Julia Xu - Taking NZ to China

By Aimee Shaw

Julia Xu says having Asians involved in leadership roles in the business community is important for New Zealand's economic success.

Xu - the co-founder and managing director of export company Oravida - says Asians have tended to be a little shy in New Zealand, particularly when it comes to expressing their views. "Bringing them on board is going to motivate and promote more voices to be heard in the workplace."

This is particularly important, she explains, given that Asia will continue to be the economic focal point for the next decade as the region becomes much more integrated with the rest of the world.

Xu co-founded Oravida with Deyi, "Stone" Shi, whom she met during her earlier career as an investment banker. She first visited New Zealand in 2009: "I fell in love with the country and it was then that we came up with the idea to bring New Zealand produce to the Chinese population."

Oravida was born in 2011. It specialises in promoting New Zealand premium food products to the Chinese market.

The company also has investments in NZ real estate, commodities and secondary equity markets.

"There is huge potential for New Zealand produce in China," says Xu. "New Zealand produces some of the best food in the world."

The name Oravida - "healthy life" - comes from an amalgam of Maori and Spanish words. This is a signal to Chinese consumers, who not only want their food to be fresh and tasty, but also to have the highest standards of food safety, which they associate with New Zealand.

"There are great opportunities to capitalise on these attributes to sell NZ food products to the discerning Chinese middle-class consumers, who are becoming increasingly aware of global food trends.

"China is into food that represents green, clean, fresh living ... customers are much more sophisticated nowadays and want the best food the world has to offer."

Xu - who advocates "who you are is what you eat" - sees demand for Kiwi produce continuing.

"Chinese consumers are at the very beginning of American-style food consumption. They are still very concerned with price and price- driven quality, but I see that changing over time."

Shanghai-based Xu spends 40 per cent of her time in New Zealand and 60 per cent in China. "I spend more time in Shanghai at the moment as I am working on distribution there, but in the future I would like to see my time split fifty-fifty."

Xu's leadership journey has been "extremely privileged", she says. She grew up in Shanghai and moved to New York at 15 to further her education.

"At the time a lot of people left China for better education," she says. "In the late 1980s, a lot of people left to the United States. I went with the single goal to get a better education."

Her CV is certainly impressive. She holds an undergraduate degree in biology and an MBA from Cornell University.

After obtaining her MBA, she worked at Deutsche Bank Hong Kong, first as an equity research analyst, then as a coverage banker for corporate clients in the greater China region, taking part in executing numerous IPOs as well as debt offerings in both Hong Kong and New York.

Her extensive financial market background also includes experience in New York and Tokyo, where she worked for Bankers Trust and Lehman Brothers.

"It's that kind of diversified work experience, across different platforms and multinationals, as understanding the small and private businesses that gave me a really solid foundation to launch Oravida."

It hasn't all been plain sailing, however. In October 2013, Oravida became embroiled in controversy over the links between its co-founders and a Cabinet Minister. The controversy blew over and while Oravida received negative publicity Xu said it did not harm the business.

"For me it didn't bother us at all, it was just a perspective that wasn't right," she said. "Politics is politics - our goal is and has always been to do better in business and that speaks for itself."

Julia Xu:

• MD, Oravida

• Splits time between Shanghai and Auckland

• MBA Cornell (US)

• Previously CFO at ReneSola - a listed solar energy company headquartered in China.

On female leadership:

"You always want your workplace to be resourceful, to be very flexible, and I think women definitely bring those aspects in to work. Setting strategies, solving issues, looking at decision-making processes, women bring a lot to the table. My advice to women is to have confidence. It's not easy, there will be many things against you and opposition won't look honest. But I encourage you to follow your passion and not to be discouraged by what people say."

- NZ Herald

Julia Xu is an active member of Global Women, a collaboration of New Zealand’s most influential women leaders, who work alongside leading corporate organisations to champion diverse and inclusive leadership.

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