April 01, 2014

Company Spotlight

Sunrider International: Perpetual Balance

by Beth Douglass Silcox

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Sunrider International Evens the Scales between Product and Opportunity

Company Profile

  • Founded: 1982
  • Headquarters: Torrance, Calif.
  • Founders: Dr. Tei-Fu Chen and Dr. Oi-Lin Chen
  • Executives: Wendy Teng, Vice President of Marketing; Dr. Reuben Chen, Project Manager; Sunny Beutler, International Operations Director; Eric Chen, Operations Director, Sunrider Manufacturing; and Jonathan Chen, Global Information Technology Director
  • Products: Nutritional supplements, weight management, skincare and cosmetics, household cleaners, and oral care

Ancient Chinese herbalism transformed a scrawny Taiwanese youngster named Tei-Fu Chen into a more healthful young man, who eventually mixed his herbalist grandfather’s teachings with Western science and created Sunrider International. This diversified, privately held company was built on a product-focused direct selling business plan. While products like its new SunTrim® are still of utmost importance, today Sunrider seeks balance within its business model by having a simplified business and compensation plan and by embracing a more overt campaign to train and recruit a younger generation.


Thirty-two years ago, West was just beginning to meet East. The nutritional and healing philosophies of Eastern cultures like China were new to Western consumers. Tei-Fu Chen, who by then had earned a doctorate in pharmacy and immigrated to the United States with his wife, Oi-Lin, was poised to improve human health by balancing Western science with traditional Eastern herbalism.

Dr. Tei-Fu ChenDr. Tei-Fu Chen
Dr. Oi-Lin ChenDr. Oi-Lin Chen

Decades earlier in his southern Taiwan home, Dr. Tei-Fu Chen—then affectionately known as Chopstick—watched his grandfather boil down ground herbs, Chinese yams and mucilage. The result was a drink for better nutrition and health, which eventually cost him the skinny nickname but more importantly, he says, saved his life.

By 16, Dr. Tei-Fu Chen was poring over his grandfather’s ancient herbal manuscripts, and by 20, he’d distilled thousands of years of Chinese herbal research into his own Philosophy of Regeneration®. It would take him a few more years to formulate his first prototype product, SunBreeze®, to ease the ache of muscles following judo workouts at Brigham Young University, where he went to school. The popularity of his initial ointment with students, however, foreshadowed his ultimate success in formulating and manufacturing healthful products.

While Oi-Lin earned her Doctor of Medicine degree and gave birth to the couple’s five children, Tei-Fu worked in research and development, grew more passionate about herbalism and became increasingly convinced his Philosophy of Regeneration® had something unique to offer consumers.

In 1982, with Dr. Oi-Lin Chen running a medical clinic, he stepped away from his position to found Sunrider International—so named because, Dr. Tei-Fu Chen says, “If we face the sun, the shadows will always be behind us.” The company would go on to introduce the world to products that balance Western science with the holistic principles of the East.

Philosophy of Regeneration®

“We promote real food and concentrated food. To us, the herb is just like food, so it is very unique,” Dr. Tei-Fu Chen says. “In the Western world, most people focus on vitamins, which are chemicals. In Sunrider’s thinking, we don’t really need chemicals. We have too many already. What we need is real food. The key is how you combine all this different food.”

The Philosophy of Regeneration® is the blueprint from which each Sunrider nutritional product develops. It must satisfy both yin and yang, in other words, nourish and cleanse the body. From this perspective, nourishment must come from food, not chemicals, and because no one ingredient can adequately fill nutritional gaps and maintain optimal health, there must be variety. Also, formulation and concentration depends on expertise, diligence and integrity, which Sunrider possesses.

Heroic Philanthropy

Sunrider International answers the call for help from whatever corner of the world it may originate. In fact, Founder Dr. Tei-Fu Chen’s generosity to philanthropic causes on behalf of his company landed him on Forbes Asia’s 2009 list of the “World’s Heroes of Philanthropy.”

It matters not if it’s matching hundreds of thousands of dollars in IBO disaster relief donations for China’s Sichuan Province, the Philippines or New Jersey, or donating $1 million to meet the needs of kids in developing countries through UNICEF’s “Say Yes for Children.”

Sunrider has participated in a joint effort to rebuild schools after devastating earthquakes in China, provided long-term sponsorship of charity runs and AIDS walks, donated to distributors affected by natural disasters, and made sure that children and adults in remote areas of the world received vision care from Eye Train optometrists and eye doctors.

