into the country’s rising standard of living and changing consumer awareness.

Xu revolutionized the tissue industry by introducing a new, high-quality paper tissue brand. Hearttex quickly conquered the South China market and the entire industry.

Currently, Hengan’s annual tissue production capacity is around one million tonnes. The company’s three major brands are Hearttex, Premium (Youxuan) and Pino, which come in many different pack sizes. Hearttex has been the number one tissue brand in the Chinese market for years.

Working together for sustainable development

Reflecting on the past three decades, Xu says: “Hengan could not have got to where it is today without its integrity, innovation, corporate culture and commitment to responsibility. Furthermore, achieving corporate social responsibility would not have been possible without the help and support of our partners.”

UPM has partnered with Hengan as a pulp supplier since 2009.

“UPM is Hengan’s best choice. The help they have provided in raising customer awareness of sustainable development is even more valuable than their products and technical service,” says Xu.

Hengan attaches great importance to sustainable development. Last year, UPM and Hengan started an ongoing active dialogue on corporate responsibility, environmental and safety issues.

In 2014, domestic tissue production capacity increased by 4.4% to 8.3 million tonnes in China. According to Xu, the Chinese tissue paper industry is now overcrowded and price competition is fierce. Companies that do not comply with environmental requirements or offer low-quality products will be driven out of the market sooner or later.