At 71, Lenovo's Liu Chuanzhi is still a legend in the world of Chinese business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 June, 2015, 11:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 June, 2015, 8:10pm

Chinese media still refer adoringly to Liu Chuanzhi as the "godfather of Lenovo", the computer technology company he founded three decades ago that still ranks as one of the biggest success stories to emerge from the nation.

Lenovo snapped up IBM's personal computing business in 2005 and showed the world it meant business by ranking as the world's No. 1 vendor of PCs last year.

Liu, the 71-year-old chairman and executive director of Legend Holdings, Lenovo's parent company, must have felt at least a faint flicker of pride.

READ MORE: Top 5 tips for Chinese entrepreneurs from Lenovo's Liu Chuanzhi

With Legend's listing on Hong Kong's main bourse today, the natural-born entrepreneur is going from strength to strength, and refusing to rest on his laurels despite all the accolades he has amassed over a long and storied career.

Although he was born in Shanghai, Liu founded Lenovo in Beijing in 1984 - at the time, it was known as Legend Computers - with several of his fellow scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the leading think-tank for scientific endeavours on the mainland.

It was renamed as Lenovo is 2003 amid a media blitz and large-scale branding campaign. The word is a portmanteau of the first two letters of the parent company's name and the Latin ablative for "new".

The turning point came a decade ago with the acquisition of IBM's PC business, a landmark deal many analysts hail as a turning point for China's technology industry.

It showed a generation of aspiring entrepreneurs just what was possible, and served as a pioneer for other local tech players like Huawei and ZTE, two of China's top smartphone makers, to emulate. Both have since adopted similar strategies and expanded aggressively overseas.

Liu was born into a family of bankers in 1944, five years before the Communist Party took over and founded what is commonly referred to as "modern China".

His grandfather ran a large bank in Jiangsu province, one of the wealthiest provinces in eastern China, which lies close to Shanghai.

Liu's father took up the same profession. After serving his apprenticeship with the Bank of China (BOC), one of China's Big Four state-owned banks, he climbed up the ladder and firmly established himself in its C-suite.

Despite the influence of these two patriarchs, Liu showed little interest in the financial industry at first. In the early days of his career, he struggled to become a military pilot, but failed largely due to his family's background, in an era where anything capitalist or bourgeois was likely to find itself in the party's crosshairs.

As Liu's dream of taking to the skies began to slip away, he decided instead to pursue a career as an engineer, and later joined CAS, the birthplace of Lenovo.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Liu described the biggest achievement of his career as building up a strong team and keeping them on board for over two decades. The major deals he inked along the way came second.

"It is more important to have a strong team you can rely on and trust, than to just make one or two big deals," Liu said.

"I was able to develop a very strong team of colleagues, such as Yang Yuanqing, Guo Wei and many others. They will have a very long-term impact on the future development of Legend's business."

Yang, Lenovo's chief executive, is known to enjoy an almost father-son relationship with Liu, a bond that goes beyond that of mentor and protégé. Guo runs Digital China, another part of Legend's sprawling empire of companies.

Under the leadership of Liu, and later Yang, Lenovo gained a reputation as the most "international" and "modern" of Chinese enterprises. In recent years, Liu has increasingly handed over control of Lenovo to Yang, and let the younger man chart its course. This has freed Liu up to focus more on Legend's management and future business direction.

Now he wants to spread its tentacles beyond the technology sector and expand more into financial services, areas where both his father and grandfather left their mark as pioneers.

Rather than slowing with age, Liu said he tried to integrate an hour's exercise into his daily routine to stay fighting fit. He wakes at 7.30am, works out for an hour, and then hits the office. But he's not all business. Just ask his friends: most have lost to him at Texas hold'em and golf, two hobbies he still makes time for.