Recently, Sunrider donated $2.5 million for the technology needs of the Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s new surgical center near their California headquarters. The Chens wanted to give back to the institution that not only skillfully treated a family member, but also improves the health of so many beyond the local community.

“Balance is key to nourishing the whole body.” —Dr. Tei-Fu Chen, Founder

“We do our research and development, extraction and formulation in-house—about 90 percent of our products we make ourselves, and that’s what we’re most proud of,” says Dr. Oi-Lin Chen, Sunrider’s President.

Sunrider owns and operates eight manufacturing facilities worldwide, totaling some 2 million square feet, where impressive and costly technologies clean, grind, extract and condense herbs through a proprietary process, then concentrate them into pill and liquid forms.

The company controls every step of product development, from initial concept to manufacturing, distribution and marketing. In fact, their nine-acre, 350,000-square-foot headquarters in Torrance, Calif., even includes a botanical garden—a playground of sorts for R&D. Control like this enables creativity and innovation and ensures the highest-quality products.

Balancing the Body and Business

The human body needs more than the West’s magical, single ingredient ascorbic acid, for instance, packed into pills and swallowed once a day, according to Dr. Tei-Fu Chen. He says that vitamin C is most beneficial to overall health when it’s contained within the whole orange—a reflection of an Eastern nutritional philosophy. In Sunrider products, East balances West and West balances East because, he explains, “Too great an emphasis either way is not good. Balance is key to nourishing the whole body.”

Sunny Beutler, International Operations Director and one of the Chens’ daughters, says, “People are looking for natural. People want real food. Generally speaking, I think most people are looking, but maybe they just haven’t found it. Sunrider is the perfect way for them to get the right nourishment in the natural way. We have a real focus on finding balance and nourishing the body through real food. All our products are derived that way.”

And balance, it turns out, is key to nourishing a company as well. The product-driven nature of Sunrider for the past three decades, according to Dr. Tei-Fu Chen, has been both pro and con.

No doubt, quality products have meant fantastic sales and enormous success for Sunrider International, which was part of the Direct Selling News $100M Club in 2012. The list comprised companies that industry experts believed reached or exceeded $100 million in sales, but for which sales data was not released to the public.

But as a direct selling company that wants to multiply and increase the income of their independent business owners, Dr. Oi-Lin Chen says more emphasis needs to be placed on Sunrider’s business opportunity. “This is what we want to do. We will do it 50/50. Good products, good business opportunity,” she says.

While there are Sunrider International distributors in China and Taiwan who have been successful and earn significant annual incomes, Dr. Tei-Fu Chen says most distributors are very humble, loyal people who feel most comfortable sharing products, not opportunity. “Most times they don’t really understand how to talk about the business opportunity. Our people go out and do house sales. Our people are humble enough that they don’t really tell people, ‘Oh, I make so much money!’ ” he says. And that is precisely what the company aims to bring into balance, so that Sunrider can help more people bring health, beauty and prosperity to their families.

“We want to make sure our products are excellent—the best of the best—and we want to make sure that our business plan is fair and exciting,” Dr. Tei-Fu Chen says. A recent simplification of the company’s business and compensation plans, as well as a new online training program and the expansion of social media and other technologies, are important first steps to achieving the balance Sunrider seeks.

This is not the first time Sunrider has sought balance of some sort. Prior to 1996, the company’s sales in China were reportedly more than $1 billion annually, then came harsh government restrictions on MLM companies because of industrywide abuses. Back then, Sunrider abandoned the MLM business model in China in favor of a retail business model and helped their most successful distributors establish storefronts.

This move created a new international, hybrid direct selling business model for the company. They combined the more traditional Independent Business Owner (IBO) model for countries like the United States with a franchising component of Authorized Business Owners (ABOs) and Sunrider® Authorized Stores, first in China and then later in countries such as Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia, as well as company stores in countries such as Australia, Vietnam and Israel.

The changes caused sinking sales in China initially, which rebounded over nearly two decades. Today, Dr. Tei-Fu Chen says, “In China, we run successfully again. Business is always challenging, but without challenge you can’t grow.”

