Zong Qinghou’s is China’s richest man and his story parallels that of China over the last 25 years from a slumbering Communist backwater into the capitalist powerhouse of today and becoming the workshop of the world..
It was over 25 years ago when Zong Qinghou was 42 years old, he eked out a living selling soft drinks and ice lollies to children. At that time he survived on approximately $8 a month which at the time was less than a third of the average wage.
But oh how things have changed since then. 25 years on China is hot on the heels of America to become the world leading economy and Zong is still selling soft drinks and ice lollies, just a lot lot lot more of them but he never thought he would become the country’s richest person
Zong is now the richest man in China with a fortune put at just over $20 billion. Now his fruit juices, soda’s and bottled waters made by his company the Hangzhou Wahaha Group Co. are sold in almost every supermarket and shop in China and are bought in their millions by children and parents alike. He also makes baby formula milk and children’s clothes as well to complement the range in the 60 factories he has in China.
From $0 to $20 billion in 25 years is an amazing story in any country but in China it’s even more amazing as the country changed from a communist regime to a capitalist one even though the government still call themselves communists.
Zong didn’t go to high school but instead was forced to live on a farm commune from 1964 through to 1978 during the height of Mao’s cultural Revolution, much like many of the other 700 million people that Mao ordered onto the land. During his time there he studied the revolutionary books about leadership and enduring through hard work and struggle, lessons which he said paid off handsomely later.
During his time on the commune farm he was so poor he often could not afford to buy food or clothing, “I climbed from the very bottom of society” he said.
It was only after Mao’s death in 1976 that Zong left the commune and got a job as a salesman for a consumer goods company as the country suffered shortages in even the most basic of items. At the time people were clamouring for meat, TVs, and bicycles.
It was when Deng Xiaoping came to power and steered China towards a market economy that it enabled Zong in 1987 along with two retired teachers and a $22,000 loan from relatives to take over a grocery store.
One of the companies that Zong worked for was a soft drinks maker, it ran a shop owned by a school in the province of Hangzhou. It was this that he took over in 1987, this was one of the founding steps in creating Wahaha. To grow the business he bought adverts on Chinese Central television and in the state owned newspapers. He said “In some towns, Wahaha became a well sought-after brand within just a couple of weeks of the first adverts and commercials appearing”
In the first year his new company made a profit of just under $16,000 which at the time was 50 times the average income in China. He spent the next 25 years building up the business, expanding from the cities into the rural communities, where their disposable incomes were increasing but competition was less.
Although now a multi billionaire he still has a frugal streak running through him that he developed in that first grocery store, when he made sure that every expense even down to the broom was absolutely a necessary one. He says that he often sleeps in the Wahaha 6th floor office he now occupies, and when lunchtime comes around he goes down to the canteen and eat the same food as his workers.
During the time before he had the shop he sometimes had so little money he would sleep in the tunnels under the city streets of Beijing. He recalled his early years of chain smoking cigarettes outside Beijing’s News Plaza Hotel and said “When you are poor you have to think of ways to be better off, that experience and memory helps me to carry on”.
Today if you pasted him in the street you wouldn’t know he was the richest man in China. He wears dark jacket and trousers, plain black shoes all of which are made in China. He has no entourage or bodyguards, the only person he has with him is the manager of the Wahaha Beijing operation.
He says he has no need of expensive clothing but he does have one sole concession which is his $48,000 Vacheron Constantin watch which he bought to replace an old Rolex one.
Wahaha means laughing baby in Mandarin, the company supplies flavoured nutritionally enhanced milk that caters to families with young children and mineral water and iced green teas which are a favourite with the adults. He said of his drink that combines fruit juice and milk “Our juicy milk was a big hit” and is a mainstay of the business.
In 2011 Wahaha had a 7.2% share in the Chinese Mark soft drink market and was the No 3 supplier behind Coca-Cola Ltd and the Hong Kong listed Tingyi (Cayman Islands) Holding Corp. In 2011 Wahaha turned over $11 billion in sales. Zong estimates that the earnings will rise by 60% to $1.6 billion in 2012 from the $1 billion in 2011.
Zong along with his wife and daughter own about 80% of the company.