You are here

A Step Above: Foot Massage Empire Liangzi Takes an All-Out Approach to Relaxation

When he was only fourteen years old, in 1984, Zhu Guo Fan and a classmate left their home province of Henan to search for better opportunities in China’s western provinces. The two spent several days sleeping in the Xining train station as they searched in vain for work. In the end, still jobless and disappointed, they decided to return home.


Someone less resilient might have written off the trip as a failure. But even at fourteen, Zhu was thinking like an entrepreneur. He had noticed vendors in Xining selling meat skewers at stalls outside the train station – something that wasn’t available in his hometown. So upon his return, Zhu kicked off his business career with the first street-side kebob stand in his home city in Henan.


In the years that followed, Zhu got involved in dozens of restaurant ventures. His businesses did well overall, but the schedule was tiring, with demanding early morning trips to the vegetable markets and late nights spent in restaurant kitchens. The only chance to relax was in the afternoon, when Zhu made a habit of joining other small business owners at bath houses to unwind. The lines were long, the facilities basic, and the massage techniques primitive.


Once again, Zhu walked away from a frustrating experience with a new business idea.


He secured a 300-square meter space, bought 32 sofas and opened his own establishment, which he called Liangzi Pediluvium. Then he started researching foot massage techniques, first consulting several local medical foot massage experts. Their techniques were effective, but rather than helping people relax, they focused on treating medical problems. “If you had a problem, the experts could treat that problem through massage techniques,” explains Zhu. “But those techniques were painful and difficult for customers to accept. They came to relax, not to get medical treatment.”


Zhu’s research eventually led him to the city of Jiangyin in Jiangsu Province, where he discovered the missing ingredient in his foot massage formula. At last, he found a bathhouse where the staff offered deeply relaxing massages. Zhu promptly offered to more than quadruple the salaries of two of the massage experts there and pay all their expenses if they’d return with him to Henan. The two masseurs agreed and, working together with the medical massage experts in Henan, developed the technique that would eventually become Liangzi’s trademark.


With the new massage technique, the popularity of Zhu’s store soared. Within a month, he had recouped his initial investment. He opened more stores and eventually began to franchise them.


In the twelve years since its inception, Liangzi has grown into one of the leading brands in China’s service sector. The franchised company now operates more than 700 outlets across China, employing more than 30,000 people.



Zhu Shou Xian, who works at China’s Ministry of Culture, has been a regular customer of Liangzi’s Beijing embassy area store for more than a decade. “Whether you look at their service, their technique, their atmosphere, in all aspects they are outstanding,” he explains. “And they are consistent.”


To help maintain high standards, Zhu says he makes a point of paying employees well. (He estimates that Liangzi’s salaries are 20 percent higher than competitors.) He also adjusts pay based on customer satisfaction and store profitability. For example, every time a customer specifically requests a particular masseuse, the masseuse receives a small bonus. Staff can also reap bonuses when the store where they work meets sales goals. On the other hand, employees can be docked pay if they fail to receive a certain number of customer requests, or if their store misses sales goals.


Zhu holds branch stores to strict standards on everything from the proper water temperature for soaking feet to reimbursements for company dinners.


The company even operates a military-style training center in Henan, where employees receive intensive instruction in the principles of good service as well as Liangzi’s specific massage techniques. “Our training is very intense,” says Zhu. “Why do we need to hold such strict training? It’s a very special type of skill. What is our service? It’s all in our technique. So we pay special attention to this training aspect. Someone must be qualified to study knowledge and theory before they are qualified to study our technique.”


He emphasizes the importance of keeping employees satisfied, explaining, “Our most important products are our people, and this aspect is difficult to control. You must focus on the employee mentality. Salaries must be high, living conditions must be top quality, and the employees’ general situations must be very good. If you can’t do this, your standards will fall apart.”


“The pay here is good, and that’s important,” says Tian Jing Jiang, an employee in Beijing who left Henan four years ago to work for Liangzi. “Also, we can work together with lots of other people from our home province, and our boss and our managers treat us very well, like family. It’s really a fun place to work.”


Zhu continues to pick up new ideas about how to improve customer service through extensive overseas travels -- including a marathon 2004 bicycle trek from Beijing to Venice, Italy. He’s also visited more than 40 American states. “I don’t go overseas just to travel,” he explains. “I want to see what concepts of service Americans and Europeans have, because these concepts may predict the future of the service industry in China over the next few decades.”


“The more I travel,” he adds, “the more I realize that Liangzi still has many areas in which it can improve.”


Zhu, who graduated from CKGSB’s EMBA program in 2009, says he’s especially interested in learning techniques to help him develop more transparent, productivity-based compensation systems. He points to a case study from his class that analyzed how athletes on sports teams are paid. By keeping track of statistics, the team organizations were able to evaluate individual performances and adjust pay accordingly. Equipped with such a system, Zhu plans to reduce the number of Liangzi stores, a move he believes will allow him to exert greater control and improve service quality.


“I’m constantly researching how we can use statistics to evaluate techniques and then use this information as a tool for rewarding our workers,” Zhu says. “That’s what I hope to study most during my time at CKGSB”


About Liangzi


Liangzi was established in 1997 by owner Guo Fan Zhu in China. Originating in Henan province where the legendary art of tai-chi and Shaolin kung fu first began, the elegant Liangzi establishments have become a haven for Zen-like massage and relaxation. In addition to being a sanctuary of nurturing therapy - they have rapidly become an environment conducive to conducting serious business meetings in China.The unique and intense staff training system produces a dedicated and finely skilled work force which has increased their employment opportunities and social position, the majority whom are women.