China's richest woman controls firm behind Forest City project

China's richest woman controls firm behind Forest City project

JOHOR BARU - Country Garden Holdings, the Chinese property giant behind the controversial Forest City development in Johor Baru, is controlled by China's richest woman and one of the world's youngest billionaires.

Ms Yang Huiyan, 33, is the second daughter of Mr Yang Guoqiang, 59, a former bricklayer who founded the firm 20 years ago in southern Guangdong province.

In 2007, she was catapulted to fame when, just before Country Garden's listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, her father transferred all his holdings to her.

This amounted to 70 per cent of the company's stock and gave the Ohio State University graduate an overnight fortune of US$16 billion after the initial public offering.

The 2008 financial crisis has reduced her fortune to US$7.2 billion (S$9 billion) now, which still puts her in seventh place on China's rich list.

Ms Yang was made vice-chairman of Country Garden in 2012. But by all accounts of the media-shy family - Ms Yang has never accepted an interview and makes few public appearances - Mr Yang still largely runs the real estate giant as chairman.

According to local media reports, he has been training his favoured daughter for succession for almost all her life, taking her along to company meetings when she was a teenager.

Company insiders said she would "listen intently but never say a word".

After she graduated from university in 2003, her first job was as her father's personal assistant.

Mr Yang himself has a classic rags-to-riches story common among China's nouveau riche.

A bricklayer and construction worker in his youth, he started his business by buying up vacant land for development in his hometown of Shunde in Foshan city.

His success, like that of other real estate moguls, was facilitated by a good and allegedly reciprocal relationship with local officials.

In 2007, Guangzhou newspaper Southern Weekly published an expose of Country Garden's collusion with officials to buy a land site in Zhangjiajie, in Hunan province, at almost zero cost.

One analyst noted then that while sites in downtown Guangzhou were sold at about 10,000 yuan (S$2,000) per sq m, Country Garden's total average land cost was estimated at 300 yuan per sq m.

The accusations slid like water off a duck's back for the well-connected Mr Yang, who is a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference of Foshan city.

In the past two years, Country Garden has embarked on an ambitious overseas expansion strategy. Forest City was conceived after Country Garden's first Malaysian development, in Danga Bay, debuted successfully last year.

Danga Bay sales were a big factor in pushing the firm's 2013 revenue up by 50 per cent to 62.7 billion yuan, according to its financial statement. Net profit rose by 24.2 per cent to 8.5 billion yuan.

This year, Country Garden is also launching its first Australian project, an 800-unit development near Sydney's Ryde suburb.

In the meantime, Ms Yang - who is married to the son of a high-level provincial official - looks likely to remain a dominant figure in China's real estate scene.

At the time of her public anointment in 2007, Mr Yang told Hong Kong media that "even if I reach the age of 100, I am going to give it to her anyway".

"She's family and I have faith in her."

rchang@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 26, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

More about

Land reclamation
Purchase this article for republication.

BRANDINSIDER

SPONSORED

Most Read

Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.