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A badass Chinaman

A badass Chinaman

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When he travelled to the US in 1992, he paid all his bills in cold hard cash — US$30,000, straight from his briefcase. Yes, it’s safe to say that he paid for his big macs like a boss.

16 years later, he was listed among Forbes’ 400 richest Chinese, which is a pretty high rank considering there are more than 1.3 billion people in China. And his claim to fame? Being the founder of Huawei, one of the world’s largest telecoms gear vendors. If you’re not sure what the heck Huawei makes, you’re not alone. Singapore’s not a big fan of its products. On the other hand, more godforsaken parts of Asia are taking to them like villagers to their first plasma screen TV.

No I’m not being rhetorical. That’s actually their business model — introducing technology to rural areas before anyone else comes in, and effectively establishing a monopoly over rural consumers.

Ok. That’s part of their strategy. The other part consists of them making cheaper knockoffs of any new IT product conceivable. Take a look at their mobile phone range: it’s an iPhone, no! it’s a Samsung, no! it’s…like everything else we’ve seen before. But cheaper.

Our man behind this Chinese knockoff giant is Ren Zhengfei. He makes it to this month’s Cooler Than You (we left PM Lee up there for a few months already, remember?) not because he’s your typical Chinese businessman. Oh no, he’s an atypical badass Chinaman with street cred few can boast of.

That's the man

Born in an ulushit town in Guizhou province, Ren was the first of seven children and grew up in a poor household. His parents were schoolteachers, and his mother often had to borrow money to make ends meet. His father fought for the nationalist Kuomintang against the Japanese in the 1930s, only later joining the Communist Party. This and their “intellectualism” condemned both parents to labour camps during the Cultural Revolution.

After graduating from the Chongqing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture in 1963, he joined the People’s Liberation Army when they were strapped for engineers, but remained bitter as he was passed over when the Communist Youth League was looking for members.

Left out of the cool clique, Ren felt ‘isolated’.

Despite this, Ren excelled. He rose to deputy director, the equivalent of deputy regimental chief, and was invited in 1978 to the National Science Conference and, in 1982, to the National Congress of the Communist Party of China. His army career ended with Deng Xiaoping’s cutbacks the following year.

He then started Huawei armed with just 21,000 yuan (now worth US$3,300), and a few friends. With humble beginnings as a third-party re-seller of telecom devices in Shenzhen. Ren quickly pushed the company up the value chain, emulating copying other companies’ products until they had the capacity to produce their own designs in the early 1990s, though even then, they still looked heavily ‘inspired’ by the works of others.

Taking his cue from other productive companies like Foxconn, Ren pushed his workers to work. HARD. When European R&D workers work about 1,400 hours a year, while Huawei’s Chinese R&D workers put in twice that – at as little as a sixth of the cost. Huawei became known for its “mattress culture”, where engineers would put in long hours and sleep in the office. The mattress culture eventually led to a spate of suicides, which flummoxed Ren.

A happy, productive Foxconn worker looking at his CEO

“What can we do to help our employees have a more positive and open attitude towards life?,” he wrote to a senior member of the Communist Party.

In another missive, he suggested the depression caused by exhaustion was in fact, a medical illness: “I used to have serious depression and anxiety disorder,” he wrote to his staff, “but with the help of doctors, along with my own optimism, my illness is completely cured.”

Ren now overseas a company with an annual revenue of US$32.4 billion, and an annual profit of US$1.8 billion (2011 figures). His 40,000 staff have stopped trying to kill themselves, but the future remains uncertain.

Huawei is partly family run, which spells disaster for any company. Because, as we know from Taiwanese dramas, all dynastic companies are bound to hit a shitstorm after three generations.

Ren Zhengfei’s biography was shamelessly ripped off from Reuters.