BEIJING: Until recently, few people had heard of the Chinese billionaire with a gruff reputation who built a fortune on China's seemingly unquenchable demand for his ubiquitous red-capped bottled water.
But reclusive Zhong Shanshan has become Asia's richest man following the stock listings last year of his Nongfu Spring mineral water and separate pharma company Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise, which has tapped massive demand for Covid-19 test kits.
Mr Zhong's net worth has surged to US$85 billion (S$114 billion) and made him the seventh-richest person on the planet, Hurun Report, a China-based compiler of "rich lists", said last week.
Called a "lone wolf" by Chinese media for his rare public appearances and aversion to interviews, Mr Zhong, 66, has achieved one of the fastest accumulations of wealth in history, according to Bloomberg.
He became the first Chinese entrepreneur to enter Hurun's top ten global rich list this year, leaping out of nowhere to put him hot on the heels of Facebook's Mr Mark Zuckerberg and investor Warren Buffett.
Not bad for someone who dropped out of school at the age of 12 during the political upheaval of China's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and whose later jobs included bricklayer, carpenter and news reporter, according to Chinese media.
Mr Zhong founded Nongfu Spring in 1996 and still owns an 84 per cent stake in the company which, according to market research firm Mintel, holds more than a quarter of the bottled water market in China, where many people avoid tap water over health concerns.
In contrast to charismatic Alibaba founder Jack Ma - who Mr Zhong dethroned as China's richest man - little is known about Nongfu's billionaire boss aside from his gruff image.
"I don't have the habit of flattery in my personality," he once said in a rare interview.
"I don't like to deal with people and have to drink," he added, referring to a Chinese business culture that encourages excessive drinking to cement deals.
Mr Ma is now worth a comparatively paltry US$55 billion, according to Hurun, after government regulators launched an anti-monopoly investigation into his tech empire, which has pummelled Alibaba's share price and left a massive initial public offering by financial arm Ant Group in limbo.