GROUNDED IN THE SOUTH BAY, CENTERED ON THE SUN
Sunrider may not be a name that readily comes to mind as one of America’s most-recognized brands. Many Americans might struggle to name even one of the company’s 415 health, beauty and household products. However, with a reported $775 million global sales in 2012, this privately held, family-run business—headquartered in Old Town Torrance since 1987—is unquestionably the sleeper hit of the natural products industry.
Guests who enter the glass-walled lobby of Sunrider’s 350,000-square-foot headquarters are greeted by two large, twisted metal sculptures that appear to emerge from the earth. They are titled “Regeneration,” a name that also serves as the company’s philosophy. According to the artwork’s description, “Just as the five elements metal, wood, water, fire and earth are balanced in nature, Sunrider products are based on the philosophy of regeneration to maintain health and prosperity.”
The architects of this philosophy are Sunrider founders Tei-Fu Chen, PhD, and his wife, Oi-Lin Chen, MD. Today, regeneration is at work at Sunrider through an additional five elements: the Chens’ adult children who spent their childhood working alongside their parents. With the senior Chens still very hands-on, the younger Chens are now using their diverse talents, fresh ideas and symbiotic family dynamic to introduce Sunrider to a new generation of health-conscious consumers.
Siblings Wendy Teng, JD, Reuben Chen, MD, Sunny Beutler, JD, Eric Chen, PhD, and Jonathan Chen all serve in leadership roles within Sunrider. And because the company has never believed in testing their products on animals, they have also long served as the “guinea pigs” for new products.
“If we don’t like it, we don’t sell it,” says “baby of the family” Jonathan, a self-described “computer geek.” In spite of his parents’ wish that he pursue medicine, Jonathan earned his Bachelor of Science in information systems and Master of Science in information systems management from Brigham Young University (BYU). He now serves as global information technology director.
Beutler (her married name), nicknamed by the company’s China staff and Authorized Business Owners (ABOs) “Da Xiao Ji”—translated to English as “Big Little Boss”—earned her Bachelor of Arts in international studies and her Juris Doctor from BYU.
“Since I was little, my parents had me answering phones, wearing a headset at conventions and helping out at workshops,” she says. “It was fun, but I remember getting yelled at on the phone by adults and not knowing how to handle it,” she continues with a laugh. She learned the ropes through that trial by fire.
A born manager and multitasker, Beutler oversees international operations with ABOs and special events. She and the Chen clan recently attended the January Sundance Film Festival, where Sunrider served as the official tea and herbal beverage sponsor of ChefDance, the Canon Lounge and the Huffington Post Lounge.
Eric, whom Jonathan calls “the quiet, smart one who always earned straight As,” earned his Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from BYU and his PhD in organic chemistry from UCLA. As operations director of Sunrider Manufacturing, he works closely with Sunrider’s scientists to stay on the cutting edge of new product development.
As a sickly boy in Chiayi City in southwestern Taiwan, their father Tei-Fu learned about herbs from his paternal grandfather. He then studied his grandfather’s ancient manuscripts on herbs and graduated with a degree in pharmacy from Kaohsiung Medical College.
Accompanied by his new bride, Oi-Lin, he continued his studies at Brigham Young University in Utah—a decision driven by his conversion to Mormonism when he was 16. While there, he also taught science and judo.
After BYU, Tei-Fu became research and development director for a multi-level marketing nutritional company, where he began developing his own line of herbal remedies. In 1982 Tei-Fu, along with Oi-Lin—who had earned her MD—and another business partner, decided to found their own company, and Sunrider was born.
Rooted in the belief that disease is the result of poor nutrition, the company set out to meld traditional Chinese herbalism with Western science and make products to improve lifestyle and wellbeing. Influenced by the success of other multi-level marketing companies in Utah, Tei-Fu structured Sunrider as a direct sales enterprise.
Similar to its competitors—Herbalife, Amway and Avon— Sunrider sells its products through a network of independent business owners. It has grown into a global business that distributes products to nearly 50 countries and has expanded to include franchise stores in other countries and a chain of luxury hotels—Sunworld Dynasty Hotels in China and Taiwan.
