People Watch: Profile: Alex Harper

At just 24, Sydney’s Alex Harper is already well on the way to success in China with his catering company White Lotus. He spoke to Sophie Loras.

The inspiration behind Alex Harper’s decision to make a go of things in China came after a family holiday to Shanghai when he was just 19.

In the five years since that initial visit to the world’s fastest growing economy, Alex, with the backing of his investment savvy father, Harper Bernays’ Chairman Peter Harper, has established his successful White Lotus catering company in Shanghai.

Alex has a strong history in the hospitality sector, beginning his career in some of Sydney’s most respected restaurants, including Café Morso in Pyrmont where he got his first taste for the F&B industry and running music tours and club nights for local and international bands in Australia.

After completing a Bachelor of Arts from UNSW, majoring in International Business and Development studies, Alex returned to the glitz and glamour of Shanghai in 2007.

While studying Chinese at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, Alex picked up work as the sales manager for the Bund Brewery.
“This was my first taste of business in China,” says Alex.
“It was a good experience because I got to see what not to do in China.”

The Bund Brewery’s business model had expanded too quickly and was experiencing problems with the local partner. Not long after, the business collapsed.
But it was there that Alex first began contemplating a catering business in Shanghai and began looking into opportunities.

Raising capital for his idea was made easy when his father stepped in to become White Lotus’s major and only financial partner.

The company was established in early 2008 and is progressing through the final stages of its WOFE status application in China.

The company’s mission to become the pre-eminent caterer in Shanghai, “with a view to building further kitchen spaces and food factories across China” might seem ambitious in these early days of the business, but in less than 12 months, White Lotus has made significant progress, employing 12 full-time staff and notching up some significant events for Australian and New Zealand government departments – including in July, a lunch for the New Zealand Prime Minister.

And, as is the way in China, Alex has built up much of his clientele through good networks and sturdy relationship building. He met many of his Australian clients through AustCham Shanghai’s weekly Friday night drinks while other clients have been introduced through events Alex and his team have catered for.
A recent private party for an executive at Citibank saw Alex introduced to guests including Pernod Ricard’s managing director and other potential high-profile clients.

Alex attributes the success of the business to quality as well as a lack of maturity in the Shanghai catering sector.
“In Shanghai it can be very variable and your caterer could be good one time and then not the next,” says Alex.
“We aim to get it right – every time. Our food is exceptional and we pride ourselves on our delivery.”
Alex has also received strong support from his mentor Mark Mitchell, formerly General Manager of Stix Catering in Sydney, and now a nation-wide operations manager with KPMG.

The turning point for the business came in November last year when the 600-square metre kitchen in Shanghai’s Hongkou district was completed just before Thanksgiving.
It was a nerve-wracking time for Alex and his small team – they had sold 47 Thanksgiving packages and he was beginning to worry they wouldn’t be able to make all the deliveries given ongoing problems with the kitchen equipment and the suppliers.
“We’d sold all these things – people had signed contracts, paid money and I was thinking I was going to ruin Thanksgiving for them,” says Alex.
But it was a resounding success and he is still seeing roll off from that event.
“It got us in contact with people and into their houses in a way we couldn’t have otherwise achieved” he says.

Setting up the business has not been without its challenges.
“The biggest problems have come from the licensing,” says Alex.
“In Australia it wouldn’t take this long – there is one rule book. Whereas here in China, you open one door and then there is another door. That has been the most trying part of the business – getting our heads around that.”

Alex’s recommendations to other Australians looking at setting up shop in China is to get good advice before starting anything.
“We did get good advice but as for the execution, I would have done it differently if I had that time again,” he says.
“Looking back I would have got more good lawyers earlier on and I think it would have sped things up. Pursuing this avenue in China looks expensive at the start but saves in the long-term.”

Running a catering business in Shanghai is not quite what Alex had envisioned but it is a role he can see himself doing for some time to come with hopes to eventually take the business elsewhere to Beijing and Hong Kong and perhaps eventually back to Sydney.

“I love China and I think there will be even more opportunities once we have a year under our belt.”

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