To China with love
She attracted media attention in 2013 for her plans to build a luxury hotel in Dunedin. Nowadays Jing Song's attracting Chinese buyers to premium New Zealand wine and food.
She attracted media attention in 2013 for her plans to build a luxury hotel in Dunedin. Nowadays Jing Song is attracting Chinese buyers to premium New Zealand wine and food and forging business links between both countries.
By Glenn Baker.
As a young teenager Jing Song arrived in Christchurch from mainland China to study at St Andrews College. Her English was minimal, but she was in awe of the beautiful traditional English and colonial style architecture – particularly in the central city that was devastated by the earthquakes some years later.
“Most of the Kiwis I initially came into contact with didn’t know much about China,” recalls Jing. “Things have definitely changed since then with more Kiwis now travelling to China for business and leisure. Some even speak better Chinese than I do!”
Jing says even today she is amazed by what New Zealand can offer, given that it is a small country. “Living and doing business here for me is like reading an interesting book – falling in love with the people [characters], never quite knowing what’s around the next corner, and always looking forward to the next chapter.”
It was while Jing was studying accountancy at Otago University that her family decided to move to Queenstown. She stayed on in Dunedin to sit the PCE 1 Chartered Accountant’s exam, and realized that, at age 21, she has achieved what she (and her mother) had set out to do. But did she really want to be an accountant for the rest of her life?
The answer would come as a result of her regular drives through stunning Gibbston Valley. The beautiful vineyards got Jing thinking about wine, “although at that point I had no intention or desire to set up my own business”.
A chance meeting with one of New Zealand’s most respected winemakers, Grant Taylor of Valli Vineyards, proved to be the catalyst for change.
“Under Grant’s expert tutelage I watched how wine is made throughout the yearly cycles. I learnt how boutique winemaking with its hands-on attention to detail differs from large scale winemaking,” says Jing. “I volunteered during the harvest, picking grapes and helping with the bottling. This was a completely different experience from being a ‘bean counter’ sitting in an office all day and I loved it. I’d finally found my passion, and identified my possible ‘future career’ as a wine distributor.”
Jing’s wine education involved visiting lots of wine retailers and restaurants. She became aware that price, rather than quality, often dictates which wine people buy, particularly in developing countries where there is limited knowledge of wine.
Realising there was a gap in the market for a business linking wine producers directly with consumers who appreciated premium quality goods and were hungry for knowledge, Jing and Grant formed Catlins Wine Trading Partnership in 2010 with a focus on exporting premium wines, particularly Central Otago Pinots, to China. They subsequently launched Crown Range Cellar Limited to satisfy their expanding customer base.
Not afraid to juggle multiple projects, Jing also formed Betterways to assist and facilitate business between China and New Zealand. Betterways hosts business groups, advising them on how to enter either market and providing ongoing strategic advice and support.
“I started Betterways via a one-way ticket to China, challenging myself not to return to New Zealand until I had engaged my first client,” says Jing. “It took me almost a year!”
The first challenge for the Partnership was the Chinese perception that New Zealand wine was low quality compared to wine from countries such as France and the US.
“China is not a mature wine market, most people prefer to buy French wine; they see it as the best in the world,” says Jing. “I realised that to survive we needed to focus on the wine’s provenance. I started by telling Grant Taylor’s story as a winemaker, highlighting his passion and amazing success including his three wins at the acclaimed International Wine and Spirits Competition.”
This focus proved successful; consumers wanted to know about the man behind the wine. Custom-designed wine labels to suit particular occasions and corporate gifts also bolstered sales and has become a key point of difference for Crown Range Cellar.
Today she works with a number of leading New Zealand wine, honey and water producers to service discerning clients both in New Zealand and overseas.
A learning process
Jing’s advice for growing a business is to not over commit on expenditure – particularly management, marketing and design fees. “I follow the old rule of thumb; make sure you sell it before you spend it.”
If you’re targeting China, it’s best to aim for a specific region or smaller city first to establish sales and develop your reputation, before moving on to a bigger city.
“Identifying the distribution channels and ‘gate keepers’ in each region or city and developing a relationship is key to growing export sales in China.
“Unlike New Zealand where businesses can be promoted through ‘word of mouth’, in China you’re competing with millions of brands. So make sure you have the financial backing.”
Now aged 28, and with a nine-month old son, Jing admits that growing and managing her businesses has stretched her. “I quickly realized it’s a great deal more complicated than doing a set of accounts.”
She’s grateful for the support she has had from Grant, “he’s been a very patient teacher”, and her general manager Jo Wright – “her exceptional coordination skills ensure everything now runs smoothly”.
Crown Range Cellar is about to formally launch its brand domestically and there’s a showroom planned for central Auckland this year.
“We’re also focusing on continuing to grow our market overseas,” says Jing. “Helping promote New Zealand, it’s fabulous products, people and country.”
Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness.
Wrong city, wrong time
In 2013 Jing Song was the public face of a consortium behind the proposed construction of a world-class luxury hotel in Dunedin. The controversial project failed to obtain resource consent, but the whole experience was a turning point for Jing, who was saddened and disappointed at the project’s outcome. “It affected me personally because I was genuinely passionate and enthusiastic about the city I’d grown up in, and believed the hotel would offer real benefits for Dunedin.
“The experience taught us some valuable lessons. Before considering any project of a similar nature we would need to be assured that the council had the appropriate experts on board who had experience with similar scale development projects, and were able to provide a thorough assessment of any application, prior to us embarking upon the costly consenting process.”
January 29, 2015