Ex-labourer briefly overtakes Jack Ma as China's richest man

Zhong Shanshan hit jackpot after IPO of his bottled water company in HK

Mr Zhong Shanshan, who founded Nongfu Spring, a bottled water and beverage maker in 1996, is also the biggest shareholder in vaccine maker Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy, which has been trading on the Shanghai Stock Exchange since early this year
Mr Zhong Shanshan, who founded Nongfu Spring, a bottled water and beverage maker in 1996, is also the biggest shareholder in vaccine maker Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy, which has been trading on the Shanghai Stock Exchange since early this year.PHOTO: CHINA DAILY

Until last week, the world knew tech titan Jack Ma as China's richest person. That changed on Wednesday when a former journalist and mushroom farmer from Zhejiang overtook the Alibaba e-commerce platform founder to become the top billionaire - though briefly - in the country of 1.4 billion people.

Mr Zhong Shanshan, who owns 84.4 per cent of Nongfu Spring - a popular bottled water and beverage maker in China - was propelled to the list of China's top three richest after the initial public offering (IPO) of the company in Hong Kong on Sept 8.

Shares of Nongfu Spring - which sells tea, coffee, fruit juice and fresh produce - closed 54 per cent above the issue price on debut, after soaring nearly 85 per cent at the open, China Daily reported.

Mr Zhong is also the biggest shareholder in vaccine maker Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy, which began trading on the Shanghai Stock Exchange early this year.

The double booster catapulted the 66-year-old's net worth to US$58.7 billion (S$80.9 billion) last Wednesday, US$2 billion more than Mr Ma's that day, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

"You would have typically expected the No. 1 in China to come from (technology)," Mr Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman of wealth research firm Hurun Report, was quoted as saying by CNN Business.

"Zhong Shanshan is one of the few people in China to not just build one US$10 billion business, but two US$10 billion businesses."

However, Mr Zhong's reign at the top of the list was short-lived. A check of the Bloomberg index by The Sunday Times found that Mr Ma, the richest man in China for the past six years, had regained the top spot with a net worth of US$56.5 billion. He was trailed by Mr Zhong with US$53 billion.

Little is known about Mr Zhong, a largely private person who does not grant many interviews and rarely makes public appearances, earning himself the nickname "lone wolf".

Born in 1954 in Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province, Mr Zhong grew up during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement that lasted from 1966 to 1976. He dropped out of elementary school and became an odd-job labourer, moving from city to city for work, according to media reports.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Mr Zhong enrolled in a university and joined a Zhejiang daily as a business reporter before venturing into business.

  • THE WHO'S WHO 

  • 1. Jack Ma, Alibaba

    US$56.5b


    2. Zhong Shanshan, Yang Sheng Tang

    US$53b 


    3. Pony Ma, Tencent

    US$50.7b 


    4. William Ding, NetEase

    US$28.4b 


    5. He Xiangjian, Midea

    US$27.5b

    Source: Bloomberg Billionaires Index as at 3.30pm, Sept 26, 2020

In 1993, he founded Yang Sheng Tang to develop healthcare products, including "turtle pills" to treat erectile dysfunction in the 1990s.

In 1996, the company established Nongfu Spring as a subsidiary selling packaged drinking water.

In an exclusive interview with China Daily in 2016, Mr Zhong said Nongfu Spring's major breakthrough came in 1999 when he announced that the company would stop selling purified water to focus on mineral water as he claimed the former offered no health benefits.

Sales skyrocketed instantly but drew lawsuits from 69 indignant purified water firms led by major player Hangzhou Wahaha Group, which accused Nongfu Spring of unfair competition. Nongfu Spring lost the court battle.

But the saga hardly left a dent on Mr Zhong, said China Daily which also reported that the entrepreneur is married with three children.

"Who would have thought that Zhong, a man who sells bottled water in the age of IT and post-Covid economy, could actually become the richest man in China overtaking Jack Ma and Pony Ma (of Tencent)?" said Mr Hoogewerf.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2020, with the headline 'Ex-labourer briefly overtakes Jack Ma as China's richest man'. Print Edition | Subscribe