Whether through hard work, perseverance or by sheer luck, Guo Ziwen has managed to keep his company in shape while many of the mainland's listed developers are unable to balance their books. When rivals snapped up land aggressively at high prices last year, boosting their net debt-equity ratio to an average of more than 50 per cent and as high as 140 per cent, the 44-year-old kept the gearing of his Guangdong-based China Aoyuan Property Group at just 23 per cent. 'I am lucky,' said the chairman, who began developing residential communities in 1997 in Panyu, a district in Greater Guangzhou, under the theme of wholesome sports and education of the young. 'We got listed at the right time; all money raised was remitted to the mainland before the austerity measures were imposed,' he said. China Aoyuan raised about HK$3.6 billion in a Hong Kong listing in October last year, when investor interest in mainland property stocks was strong and the austerity measures were just about to be implemented. Since then, tightening measures introduced, including a more stringent mortgage approval process, a higher ratio for down payments in purchases of a second home, and more restrictive terms for project financing, have curbed cash flows and trimmed the bottom lines of developers. Tougher lending policies and delays in approvals for A-share listings have added to the cash-flow woes at a time when poor stock market sentiment is delaying share-sale plans. 'I do not feel any liquidity pressure that others in the industry feel,' Mr Guo said. But luck is definitely not the only ingredient of success, especially in an industry that has been through three rounds of austerity measures in a decade. Like its counterparts, China Aoyuan also had been facing slower sales in its projects, Mr Guo said. In the first quarter of this year, the developer sold 80,000 square metres of homes, just a fraction of its full-year target of 700,000 to 800,000 square metres. Even so, slower sales did not put any pressure on China Aoyuan, as the company did not buy sites aggressively last year and all land costs were fully paid, Mr Guo said. Its survival trick was to maintain strict financial discipline and be able to face challenges, qualities Mr Guo said he learned from his childhood education and hometown culture. He said he learned discipline from his parents, who were teachers. 'I was also an athlete, I got used to facing challenges in competition since I was small,' he said. Furthermore, he grew up in Panyu, an area near Guangzhou renowned for its rich agricultural output, where down-home folks invest prudently and take only calculated risks. 'I have no big desire to expand my company in an aggressive way. What I want is only half a step ahead of others, not even one full step,' Mr Guo said. He hopes his company can sustain a growth rate of 30 per cent a year. 'If the profit jumps a lot in one year, how can I maintain such growth pace the year after?' he asked. After seeing three rounds of austerity measures, Mr Guo said the current round was not the toughest - either for him or the industry. The sector's toughest time was the early 1990s, when then prime minister Zhu Rongji imposed microeconomic policies such as cutting lending to developers to curb land speculation, especially on Hainan island, he said. Developers then relied mainly on bank loans, so many were forced out of business and sales went dead. This time around, lending restrictions principally apply to purchases of a second home. Meanwhile, the fundamentals of developers and the buying power of consumers had improved as the economy expanded over the past decade, he said. Mr Guo met his biggest challenge when the company invested in its first property development, Jinye Villa Garden, in Panyu after he made his first bucket of gold from taking over two loss-making state-owned architectural and design firms in 1992. With limited cash of just a little more than 10 million yuan (HK$11.17 million), China Aoyuan took a big risk - probably the biggest to date - by committing to a project costing 150 million yuan. 'Life was hard in those days. I slept at the construction site all the time to monitor the development schedule. I went home only once a year,' he recalled. 'My mind was at peace only when all the units were sold two years later.' Now, China Aoyuan has expanded to more than 10 projects in cities from Guangzhou to Chongqing. That does not mean that the company is spared from the industry ups and downs. Mainland media have widely reported that it faced a financial crisis in 2004, when it made a loss of 11.44 million yuan. Earnings rebounded in subsequent years after Cathay Property, a unit of private equity firm Cathay Capital Holdings, acquired a 20.5 per cent stake in China Aoyuan for HK$386.51 million. Mr Guo hates to be reminded of the crisis. He expects the company to team up with foreign or local partners in investment so as to diversify risk and enhance a project's quality. On April 10, the group announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding to sell a 50 per cent stake in a retail mall it is developing in Panyu to MGPA, a property fund operated by Australia's Macquarie Group. Mr Guo is optimistic about the property market's outlook. 'I don't think the government will impose three rounds of measures again in the next 10 years, like what it did in the last decade.'