Although building a global empire required long hours and frequent international travel, the Chen children say their parents always made sure they “felt the love” while growing up. “They would always cancel everything to be at each one of our high school and college graduations. It was that important to them,” says Jonathan—although, he admits, at times it seemed more like “tough love.”
While some children might rebel against their childhood work regimen, according to Jonathan it instead taught him and his siblings to “accept work as part of life. My parents always said, ‘Don’t complain about work. It can’t always be fun.’ We saw our parents go through a lot of hardship, so it made us appreciate what they accomplished and want to work just as hard to succeed.”
Eric says, “When they got home at night, they were still working. We would go to bed before our parents. They would be up until 2 or 3 a.m. This really stuck. Dad was always trying to make something new and then to make it better. He would always say, ‘It [Sunrider product] has to be the best.’”
The Chens credit their family values to their Chinese culture and their Mormon religion, which places a strong emphasis on giving back through community service. Sunrider has long supported the American Cancer Society’s “Relay for Life,” Junior Leadership Torrance, Tech Trek—which sends female middle school students to science camp—and Adopt-a-School. This past fall, the family gave back in a big way through a $2.5 million donation to Torrance Memorial Medical Center. In return, the surgical department of the new Lundquist Tower will carry the Chen name.
With parents, siblings and now 10 grandchildren (four born at Torrance Memorial and two more on the way) all living in the South Bay, the Chen family has a personal stake in supporting local health care. In addition, Reuben, described as the “hardest working and most intense” sibling, was recently appointed a staff physician in Torrance Memorial’s physical medicine/rehab department, where he treats patients who have undergone recent surgeries.
The family first became acquainted with the medical center 24 years ago when Oi-Lin underwent life-saving treatment there for Stage III nasopharyngeal cancer. With just a 10% chance of survival, she received aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Although fully recovered, she remains in the care of her physician, Marc Colman, MD, who introduced the Chens to the Torrance Memorial Health Care Foundation’s director of major and corporate gifts, Judith Gassner.
“My mom’s cancer influenced us because we were all quite young when it happened. My youngest brother Jonathan was only 5,” says Sunny. “Dr. Colman and her other doctors took such good care of her, and from those experiences we always think of Torrance Memorial as our hospital.”
She continues, “The donation to the surgical department just made sense. We hope that with the donation, many more people will be able to experience the kind of wonderful care and treatment we received as a family at Torrance Memorial.”
As Tei-Fu Chen has explained, he named the company Sunrider because “if we face the sun, the shadows will always be behind us.” Reuben has continued that forward-thinking mindset with a new enterprise. In 2013 he opened a Torrance clinic called SunLiving Health & Wellness. It continues the legacy of blending traditional and holistic medicine through customized nutrition, fitness, cosmetic and sports medicine programs.
As the next-gen Chens take Sunrider to the next level domestically and internationally, two long-standing family rituals remain a constant. They meet for $5 movie night every Tuesday, and mom Oi-Lin invites all 20+ children, spouses and grandchildren for casual dinners every Sunday evening.
“If our parents are out of town, we have a potluck,” says Teng (her married name), who earned a bachelor’s degree in English and biology from UCLA and a Juris Doctor from Duke University School of Law. As vice president of marketing, her mission is to increase brand awareness of Sunrider through web marketing and social media.
“Our mom always told us, your friends will come and go, but your siblings will be there forever. So you’d better get along,” says Teng. But the Chens don’t view this required family time as a chore and are quick to appreciate the family cards they’ve been dealt.
“We’re very blunt with each other, and we don’t hold back. But we’re not competitive with each other,” Jonathan says. “We are always proud of each other and push each other hard to succeed.”
He continues, “We come into this world to make a difference. Life is hard, and that we’ve had some extra help from our parents is not a bad thing. We always recognize how fortunate we are and how important it is to give back. Our hope is that we can pass along this same passion and work ethic to our children.”