What do Li Peng, Noboru Takeshita and Britain's Prince William have in common? All suffer from hair loss - the first two used China's most famous hair lotion to cure it, and the young prince may well have to do the same. 101 and its inventor, Zhao Zhangguang, have moved from a small room full of pigs and chickens in a mountain village in Zhejiang province into a corporate office base for a global business with assets of US$185 million, 12,000 workers and lotions on the heads of men from Berkeley to Beirut and Istanbul to Inchon. But, while it is a story of rags to riches, most of the riches did not end up in the pocket of Mr Zhao and his five children, but with hundreds of officials, agents and salesmen who have exploited the product. Several of the country's richest men - including Li Xiaohua who bought China's first Ferrari - made their initial fortunes selling the purple plastic bottle of tonic. The company is now at a crossroads, and Mr Zhao's reign as its boss may be coming to an end. His children want to list the company in Hong Kong and change it from a family business into a modern corporation. When they first proposed a listing in 2002, Mr Zhao opposed it, fearful of the costs, interference, loss of control and a reluctance to share the profits. But they have talked him around and next year, investors in Hong Kong should be able to take a punt on the dreams of millions of men for a bushy crown. The children plan to list it on the Growth Enterprise Market (GEM) next year and possibly the main board in 2007. Each is hoping to be designated the successor, a choice Mr Zhao has so far avoided making. At 62, he is worn out from running a business that has mushroomed into something so much grander than he ever imagined. Without a nap at lunchtime, he cannot get through the evening. A listing means lawyers, accountants, investors, analysts and - God save us - journalists trampling through your company with endless questions. The head of a private firm now, Mr Zhao can smile and decline to answer questions. The birth of 101 was like the start of a new religion - there are many versions of what happened. The most popular one places it in the spring of 1968, in a mountainous village in Yueqing county , on the outskirts of Wenzhou , Zhejiang province. Mr Zhao, then 25, was working as a herbal doctor treating skin diseases. An 18-year-old woman came to see him, wearing a low-quality wig that everyone could see. It made her the laughing stock of her village - she scarcely dared to go outside and had given up hope of marriage. She begged Mr Zhao to help and he started to mix herbs and oils. One formula after another failed, his money ran out and he had to rent one of the three rooms in his home. His wife raised pigs and chickens to support him. One day a patient came, complaining of fever and skin rash, and Mr Zhao gave him a potion. A week later he returned and shouted at Mr Zhao: 'You have not cured my fever, but I am growing hair!' Because it was the 101st attempt, that became the name. The formula has ingredients such as ginseng, dried ginger, walnut meat, safflower, psoralea and alcohol. The formula put hair on the 18-year-old woman, who became the first 'disciple' of the new product. She is now 55 and happily married. In a newspaper, Mr Zhao saw an advertisement by a beauty salon in Zhengzhou , capital of Henan province , for hair-restoring services and contacted them. He left his village for the first time, paying five yuan for a fifth-class ticket on a boat to Shanghai and then 16 yuan for a hard seat on a train to Zhengzhou. The talks led to the first factory making 101 in Zhengzhou in March 1987, with capital of 200,000 yuan, of which he put up 60,000, with the rest borrowed from a bank. In April that year, he opened a second plant in Beijing, where he moved his headquarters. The next five years were the golden age for 101. The Communist Party leaders were elderly and many suffered from hair loss. They feted Mr Zhao as an inventor and entrepreneur and the man who could cure their baldness. His clients included then prime minister Li Peng and his arch-rival, party chief Zhao Ziyang . When Deng Xiaoping returned from a visit to Japan, he sent 10 bottles as a gift to then Japanese prime minister Takeshita, who became a walking advertisement for the product. The price in Japan soared. A bottle that cost 20 yuan when it left the factory in Beijing sold for US$60 in Japan. One of the Chinese who made their fortune from selling 101 in Japan was Chau Ching-ngai , a Shanghai property king who was jailed last year for fraud and stock manipulation. Japanese visiting Beijing flocked to the Friendship Store and bought bottles for their own use or to sell. The company opened a production plant in Japan this year. Mr Zhao has found dealers for his product in the US, France, Jordan and a dozen other countries. He was invited to Brussels and Geneva to receive awards for his invention. Most of the profits, however, did not go to Mr Zhao but to the Civil Affairs Bureau of the Beijing government, which had put up the 500,000 yuan for the plant in the capital, giving him a modest commission of 3 per cent of sales. The factory was a typical state firm, with hundreds of underemployed workers drinking tea, smoking, and enjoying poker games and four-day weekends. In 2002, after years of difficult negotiations, Mr Zhao persuaded the government to sell it to him, but had to pay 18 million yuan, arrange re-employment for 700 surplus workers and accept the factory's debt of 20 million yuan, which he finished paying off last year. And he no longer has the market to himself. At least 50 new companies making hair restorer open each year - half close within 12 months - and there are more than 3,000 competing lotions on the market. Many are fake and claim to be 101. The 101 'scriptures' contain many remarkable stories. In one, a young Shanghai woman started to go bald before her wedding. On her way to hospital for treatment, the wind blew off her hat, exposing her 'monk's head' and provoking ridicule from passers-by. Fearful that her fiance would cancel the marriage, she took poison but was rescued by her mother and taken to Mr Zhao's clinic. She knelt in front of him, tears streaming down her face, and said: 'I beg you, find a way to cure my baldness.' And he did, so the story goes.