Many Chinese dream of becoming wealthy, but Guo Guangchang, 46, has gone beyond all that.
The son of struggling farmers, Guo is sometimes referred to as the “Warren Buffett of China.” He is chairman of Fosun Group, the nation’s largest private investment company, and ranked 34th on the Forbes China Rich List this year, with net worth estimated at US$2.7 billion.
“When I just started the business, I dreamed of earning more money to support my family and let my parents live easier,” Guo tells Shanghai Daily. “A bit later when the company grew larger, I hoped to be able to pay my employees each month on time. And now, money is no longer that important. What matters to me most is that I feel in my gut that I need to do something more. That’s why I want to continue to work hard.”
Guo has been lucky enough to participate in one of the most exciting chapters of China’s economic history from its start. He says he wants to help the Chinese companies evolve into global players of distinction.
“Most of the world’s best businesses have come to China, and we are on a global stage,” he says. “We face global competition, and that’s why we need to develop global competitiveness.”
For Chinese privately owned companies, it’s been a game of catch-up with international rivals of longer standing.
“We know China best, so we should focus on China’s growth momentum and find our strengths in places where overseas companies like Carlyle, Blackstone or Hutchison Whampoa don’t have them,” he says.
Guo is credited with initiating a business model in China that combines the nation’s growth momentum with global resources.
“You hear a lot of talk about China’s vast market size, rapidly expanding consumption and fast industrial upgrading, but we should not ignore our core asset — the Chinese people,” Guo says.
“There are 1.3 billion Chinese. They are smart, diligent, eager for a better life and willing to work hard. At the same time, there are entrepreneurs who are making continuous efforts to create the world’s best companies,” he adds.
Fosun has made headlines with its bigger investments. In 2010, it bought a stake, now 10 percent, for 44 million euros (US$55 million) in French resort operator Club Mediterranean SA.
In 2011, with an initial investment of 84 million euros, it purchased a stake in Folli Follie Group SA, a high-end global retailer based in Greece.
“They are good examples of our business model,” Guo says.
Fosun is helping Club Med to build up brand recognition in China and capture some of the burgeoning domestic travel market. Fosun encourages its affiliated companies and clients to spend holidays and hold conferences at Club Med resorts.
Club Med reported a global profit of 2 million euros for 2011 with the number of Chinese visitors increasing by 40 percent. A year earlier, when Fosun bought its stake, the company had a loss of 14 million euros.
China’s current economic slowdown poses no particular concern for Guo.
“Future growth points are in the progress of being nurtured,” Guo says, noting that Fosun has shifted its investment focus to industries such as pharmaceuticals, logistics, tourism and financial services.
In Guo’s opinion, the Chinese Dream means everybody has the space to become better. His story is one version of that broad dream.
Born in Dongyang, Zhejiang Province, Guo’s parents were farmers who struggled to make ends meet. In his childhood, his favorite food was preserved vegetables, a common food considered a rare treat at the time.
Guo received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Fudan University in 1989. He worked at the school after graduation, and in 1992, he founded Guangxin Technology Development Co, which was among the first to do professional market research on China’s mainland. It was later transformed into Fosun.
“That was an era full of opportunities and enthusiasm,” Guo says. “Young people were inspired by the call of Comrade Deng Xiaoping, and it felt like a burning fire in our blood.”
In the spring of 1992, Deng visited a few southern cities, stressing the importance of economic development and urging people to be bolder in reforms and opening up to the world.
Many government officials and intellectuals responded to the call with xia hai, or “plunging into the sea of business,” by starting their own companies. Some of them, like Guo, became pioneers of the new era of entrepreneurship and went on to become billionaires.
But Guo still remembers the struggle to turn ideas into a successful business. There were the early days with little sleep and the bicycle he rode to work. He started in a 15-square-meter office, with only five people.
Today Fosun is a giant conglomerate, with interests spanning pharmaceuticals, real estate, steel, mining, retail, publishing and tourism, insurance, asset management and other financial services. It employs more than 30,000 people.
Fosun’s half-year report, released last Wednesday, showed net profit of 1.69 billion yuan (US$274 million), up 9.1 percent from a year earlier.
Educated as a philosopher, Guo is a frequent practitioner of tai chi, a Chinese martial art that aims to generate qi, or the energy flow.
In 2011, Guo performed a set of tai chi movements in front of Wall Street tycoons in New York, among whom were senior executives from Carlyle, Blackstone and Prudential.
“It was a good occasion to build up a friendship with these great business people, and tai chi made it easier,” Guo says.
He has embedded the ancient art into his business philosophy.
Tai chi shows that people are aging, from their hands and feet, which are at the ends where qi is difficult to reach. People need to exercise qi and make it strong.
Similarly, Guo says, a company needs to have a smooth force of communications and management: capital, professional people, a sense of values should be within reach on all fronts.
Guo insists on humbleness, from both himself and his staff. “We believe in dedication, self-discipline and sincere appreciation of others.”
Active in charity work, he is also intent on helping the next generation of young business leaders.
“Our generation was lucky in that we caught the first wave of economic reform,” he says. “The younger generations have opportunities. What does not change is the spirit of entrepreneurship.”
But, he hastens to add, “Talking about the younger generation doesn’t mean I consider myself old. You see for yourself. I am still pretty young.”
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