Alumni Groundbreaker:
William Hsu

By Robert Kelly

Photos by Paul L. Newby II

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From an early age, William Hsu (BBA ’00) had a strong interest in finance and a passion for his family’s business, Hsu Ginseng Enterprises. He was fascinated by the complexity of the decisions his parents had to make to succeed in this challenging industry. They hoped he would eventually run the business, but first Hsu needed skills and experience.

After earning his BBA in finance at the Wisconsin School of Business with additional majors in Chinese language and East Asian studies, Hsu had several job offers at graduation. He accepted a position at General Mills, where he stayed for more than 10 years in the Financial Leadership Development Program, which sponsored his MBA at Harvard Business School.

Following in his father’s footsteps

Throughout all of his accomplishments at world-class companies and universities, the same question kept coming up: “Do you plan to go back to the family business?”

“Any time you have a first-generation, in particular Asian- American family that starts a business, I think the parents hope that they can be successful enough to pass down not only the family and cultural values, but also the business and business values to their kids,” Hsu says. “But the ginseng industry peaked in 1994 when I went off to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It was in a slow decline for the next five or six years. When I graduated in 2000, my dad and I agreed it wasn’t the right time for me to come back.”

Hsu says several key decisions by his father enabled the company to grow—even as the industry contracted—including investing in processing facilities in China, stabilizing farm production, and improving branding. Once the company had established itself as a market leader, Hsu decided in 2011 to return to the family business.

Today, Hsu serves as vice president of operations at Hsu Ginseng Enterprises, overseeing day-to-day responsibilities such as accounting, cultivating banking relationships, supervising farming and production, managing small subsidiaries, and negotiating land acquisitions.

“There’s no typical day in a business like this,” Hsu says. “One day I’m meeting with bank representatives, and the next day I’m in the field trying to figure out how the gardens are supposed to run. I may be in the warehouse negotiating bulk sales or working with our marketing team to ensure that our branding is correct.”

For the 40th anniversary of Hsu Ginseng Enterprises, Hsu (L) posed for a 
                                    commemorative picture with (L to R) his father Paul C. Hsu, president and 
                                    founder; Ron Sandquist, the first employee and former manager of Hsu Ginseng 
                                    Farms (retired); and Nick Sandquist, Ron’s son and the current manager of Hsu Ginseng Farms.
For the 40th anniversary of Hsu Ginseng Enterprises, Hsu (L) posed for a commemorative picture with (L to R) his father Paul C. Hsu, president and founder; Ron Sandquist, the first employee and former manager of Hsu Ginseng Farms (retired); and Nick Sandquist, Ron’s son and the current manager of Hsu Ginseng Farms.

2
families
have managed production and operations
at Hsu Ginseng Farms for more than

40
years

Worldwide reputation for quality

Hsu’s father, Paul Hsu, established Hsu Ginseng Enterprises in central Wisconsin when he realized that this state is the ideal place to cultivate ginseng, an herb prized by Chinese and other Asian cultures for its health benefits.

As in the wine industry, the terroir—the interaction of geology, geography, climate, and plant genetics—plays an important role in ginseng cultivation, and central Wisconsin ginseng is among the best in the world. Despite the excellent conditions for growing high-quality ginseng, other producers in the region have failed, due in part to declining prices from oversupply and failure to establish a brand identity that ensures quality.

There’s a sense of camaraderie among Wisconsin alumni that keeps me coming back to Madison and supporting the university.

— William Hsu (BBA '00)
Vice President of Operations
Hsu Ginseng Enterprises

In the 1990s, Canada had rapidly expanded production, which created a significant supply of lower quality product from British Columbia,” Hsu says. “The region was sufficient to grow ginseng, but it didn’t have the same flavor that Wisconsin ginseng has, so consumers were ultimately disappointed.”

The diverse workforce at Hsu Ginseng Enterprises serves
customers around the world in four languages.
The diverse workforce at Hsu Ginseng Enterprises serves customers around the world in four languages.
Hsu (R) shakes his father Paul Hsu’s hand upon his return to
the family business in 2011 after a successful career in the corporate sector.
Hsu (R) shakes his father Paul Hsu’s hand upon his return to the family business in 2011 after a successful career in the corporate sector. Photo courtesy of William Hsu.

The skills to succeed

Relatively few ginseng producers succeed due to the industry’s complex challenges. When Canadian producers entered the market, lower prices made it hard for producers to make a profit on this crop, which is particularly difficult and expensive to grow. As recently as 20 years ago there were more than 1,500 ginseng producers in the state. Now, there are only about 100 active producers in Wisconsin.

“My education at the Wisconsin School of Business has helped me immensely at every step in my career,” Hsu says. “In addition to learning financial analysis, the interactions I had with the faculty and staff prepared me to evaluate opportunities and come up with the optimal strategy. Jim Johannes had the biggest academic impact on me. He helped me think about things in the financial world that are relevant to the business on a big-picture level. I didn’t realize until 15 years after graduation just how important some of those lessons were.”

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Hsu continues his connection with the School and the university as an alum because he greatly appreciates what he has learned and the connections that he has made with other Badgers. Since his return to Wisconsin in 2011, his involvement with the university has expanded beyond the School. He currently serves on the University of Wisconsin Foundation & Alumni Association’s board of directors and formerly sat on the external advisory board for the Wisconsin China Initiative, helping to enrich the institution that gave him the tools to succeed in the corporate world and in the family business.

“The network of people you get to meet and know and learn from within the School is just amazing,” Hsu says. “The number of classmates I’ve reconnected with at various times has been astounding. There’s a sense of camaraderie and spirit among Wisconsin alumni that keeps me coming back to Madison and supporting the university.”

Expanding operations

William Hsu (BBA '00)
Hsu stands in a field of wild ginseng on his family farm in Wausau, Wis. Ginseng requires micronutrients and trace minerals found only in virgin soil, so Hsu’s company must acquire land and negotiate land swaps and lease agreements on a regular basis.

Until recently, the company was considered a small business— Hsu’s father won several small business awards as recently as the mid-1990s. Despite being the largest integrated ginseng operation in the United States, producing 100,000 pounds annually on 1,000 acres of farmland, Hsu still thinks of it as a “small business on a larger scale.” The diverse workforce at Hsu Ginseng Enterprises is able to serve customers around the world in at least four languages and Mandarin dialects.

There’s no typical day in a business like this. One day I’m meeting with bank representatives, and the next day I’m in the field trying to figure out how the gardens are supposed to run.

— William Hsu (BBA '00)
Vice President of Operations
Hsu Ginseng Enterprises

The company sells ginseng root and also processes it into powders, extracts, and dietary supplements. In recent years the company has expanded its operation into importing products, such as small appliances, cosmetics, and specialty foods— products that Asian-Americans and new immigrants from Asia would have difficulty finding unless they lived near a major city or Chinatown market.

“Many of the products we import are referred to us by our customers,” Hsu says. “We also look at trends in Asia because we know that those trends will eventually migrate here.”

With the skills he developed at the Wisconsin School of Business, Hsu will continue the legacy of this thriving family business with Wisconsin roots and global reach.

“Our hope is that we can continue to grow the company and remain a private, family-owned farm and business,” Hsu says. “With the increasing demand for locally produced, responsibly sourced ginseng for food and dietary products, we are seeing a resurgent interest in our products. We also foresee an opportunity for local farmers to return Wisconsin to its preeminent position as the highest quality ginseng producing area in the world.”

Class Notes

Class Notes

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