Evergrande boss unfazed even as debt risks grow

HONG KONG • Mingling with power brokers at celebrations to mark the centenary of the Communist Party of China on July 1, a beaming Mr Hui Ka Yan showed no signs that his company, China Evergrande, was facing mounting pressure with debt repayments.

He looked relaxed as he stood on a podium overlooking the festivities in Tiananmen Square, an invitation many considered a show of support for the billionaire businessman.

A month earlier, the Evergrande group chairman had hosted a rare meeting with more than 1,000 suppliers and was flanked by the business elite as he spoke of his deleveraging goals.

But now, his highly leveraged business strategy is unravelling. Debts at Evergrande, China's No. 2 developer, triggered warnings on Aug 19 from the central bank and regulators worried that its 1.97 trillion yuan (S$410 billion) of liabilities could result in contagion.

The company warned on Tuesday of default risks if it failed to dispose of more assets and renew loans.

Evergrande and Mr Hui did not respond to requests for comment.

The 62-year-old former steel technician, raised by his grandmother in a village in central Henan province, founded Evergrande in 1996 in Guangzhou city and built his fortune on low-priced homes.

Under him, the property developer expanded aggressively by raising loans to support its land buying sprees and selling homes at lower margins for quick turnover. Evergrande grew to achieve 700 billion yuan in annual sales by last year.

In 2017, Mr Hui was Asia's richest man, with a net worth of US$45.3 billion (S$61 billion), according to Forbes. Today, his net worth is estimated at US$13.4 billion.

He keeps a low public profile and is a workaholic who at times demands that others follow his work style, three employees told Reuters.

When asked by investors and reporters in the past decade about his highly leveraged projects, he said Evergrande's high turnover and asset value could cover its debts.

He did not shy away from new ventures, especially in support of China's larger goals. He dabbled in electric cars and soccer, both passions of President Xi Jinping.

Outside mainland China, Mr Hui mixed with Hong Kong tycoons, including New World Development's late founder Cheng Yu Tung and Chinese Estates Holdings' former chairman Joseph Lau.

With them, he became a core member of the "poker club", a tight-knit circle of tycoons who often did investment deals together, according to three sources.

"He was very composed when he was first brought to the club. He knowingly lost a lot of money in the games and gained the fondness of Cheng," one of the sources said.

Mr Cheng injected US$150 million into Evergrande a year before its 2009 initial public offering in Hong Kong, helping it through a crunch during the financial crisis after aggressive expansion, according to the firm's listing prospectus.

Chinese Estates has disclosed billions of dollars' worth of investments over the years in shares and bonds of Evergrande.

Mr Hui's highly leveraged businesses are worrying regulators, who have warned Evergrande to get its house in order.

Speaking at the 2018 China Charity Awards as a winner for the eighth straight year, Mr Hui said Evergrande had paid tax totalling 185 billion yuan in the past 22 years and donated over 10 billion yuan.

"Without the country's policy to reform higher education, I could not have left the village. Without the country giving me a scholarship of 14 yuan every month, I could not have completed university," he said.

"Without the country's good policy to reform and open up, Evergrande would not have what it has today. Therefore, everything that Evergrande and I have, they are all given by the party, by the country, and by society."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2021, with the headline 'Evergrande boss unfazed even as debt risks grow'. Subscribe