Rags-to-riches story behind founder

Country Garden founder Yang Guoqiang credits his success to China's reforms, along with his own hard work.
Country Garden founder Yang Guoqiang credits his success to China's reforms, along with his own hard work.

On the lift landing of every floor in Mr Yang Guoqiang's company headquarters, the framed words are stark and a little confronting:

"Life is not fair - get used to it. The world doesn't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself."

The quote, from Microsoft co- founder Bill Gates, adorn the HQ of Country Garden, a long way from Silicon Valley, in Shunde, Guangdong.

Mr Yang, 61, the firm's founder and chairman - and one of China's richest men - knows from experience that life is not fair.

When it comes to accomplishments, he ought to feel good, having built the firm into one of the top 10 Chinese property developers.

Mr Yang, a farmer-turned-developer, credits his success to China's reforms, post-Cultural Revolution, along with his own hard work.

"I remember when I was 16, I couldn't even pay that 7 yuan for a year's school fees and had to go back to farming. Thankfully, my teacher went to my house to tell my father that I was not bad at studying and studying was good."

He then got a scholarship to cover the fees, with some allowance.

But the Cultural Revolution soon came and there were no books in the bookshops. He went with classmates to scrapyards to buy piles of old college textbooks. When they were done reading them, they would exchange with one another.

Today, he runs a high school in Shunde that provides free education for children from poor families - about 1,800 have graduated from the school since it was established in 2002, and there are another 504 enrolled. He also runs two vocational training institutes - free as well.

The school, Guohua Memorial Middle School, is named after his dead elder brother and costs about 4.1 million yuan (about S$900,000) a year to run.

"A person's 'suzhi' is very important," Mr Yang said, referring to quality, or quality education.

"How else did Singapore manage to gain global competitiveness? A sound system, good education and other factors raised the quality of the people. So I am doing this for the society," said Mr Yang, an admirer of Singapore's late founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

He employs highly educated staff, with 200 having doctorates, and has plans to double this to 400. "As a developer, Country Garden must think of how to create a better future... So we need more of these outstanding people."

Despite his wealth, Mr Yang showed up for the interview in an oversized tweed jacket and a grey sweater. "The company is in an expansion phase so I have much work to do," he said, adding that his money goes back into the company.

"The more money I make, the more time and effort I end up putting in. I could have used the money on the school to collect interest and live a happy life, for example. But here I am, in my 60s, still working."

What keeps him going then?

"It's inherent in me. I was born this way," he said simply.

Rennie Whang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2015, with the headline 'Rags-to-riches story behind founder'. Print Edition | Subscribe