As doves and Chinese kites fluttered overhead, business and civic leaders gathered in Torrance on Wednesday to marvel at a new engine of economic growth in the South Bay's ailing economy.
Herbal food and natural cosmetics?
The occasion was the opening of the world headquarters of Sunrider International, a major producer of health products made from Chinese herbs. Sunrider plans to add about 100 jobs within a year at its new headquarters, a 230,000-square-foot complex on Abalone Avenue that replaces a smaller headquarters on Lomita Boulevard.
The new hiring hardly makes up for the South Bay's steady job losses in the aerospace industry, but civic boosters looked on the bright side: At least Sunrider didn't leave the state, as many businesses have.
"It's a good indication that they recognize there's a solid economic foundation here," said former Gov. George Deukmejian, chairman of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "In comparison (to the loss of jobs), it's a small number. But there's always a ripple effect. They buy the products and services throughout the area."
The $35-million facility includes the company's executive and administrative offices, conference and dining facilities and a museum, where a collection of Chinese and contemporary art will be open for public tours starting next week.
The company, which posted sales of $300 million in 1992, decided to invest in a new headquarters in Torrance because of the city's proximity to the airport and the Port of Los Angeles. Sunrider is aiming to triple its sales within five years and make forays into China, Russia and Eastern Europe markets.
Yet in a region more accustomed to the unveiling of a jet fighter, civic officials looked curiously at the building's herb gardens and ancient Chinese books. The facility also includes a film on Chinese tradition, stressing "At one with the universe . . . To live long and live well."
When Sunrider moved to the South Bay in 1987, "I had no idea what it was," said Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert. "I said, 'What is this, a vitamin store?' But I went to their opening ceremony then and was very impressed."
Company Chairman Tei Fu Chen and his wife, company President Oi Lin Chen, have created a product line of health foods and cosmetics made from Chinese herbs, which are designed to regenerate the body.
The company now has a sales force of 300,000 independent distributors who sell products in arrangements akin to the Amway and Mary Kay Cosmetics sales forces. The bulk of the distributors hold other jobs and sell products to neighbors and friends in their off hours.
Yet civic officials say the company represents the kind of diversity that the area will have to attract if the South Bay is to recover from job cutbacks.
"Hopefully, jobs at smaller, entrepreneurial types of companies will take the place of those lost at large corporations," Deukmejian said. "But it's going to take time for the transition to complete that cycle."
The company, meanwhile, has tried to make its presence known. To mark the opening of the futuristic glass structure, the company has been placing full-page color ads in local newspapers. About 3,000 leading distributors were bused from a Sunrider convention in Anaheim for the occasion.
"There was no doubt this is what I should be doing for the rest of my life," said Max Williams, 61, who holds the corporate title of Grand Master as the largest independent distributor in Australia. "It's health and wealth."
Sunrider's sales network made news in South Korea last week when three representatives for the company and two employees of Amway Corp. were arrested there on suspicion of violating the country's direct-sales law, designed to prevent foreign sales forces from entering the market, making a quick buck and then leaving.
All of the representatives have since been released, but officials at both companies said that it showed the failure of the South Korean government to recognize the differences between door-to-door sales and their approach to marketing.
"This is a relatively new concept to many countries," Tei Fu Chen said. "They don't understand. It's part of the growing pain."
Sunrider owns a botanical herbal garden in Taiwan and ships its harvest to processing facilities there, or to another facility in the City of Industry that employs 500 people.
"We just want to tell people that we're here and there's hope in California," said Tei Fu Chen, a Taiwanese emigre who founded the company in Utah in 1982. "It's time to change. California is an area that can develop into many kinds of businesses. It's not just high-tech and defense."