Chili sauce tycoon went from poverty to riches

Updated: 2015-03-20 07:48

By Yang Jun and Peng Yining(China Daily)

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Founder of Old Mama brand sold noodles on streets before setting up a company worth $600m

Reporters stirred when a woman with gray hair strolled into the meeting room. Wearing a red sweater and a deep purple jacket trimmed with sequins, she looked more like she was going square-dancing rather than attending a meeting during the two sessions, the annual gathering of the country's top legislators and political advisers.

She ignored the flashes of whirring cameras and microphones thrust close to her face and quietly sat behind a table with a name tag that said Tao Huabi, the name of a legendary entrepreneur and an illiterate multimillionaire.

Tao, 68, is better known as Lao Gan Ma, or Old Mama, which is the brand name of her famous chili sauce. Her company, founded in 1996, was valued at 3.7 billion yuan ($600 million) in 2013.

As a National People's Congress deputy from Zunyi, in northern Guizhou province, Tao comes to Beijing every year for the annual parliamentary session.

Born in a poverty-stricken village in Meitan county, Guizhou, Tao never spent a day in school. But now her face is printed on bottles of her chili sauce, which is sold in more than 45 countries and regions.

The sauce is a staple in Chinese households and is sold in almost every grocery store across the country - so much so that the name Lao Gan Ma has become synonymous for chili sauce.

Chinese students who study overseas call Tao "the goodness" because her chili sauce is their cure for homesickness. But they might not know that 40 years ago their "goodness" started her business with a small noodle stand, built with bricks she picked up from a dump.

Tao's husband died while she was in her 20s, and she was forced to sell rice noodles on the street to feed her two sons. Like most people in her province, Tao was a fan of spicy food, and she was very good at cooking with chili sauce.

Over time, she noticed that people came to her small stand for her sauce rather than the noodles she was selling.

So in 1996, with help from her local government, Tao opened a factory and was on her way to becoming a food tycoon, even though she was unable to write her own name.

The name Lao Gan Ma came from her early customers, who were mostly poor students who used her stand to fill up on cheap noodles. Despite her own poverty, Tao helped the students by offering them extra noodles at no extra charge. They began to call her Old Mama out of gratitude.

"Life was hard in past decades," she said. "I was once kicked off a bus because I was carrying a large bag of noodles. I didn't cry even in the toughest situation. I had two sons to feed."

Tao added: "I am very proud of my hometown and appreciate the help I've had from the people there and the authorities."

For years, her company has created jobs for the region and helped local farmers to grow better chili peppers.

"As a businesswoman in Guizhou, it is time for me to pay something back to society," Tao said.

Su Jiangyuan and Zhao Kai contributed to this story.

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Chili sauce tycoon went from poverty to riches

Chili sauce tycoon went from poverty to riches

(China Daily 03/20/2015 page7)