China's richest man started off hungry

CHINA - Mr Wang Jianlin - property mogul, movie magnate and now China's richest man - was once just a very hungry boy.

Growing up during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, he was always thinking of ways to get extra servings of rice in the communal canteens. One of these was to start with a bowl filled with less rice, which he would gobble down so that he could rejoin the queue for a second - and full - bowl.

These days, the 58-year-old chairman of property developer Dalian Wanda group wants for nothing. But he never forgot those hungry years, which he believes were a key factor, as are the street smarts he picked up, in his success.

"The hardship then was unimaginable," he told the Financial Times in an interview last year. "That experience helped shape my character, taught me never to give up and never bow your head to hardship."

On Sept 8, Forbes magazine named Mr Wang the richest man in China and estimated his personal wealth to be US$14 billion (S$17.8 billion). The yearly Hurun list of China's richest individuals released three days later said he was worth US$22 billion.

Both figures put him ahead of last year's richest man, Mr Zong Qinghou, founder of Hangzhou Wahaha Group, the country's No. 3 beverage maker.

Mr Wang is already a household name in China, helped by his "Wanda Plaza" shopping malls popping up in all the major cities. But the billionaire has also been making a name for himself overseas with his high-profile acquisitions.

Last year, he paid US$2.6 billion for AMC Entertainment, the second-largest cinema chain in the United States. This year, he forked out US$1.6 billion for a British firm behind the luxurious Sunseeker yachts featured in James Bond movies.

The eldest of five sons born to a military family in south-western Sichuan province, he served in the People's Liberation Army for 16 years.

In 1986, he joined a property firm in the north- eastern port city of Dalian and became its general manager by 1992. He later took control of the company and renamed it Dalian Wanda.

The going was tough initially, Mr Wang recalled in an interview in June. His toughest moment was in 1993 when the company was in the middle of relocating 6,000 households in Dalian.

A change in government policy barred banks from lending to real estate firms and ordered repayment of outstanding loans, which resulted in some 70 per cent of property firms going bust.

"The pressure on me was so intense that I fainted and I had to spend a week in hospital in Beijing," he said.

But the experience, he added, taught him the importance of having good cash flow, which will help a company survive the impact of policy changes in the future.

Another factor cited for his success was his willingness to take on unpopular projects, such as a shantytown development in Dalian. This reportedly landed him in the good books of officials and helped open doors for him.

One official he knew well was the now-disgraced Bo Xilai, who spent many years in Dalian rising through the ranks to become its mayor and then party chief until 2000.

When Bo, 63, was ousted as Chongqing party chief last year, word spread that Mr Wang was among a group of Dalian businessmen under investigation because of their links to Bo. This prompted Wanda to issue a statement to dismiss the rumours.

In his interview with the Financial Times, Mr Wang said: "I know Bo Xilai well. But our relationship was based on our work, we didn't have a personal relationship."

Outside the boardroom, Mr Wang, who has a son, is an avid football fan and supports Spanish giants Real Madrid.

These days, he has shifted his attention to turning Wanda into a multinational corporation and also to helping nurture young entrepreneurs through a fund he has set up with five businessmen.

"China's system now is more conducive to starting a business and the market is more regulated. Decades ago, there were more opportunities but things were more chaotic and riskier," he was quoted as saying.

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