It should have been a year of celebration for Ping An Insurance (Group). Chairman and co-founder Peter Ma Mingzhe had planned elaborate events for the firm's 20th anniversary on May 27, a celebration of two decades of momentous growth that has seen it expand from a group of 12 salesmen in Shenzhen to the world's seventh-largest insurer by market value.
However, as if destined to reflect the tumultuous path Ping An has taken over the past 20 years, this year has been anything but smooth.
After a deadly earthquake struck much of Sichuan on May 12, killing tens of thousands of people, Mr Ma, who is also Ping An's chief executive, cancelled all anniversary celebrations and merely read a statement to his staff of 370,000 through a televised regular morning briefing on the special day.
The company and staff donated more than 30 million yuan (HK$34.4 million) to the quake victims.
Then, another opportunity to mark the fruition of Mr Ma's hard work and achievements of the past two decades was almost lost. Business bible Fortune omitted Ping An when it announced its list of the world's top 500 companies on July 10.
The magazine issued a clarification a few days later, adding Ping An at 462th place on its website. It was too late to make the change in the print edition.
As if this was not enough, Mr Ma has become a target of ridicule and attack in the mainland press and in internet chatrooms because of the size of his salary. He received more than 66 million yuan in salary and from exercising his share options, leading one magazine to dub him 'China's most expensive boss'.
The company also raised the ire of investors earlier this year, when it was blamed for sending the mainland's stock markets into a tailspin because of its proposed mega A-share public offering.
Ping An's purchase of a 4.99 per cent in Dutch-Belgian Fortis group has been another source of complaint, as Fortis' shares have plunged more than 50 per cent in the global credit crunch.
Yet Mr Ma has taken all of these in stride and appears committed to seeing Ping An reach the top of its industry.
The 52-year-old was the deputy manager of China Merchants Shekou Industrial Zone Social Insurance before founding Ping An in March 1988. He has a doctorate degree in money and banking from the former Zhongnan University of Economics.
For the next 10 years, Mr Ma's dream is to make Ping An one of the world's leading financial institutions by scale, management and brand - specifically, among the top 20 financial houses and top five insurers.
'To become world-leading, we have a few [criteria],' he said in Shenzhen last week.
'First, insurance, banking and asset management will be developed equally in the next eight to 10 years. Insurance now accounts for 70 per cent [of our business]. Secondly, we hope [to develop the concept of] one customer, one account, [providing] many products and services.'
Mr Ma has reasons to be confident. Hong Kong and Shanghai-listed Ping An has in two decades grown its assets from 45 million yuan to 700 billion yuan. It is also China's first non-state-owned firm to make it to the Fortune 500 list.
In contrast, Shanghai-listed China Pacific Insurance (Group) - an amalgamation of the former insurance units of Bank of Communications that were established before Ping An - had assets valued at 309 billion yuan last year.
According to the China Insurance Regulatory Commission, China Pacific Insurance ranks third in the life insurance market, behind No1 China Life and Ping An, in a country where life insurance accounts for 79 per cent of the total market.
Key to Ping An's success has been its integrated cross-selling business platform that allows it to leverage on its growing commercial banking and asset management units.
Tapping the mainland's increasingly affluent middle class, it has been able to build on an extensive insurance client base of 40 million.
The management team made up of domestic and foreign talent is another factor boosting the firm's expansion and internationalisation, according to Mr Ma.
'I feel that under China's conditions, what we have done isn't easy. It's not what you want to do and can do. You can ask many others who have moved from [sole] insurance to cross-selling operations ... how many can make it?' he said.
'Ping An's 20 years is one of innovative history ... it is like the Chinese saying, 'The bird that sticks out its head gets shot.' There is a price that [every] innovator has to pay in this society.'
In 1994, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs became shareholders, a move that pioneered foreign equity investment in a mainland financial firm. The problem was, the People's Bank of China then would not allow a foreign director on the board.
To get around the restriction, Mr Ma convinced the central bank to allow 'observers' that had no voting rights, just like in the United Nations.
'For Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, it was simple, if we don't send a director, I won't give you the money ... it was a painful period, we had finished all the agreements,' he recalled.