Sunrider does its own research and development, extraction and formulation in-house.Sunrider does its own research and development, extraction and formulation in-house. Founders Drs. Oi-Lin and Tei-Fu ChenFounders Drs. Oi-Lin and Tei-Fu Chen

“We spend a lot of our time and effort to make sure that ours are the best products on the market, and we really regard the integrity of the company highly in our business plan and in how we provide compensation to our IBOs, too.” —Dr. Reuben Chen, Project Manager

International Messaging for a New Generation

“We spend a lot of our time and effort to make sure that ours are the best products on the market, and we really regard the integrity of the company highly in our business plan and in how we provide compensation to our IBOs, too,” says Dr. Reuben Chen, Project Manager overseeing R&D and business development.

He believes Sunrider’s is one of the most generous business and compensation plans of any network marketing company in the world, but spreading that message among existing and potential distributors is Sunrider’s current challenge.

Founders Drs. Oi-Lin and Tei-Fu Chen (center) are pictured with their five children who are also involved in the family business: (from left) Jonathan Chen, Eric Chen, Sunny Beutler, Wendy Teng and Reuben Chen.Founders Drs. Oi-Lin and Tei-Fu Chen (center) are pictured with their five children who are also involved in the family business: (from left) Jonathan Chen, Eric Chen, Sunny Beutler, Wendy Teng and Reuben Chen.

“In direct sales it is a person-to-person business, and we want everyone to know that we are partners with them, especially since they are investing their time and money with us.” —Sunny Beutler, International Operations Director

Because of the company’s immense global footprint—36 offices, tens of thousands of ABOs and IBOs doing business in some 50 countries—Sunrider is technologically adept at using webinars, teleconferences, Point Across and YouTube. “All those things are for better communication with our distributors because that’s very important in the direct selling industry. With technology, we can achieve that more easily,” Dr. Oi-Lin Chen says.

And Sunrider is also looking to technology to help balance a product-focused distributor base and give them the tools they need to effectively promote the company’s new, straightforward business plan and recruit a younger generation of distributors.

While raising their social media presence will help, a new interactive training site called Sunrider University also goes live this summer to further educate IBOs on the company and its products. “People will be able to take courses online. Customer service, follow-up, product knowledge on how to make sales, how to keep track of leads—all the things that IBOs need on a daily basis—will be there,” Beutler says. “We are excited about the website. It will be a lot easier to gain knowledge, keep track of courses, and ask questions.”

Sunrider University will also provide an additional layer of support to a company culture already based on accessibility. “It’s very common for me and for my parents to interact directly with people who are using our products and with our business builders,” says Dr. Reuben Chen, the Chens’ son. “We encourage those people to communicate with us about what things they feel are good about the company and what things we can improve.”

Beutler adds, “In direct sales it is a person-to-person business, and we want everyone to know that we are partners with them, especially since they are investing their time and money with us. We want them to know we are listening to them.”

Feedback, they say, is especially important as the company launches new products and a global initiative to combat obesity this spring. SunTrim® Plus is central to the company’s new holistic weight-loss program called SunFit. SunTrim® Plus is a natural extraction of cocoa and green coffee beans and herbs that allows people to enjoy food but not overeat. “What we try to do is tell your body to control itself. So far we’ve not had any products that can achieve this kind of effect before, so we’re excited about this,” Dr. Tei-Fu Chen says.

Beutler adds, “Our focus is to have people throughout the world really see that there is another way to fight obesity in the U.S. and across the world and to also have a healthier lifestyle.”

“Sunrider can be for many generations. As some of the people who are working with us are getting older, we can now introduce it to another generation.” —Dr. Oi-Lin Chen, Founder

The SunFit Program originated at Sunrider headquarters, where staff members balance nutrition and physical fitness to improve health and lose weight. “Now we’re trying to reach outside our office and pass along our SunFit Program,” Beutler says. “We’ve had a lot of people lose a significant amount of weight on it in just 90 days. We’re working on initiatives on the local level and also internationally for fitness, weight loss and lifestyle.

“This whole push—Sunrider University, social media and The SunFit Program—is to reach a younger demographic. We are reaching for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s,” she says.

“Sunrider can be for many generations,” Dr. Oi-Lin Chen adds. “As some of the people who are working with us are getting older, we can now introduce it to another generation.”

Both founders look forward to yet another era of success at Sunrider, as all five of their grown children—a master in information systems management, two lawyers, a medical doctor, and a doctor of organic chemistry—have returned to the fold and bring valuable layers of expertise to the family-owned and family-run business.

Dr. Tei-Fu Chen relishes that Sunrider brings prosperity and health to the world, and in the end, he says, “We are not a really high-profile company. We have been here for 32 years and we are happy every day, but we are very proud that we run a good company and our product is good.”