Soft drinks magnate tops China rich list

FT) — Zong Qinghou, the Chinese soft drinks magnate famous for tackling the French Danone group in China’s highest-profile foreign investment dispute, has been named the mainland’s richest man with a personal fortune of $12bn.

According to the Hurun Rich List, an authoritative ranking of China’s wealthiest people, Mr Zong tops a list of 1,363 yuan billionaires in China — up from 1,000 last year.

Mr Zong heads Wahaha, China’s leading soft drinks company, which recently emerged largely victorious from a protracted global legal battle with Danone, its former joint venture partner. “‘Drinks King’ Zong, 65, has overseen Wahaha’s rise to become China’s dominant drinks business with expected profits this year of US$1.5bn and 30,000 employees,” the Hurun Report, which compiles the list, said in a statement. He rose from 12th place last year.

After battling Mr Zong in litigation and arbitration proceedings from Samoa to the British Virgin Islands, Danone last year decided to sell its 51 per cent share of the joint venture to Mr Zong for only €300m — despite winning a partial ruling in its favour from a Stockholm arbitration panel.

Danone had alleged that Mr Zong — who managed the joint venture’s 36 subsidiaries — ran parallel operations that competed against the joint venture.

Mr Zong was one of two drinks makers in the top five of the Rich List, released in Shanghai on Wednesday, underlining the strength of some Chinese consumer goods brands, and an unexpected rise in the proportion of manufacturers at the top of the list, at the expense of property developers.

“2010 is the first time in ten years a property tycoon has not made the Top Five,” says Rupert Hoogewerf, the list’s founder. He noted that China’s fourth wealthiest man, Liang Wen’gen, made his fortune from selling construction equipment — rather than from property speculation.

“Liang sells construction equipment to businesses feeding off the great Chinese urbanisation boom and has, in the process, made himself richer than any property developer”, says Mr Hoogewerf.

Last year’s number one, Wang Chuanfu — chairman of BYD, the electric car company backed by Warren Buffett — fell to number 12, largely as a result of his company’s waning fortunes on the stock market. Mr Wang’s company has recently had to cut its forecast of conventional car production for this year from 800,000 to 600,000. Delays in production of his electric cars have led the market to conclude that it may be years before BYD’s green cars make a big contribution to profits.

Another former number one, Huang Guangyu, the imprisoned founder of Gome, the Chinese electronics empire, ranked 21 despite losing a protracted battle — waged from his jail cell — to replace the current Gome chairman with Mr Huang’s sister.

This year saw the first Chinese pharmaceutical entrepreneur make it to the top five — underlining the rise of local drug companies eager to serve the rapidly expanding Chinese healthcare market. Li Li, 46, of Hepalink, made a $6bn personal fortune from making heparin, the blood thinner.

At number five, Robin Li of Baidu, the Chinese rival to Google, saw his wealth double year on year. Hurun said the “42-year-old Li has Google’s departure from China to thank for Baidu’s sharp share increase”.

“China probably now has the largest number of billionaires anywhere in the world,” says Mr Hoogewerf. “We already know of 189 US dollar billionaires in China this year, but you can safely say that we have missed at least half again, meaning there are between 400 and 500 US dollar billionaires.” – CNN