A year later, regulators allowed foreign directors. The two US investment banks were believed to have each invested US$35 million in the insurer for a little more than 10 per cent of the firm. They sold a combined 9.9 per cent in 2005 for HK$8.1 billion to HSBC, now Ping An's biggest shareholder with a 16.8 per cent stake.
The foreign investment brought to Ping An a western style of management including stricter corporate governance and accounting standards comparable to international practice.
Mr Ma said this served as a reference for other insurers and the finance ministry when officials began revising their own accounting systems.
The foreign involvement also resulted in a management team where 67 of the top 100 managers are foreigners with many hired from multinational companies.
'In Chinese people's minds, this company is big, [therefore it] must be a state-owned enterprise,' he said.
The misconception explains why Mr Ma's 66 million yuan income became such an issue, even though it is below other global chief executives' pay.
The best-paid chief, Merrill Lynch's John Thain, took home an US$83 million pay package last year, the Associated Press reported last month. The US bank took a US$7.8 billion net loss last year while Ping An more than doubled its net profit to 19.22 billion yuan .
Even so, Ping An was dealt a blow earlier this year when it was forced to pull a refinancing plan to sell an additional 100 billion yuan of A shares. The share sale, approved by regulators, enraged investors, who claimed its sheer size contributed to sharp declines in the A-share market.
The incident underscored the inadequacy in the development of China's capital markets as a platform to help local firms expand. For a company to buy assets, it has to receive regulatory approval and then raise the funds. But if it discloses its intention, the price of the target assets surges; if it does not disclose its plan, it gets accused of lacking transparency.
Mr Ma was reserved about discussing the A-share incident, though he believes Ping An had covered all grounds in the 'consideration process' and there was room to raise funds.
'But there were a few issues that we didn't consider carefully enough and [for which we] lack experience. For example, the domestic and international markets weren't so closely merged previously,' he said, referring to the bigger than expected negative impact of the subprime crisis.
However, he says he does not view the shelved sale - which in turn put any acquisition plans on hold - as a blessing in disguise, or consider the firm's Euro1.81 billion (HK$22.16 billion) purchase early this year of 4.18 per cent of Fortis a misstep. Ping An later raised the stake to 4.99 per cent and subsequently acquired 50 per cent of Fortis Investments for Euro2.15 billion.
The Fortis deal was based on Ping An's long-term strategy.
'Fortis' business model is similar to ours - banking, insurance and asset management. Its cross-selling is done very well. For Ping An, our future strategy is one customer, one account, many products and services ... provide cheaper and more services to the customer,' Mr Ma said.
'When we chose Fortis at that time, [we saw] a lot of co-operative and similar effects there. Within our asset mix, this is a long-term investment.'
For the shorter term, Ping An is looking at investing in mainland infrastructure projects including toll roads, water supply facilities and ports that fit the requirement of stability and steady returns.
President Louis Cheung Chi-yan said the investment would in part make up for a lack of investment options in the mainland's underdeveloped bond market.
'Since most of our liabilities are in yuan, it makes sense to make yuan investments,' Mr Cheung said.
He said embarking on overseas infrastructure investment took longer, but the firm was studying possibilities and 'in no hurry'.
Ping An's move comes as the insurance regulators draw up detailed rules allowing insurers to invest up to 8 per cent of their assets in infrastructure. It follows a 2006 pilot programme that let insurers put up to 12 billion yuan into such projects.
Chinese insurers are allowed to directly invest 10 per cent of their assets in stocks, may also hold 15 per cent of their assets in mutual funds, and another 15 per cent in overseas equities. The remainder is mainly in bonds or deposited in banks. But the mainland stock market has lost 45 per cent in value this year.
China posted 10.4 per cent economic growth in the first half of the year. Its life insurance premiums surged 64 per cent to 431.9 billion yuan, outperforming Ping An's 27.67 per cent rise to 53.9 billion yuan.
'China's biggest future potential will be in asset management. Individual wealth is rising three to four times,' Mr Ma said. On another front, Ping An has something not many companies on the mainland can boast - a long-serving boss. Mr Ma is of one of the three executives who have been at the helm of their firms for 20 years or more. The others are Wang Shi of China Vanke and Ren Zhengfei of Huawei Technologies.
And judging from his achievements, Mr Ma will be at the top a good while longer.