Wanda man

Wang Jianlin, the mainland's richest man, has big plans for his property, entertainment and retailing empire and he wants them done fast

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 4:13am

It was a hot and sunny day in Qingdao, Shandong province, but Wang Jianlin, the richest man on the mainland, was looking cool in a dark grey suit and red tie at the launch of his 50 billion yuan (HK$63.3 billion) film park.

Sitting with him were Hollywood heartthrobs Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman, along with other famous film stars and senior executives of the world's top entertainment, talent, and filmmaking companies, as well as local bigwigs.

"In future, I dare to say that China will become the centre of the world's film industry, and Qingdao will be the centre of the country's film industry," said the 58-year-old businessman, who is shifting his business focus from commercial property development to film and tourism and cultural projects, as he bets that demand from wealthier Chinese consumers in these areas will boom.

It is a wager that he expects will help turn his property enterprise into a global entertainment and tourism empire.

In addition to the Qingdao project, Wang's Dalian Wanda Group is to open a high-technology film-themed park in Wuhan, Hubei province, next year. It also plans to invest 90 billion yuan to develop "cultural tourism cities" in Harbin, Heilongjiang; Hefei in Anhui; and Nanchang in Jiangsu.

Inspired by the American resort city of Las Vegas, the new projects will integrate cinemas, Disney-style theme parks, shopping centres, hotels and theatres, in which world-class stage performances will be held. Wanda plans to build 10 such projects across the mainland.

"Property projects containing cultural or tourist elements sell fast," Wang said.

Earlier this month, Forbes magazine noted in its rich list that Wang had replaced Zong Qinghou, the chairman of beverage-maker Hangzhou Wahaha Group, as the richest man on the mainland with an estimated personal wealth of US$14 billion.

Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties, controlled by Wang and his family, is expected to become the world's largest developer in the next few years. It now runs 72 comprehensive commercial Wanda Plazas and 40 five-star hotels in first to third-tier mainland cities. There are 50 more plazas under construction, which will raise the total property area it holds to nearly 23 million square metres by next year.

Wanda is also the world's largest cinema operator, with more than 6,000 screens in China and the United States after it acquired AMC, the second-largest cinema chain in the US, for US$2.6 billion in June last year.

In addition, Wanda's retailing arm, Wanda Department Store chain, is poised to become the largest in the country, with 80 stores in operation.

Common to all of the projects, are the ideas of being big and fast. "Fast is our competitive edge," Wang said. "It can save capital costs and increase rental revenue.

"We would not have been able to get into the top position in the market if we had grown at a normal pace. Some global companies like Simon Property Group took more than a century to become the number one in the world. I cannot live that long, so we need to go fast."

Born in a remote town in Sichuan province, Wang is the eldest in a family of five children. He joined the army at the age of 15 and was promoted to the rank of regiment commander when he was 27.

In 1987, he left the army in a response to then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's call for a downscaled armed forces, and started to work as the director of the general office of the Xigang district government in Dalian, the capital of Liaoning province.

His life took a major turn a year later when he volunteered to become the head of a state-owned property company on the verge of bankruptcy and successfully turned it around. In 1992, he took advantage of the government's experimentation with the privatisation of state assets and established Dalian Wanda Group.

During the following 20 years, Wang proved to be a businessman with vision, determination and huge ambition.

Wanda Plaza is so far his most famous project. Positioned as "the landmark in the heart of a city", each plaza consists of office buildings, a high-end hotel, a shopping centre, serviced apartments and a cinema.

From acquiring the block of land to completing the construction, Wang required his company to get everything done within 18 months.

Last year, Wanda reported a 15 per cent growth in property revenue to 110 billion yuan, making it the world's second-largest real estate company by revenue.

Wanda's overseas expansion has been equally aggressive. In June, the company announced it would invest HK$3.9 billion to acquire British luxury yachtmaker Sunseeker International, and spent HK$8.5 billion to build a commercial real estate project in London.

Wang said the company would acquire more overseas companies involved in hotel, entertainment and consumption sectors.

"But we by no means plan to make overseas markets our investment focus. As you know, China's consumption market is just about to boom," he said.