Hawaii Global Links Newsletter
Richard Xie: A Different Kind of Fish Farmer
Friday, 04 December 2009

The "Exporter of the Year" links preservation to profits.

Most men who raise tropical fish for a living (it’s a male-dominated business), start off as a hobbyist at about age 7 or so. Not so Richard Xie. He began at the relatively advanced age of 27.

And most people who raise tropical fish for a living do so because they like what they’re doing and they hope to make some money as they develop their hobby. That’s not Xie. This savvy entrepreneur was engaged in several enterprises before deciding that ornamentals could be profitable.

And most people in tropicals have a marine biology or some science background. Again, not Xie. He holds a B.A. degree in International Business and Marketing from Zhongshan University in Guangdong Province in China and an M.B.A. from Hawaii Pacific University (HPU).

So, it’s unusual that Xie is now the president of his own ornamental fish company—Hawaiian Sealife, Inc., and it’s also unusual that he’s even alive.

Xie was born in 1968 in Guangzhou (Guangdong’s capital city) during the final years of the Cultural Revolution. His father was a biology professor at Zhongshan University and his mother was an elementary school principal. Because they were considered “city”, “educated” people, they were “sent down” to the countryside to work on a farm, depositing Xie with a nanny. His older sister was sent to a boarding school.

As he explains it, “The nanny’s house was so humid, I came down with rheumatic heart disease. I spent the next couple of years in and out of hospitals. At the age of four, I was taking my own pills and cooking for myself.”

When Xie’s folks returned from the farm, they were allowed to have another child “because the government thought that I was going to die,” he said. “When I think about it, the fear of dying has always made me want to finish a project tomorrow.”

But Xie’s life started to take a turn for the better. His father took off for a year to care for him. Using his knowledge of plants and traditional Chinese medicine, he brought his son to good health. By the age of seven, Richard was able to enter one of the province’s top schools—a school that had trained many of the nation’s leaders.

During his college years, Xie joined BYS Toys Company, a joint-venture company that manufactures and distributes American “transformer” toys, as part of a four-member marketing team who are in charge of Northern China market. After university, he switched to the State-owned Guangzhou Light Industrial Products Import and Export Group where he evaluated potential product lines and coordinated national marketing campaigns.

By the year 1992, Xie had saved up enough money to pursue an M.B.A. degree, and sent out ten applications. HPU was the first to reply, so he decided to enroll there. After graduation, he took a position with K.C. Company that wholesaled martial arts equipment. His responsibilities included setting up a manufacturing operation in Shenzhen, China and, once again, marketing. This time his territory included North America, and he spent much time visiting potential customers throughout the U.S.

After several years, Xie decided to shift gears. He started looking for a Hawaii product to export that would utilize his experience in China and his background in marketing to Europe and the U.S. Mainland. He considered flowers, and then papaya, and then settled on aquaculture or, more precisely, aquarium fish.

Xie's tour for students:  the first stop will be the live fish and
other sea creatures from a particular region of the world.   

An important part of the tour will be a video of the aquatic
life of a region.

Although the raising of tropical fish is a sizeable $5 billion industry around the world, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that it was included as part of the global aquaculture industry. This was because fish farming had traditionally focused on things one eats, not on things one looks at. Moreover, “farming” generally meant soil and ponds, not glass containers and plastic tanks.

Xie was new to fish raising, but not new to international marketing. He was aware that there are a substantial number of wealthy individuals who could afford this expensive hobby.

In Hawaii, Xie’s company, Hawaiian Sealife, would do what other local marine ornamental companies would do: it would buy tropical fish from the usual suppliers throughout the South Pacific, and wholesale these. It would also establish an aquarium consulting business, targeting public aquariums, hotels, restaurants and high-end homeowners who appreciate “living art.” But later, there would be a difference: he would target China and add a strong conservation and education component.

Xie was aware that many people—particularly in this state—had negative feelings about fish gatherers “robbing” the reefs of their beautiful occupants so, over the past two years, he has received funding from the Coral Reef Initiatives for the South Pacific (CRISP), which is part of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), a large, non-profit organization that provides technical advice, training and research services to 22 Pacific Island nations. He is testing new PCC (post-larvae capture and culture) technology, and educating the public about the importance of preserving valuable (and shrinking) marine ornamental resources.

Students will have an opportunity for a "hands on" experience
working with aquatic life at these tables.  

“90% of larvae and juveniles do not survive their early months,” Xie pointed out. “We can save young fish by harvesting and raising them, instead of catching adult fish. This has a much lower impact on the environment.”

Xie established a semester Fish Larvae Rearing “FLR” Education Program, where he supplies larvae to local schools to raise, and then buys the fish back after they reach adulthood. Punahou, Kamehameha, Aliiolani, Manoa, and a few other schools are in the program.

“Through the FLR program,” Xie said, “students will understand the beauty of wildlife and the value of environmental protection.”

Students will see how various plants, like these tomatoes,
can be grown in water--without soil. 

"Capturing fish"--students can board a boat to imagine what
it's like.

Xie plans to expand his educational efforts by inviting students to his large facility, which is located a few blocks from the airport. There, they will pass through a series of rooms--each equipped with a large aquarium filled with the native fish and artificial reefs and artificial corals, posters and flat screen TV-- to learn about the various tropical fish of the world. At the end of the tour, they will see photos of sharks and a video of shark behavior, learn about shark tagging and how the ancient Hawaiians made shark teeth jewelry. They will also be able to try on diving equipment; touch sea creatures, like starfish and sea cucumbers; observe how plants, like tomatoes, can be grown through aquaponics; and board a small boat to discover what it’s like to capture marine fish and keep them alive. No expense has been spared to make the experience meaningful for young people.

If a school joins Xie's post larvae fish-rearing program in their classrooms, they will receive a free tour of his facility.  Fifth-graders from Punahou School will be doing just that, taking their tour on December 16.  Six schools have signed up for the program.

Flame Angels ready for sale.  An important part of Hawaiian Sealife's business is raising fish and selling them overseas.    

If you’re thinking that Hawaiian Sealife has many of the same educational features as the much-larger Waikiki Aquarium, you would be right. But Xie has gone further, by working closely with Hawaii’s Oceanic Institute on reef restocking, and helping the Chinese government to expand its public aquariums, with a focus on preservation. He is often asked to lecture before school, business or academic groups on developing new aquaculture methods for raising fish, while protecting the environment.

No wonder, then, that for 2009, the U.S. Small Business Administration named Xie its “Small Business Exporter of the Year.” In its citation, it called him a “pioneer in the aquaculture industry” and went on to note that he has worked “tirelessly to halt diminishing marine resources and to develop new technologies for conservation.”

Nemo found!  Hobbyists in nations around the world will
enjoy these Clownfish pets for years to come. 

And, as an exporter, Xie has “introduced local business owners to the China and Taiwan markets and served as a liaison to bridge cultural differences.”

2010 will be a busy year for Xie.  He'll be farming in China; renting out fish; giving lectures to local businesses; marketing all over the world, and preparing to welcome thousands more school kids and teachers.

Suitably, the tour ends with Hawaiian culture.  Xie provides
information on how shark teeth were used as jewelry.

The ever-increasing trade deficit with China has highlighted the need for U.S. companies to ramp up their export capabilities, print their business cards in Chinese and head East. It seems quite appropriate that, in Hawaii, China-born Richard Xie, is leading the way

Last Updated ( Friday, 11 December 2009 )
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