Fosun Group

The making of tycoon Guo Guangchang

From a young graduate who stayed at home to see how the nation would develop, the 'Buffett of China' is now among the mainland's richest men

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 11:18am

When three graduates from Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University set up a small venture about two decades ago, they probably never expected the company would become an icon of the mainland's fast-growing private businesses sector.

How did it happen?

It all began with just friendship and love, and perhaps some good connections with the government.

Last week, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, a generic drug maker, was listed in Hong Kong. The company is a unit of the Fosun Group, one of the mainland's largest private firms, which also controls Shanghai Forte Land, already a large and profitable developer in Shanghai.

At a dinner party to celebrate Fosun Pharma's listing, Guo Guangchang, the chief and co-founder of the group, applauded the staff.

"Everybody at Fosun has been working very hard in the past several years and it [the success] is not easy," he said, struggling to hold back his emotions before hundreds of guests, including many from the banking world and some from the government.

"In the future, I personally will spend more time on Fosun Pharma because I see it as the next big thing, like Forte Land, and it means the future for the group."

It was not an easy job to get Fosun Pharma listed in Hong Kong. Bankers said they worked with Guo on the deal for more than 20 months and the project was on and off a couple of times because of market uncertainty throughout the listing process, including the worsening euro-zone debt crisis.

But Guo made it, which was a great relief to his bankers. One banker joked at the dinner that perhaps one reason it took so long to get Fosun Pharma listed was because "Guo is a very demanding guy and he focuses on details".

Fosun's long journey goes back to 1992, the same year that late leader Deng Xiaoping embarked on a southern tour that secured the future of economic reforms and cleared a path for the development of private enterprise.

It was just the start of the private economic boom and many university graduates still preferred to go abroad to see how private enterprise worked elsewhere rather than wait patiently to see what would happen in the Chinese version.

But Guo decided to stay home and set up his own firm with help from some other Fudan University graduates, with 100,000 yuan, a mix of their own savings and some support from Fudan.

Guo, who graduated in 1992 with a degree in philosophy, teamed with genetics student Liang Xinjun and computer science student Tan Jian to start the company.

The three first founded Guangxin Technology Consulting in 1992 to advise foreign companies that were trying to get a foothold in the mainland market.

Business picked up quickly, as did the relationship between Guo and Tan who married. Some years later, they divorced. But thanks to Guo's background, even today the company is still full of Fudan graduates, an unwritten tradition and preference for the firm.

The start-up firm quickly gained a strong foothold partly because of Tan, who helped bridge relationships with government officials.

The close relationship between Guo and Tan, whose father was a well-respected scholar, was widely viewed as an important stepping stone for his business because it gained him access to the advanced pharmaceutical industry, which was little-known to many others.

That said, Guo captured the first-mover advantage and secured the deals that others could barely touch on.

His own family background is much simpler. The son of a peasant family in rural Zhejiang province, Guo often tried to keep a low-key style in both life and work until he began to date and then married a popular Shanghai Television presenter some years ago, at which time his life became fodder for the insatiable mainland gossip columns.

As for his investment style, Guo is a devoted fan of Warren Buffett and has the nickname in the Chinese media as "the Warren Buffett of China".

In more recent years, Guo has developed the Fosun Group into the mainland's largest private conglomerate by revenue, operating a wide range of businesses, from property development to drug manufacturing, as well as retail and steel-making.

Guo once said his vision for Fosun was to build a Chinese version of General Electric, the US business giant founded by inventor Thomas Edison more than a century ago.

Guo is widely recognised as a value investor and swift decision maker with an outspoken and strong-willed character, according to those who work closely with him.

In addition to building up its own industrial business, Fosun also invests in other companies, which has at times given the company the appearance of a private equity investor.

"When thinking about investing in a company, we won't watch its stock's short-term fluctuations … we feel that a company's long-term value is the more important factor," Guo told the Financial Times in an interview in May last year.

Apart from his business ambition, Guo loves tai chi and once demonstrated his skills in New York at a top corporate event.

The 45-year-old titan is now ranked the 27th richest mainlander, with a net wealth of US$2.7 billion, according to Forbes magazine last year.