by Fran WANG
BEIJING: – Wang Jianlin rose from local bureaucrat to China’s richest man by transforming a debt-laden state-owned housebuilder into the sprawling Wanda Group, and the flotation of one of its subsidiaries Tuesday may propel him back up a rich list now dominated by Internet moguls.
Wang has penchants for karaoke and collecting, and has an impressive selection of fine art, property projects in top markets around the world, and an ever-expanding portfolio of companies including cinema chain AMC and yachtbuilder Sunseeker.
He topped the Forbes China Rich List in 2013 with an estimated net worth of $14.1 billion, but was displaced this year by charismatic Internet entrepreneur Jack Ma after he floated his e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba Group in the world’s biggest ever initial public offering (IPO). Ma’s fortune is now estimated at nearly $20 billion.
Wang dropped to number four, though his ranking could rebound after Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties, the flagship subsidiary of Wang’s Wanda Group, raised $3.7 billion in an IPO earlier this month by selling a 13.4 percent stake.
The IPO valued the firm at $28 billion and Wanda Group’s 44 percent post-flotation share of the subsidiary at $12.5 billion.
Wang himself owns more than 98 percent of Wanda Group, with the remaining sliver held by his only son, Wang Sicong. Wang and his wife together own around another 10 percent of Wanda Commercial.
The company’s shares debuted Tuesday in Hong Kong, closing down 2.6 percent from the offering price at HK$46.75 ($6.03), on a gloomy outlook for China’s oversupplied property market.
The parent conglomerate, which has interests in hotels, entertainment and retail, last year saw $2.06 billion in profits, according to its website.
– ‘Military rigour’ –
Wang has sought to downplay speculation on the link between his success and his government ties, saying previously he wanted to build Wanda into a world class company “depending totally on the market, not government resources”.
But he is unmistakably close to Beijing, clutching multiple official titles ranging from delegate to the ruling Communist Party congress in 2007 to a senior member of China’s top political discussion chamber for five years until 2013.
Wanda Group is a far cry from the near-bankrupt, state-owned property developer in the northeastern port of Dalian when Wang was appointed as general manager in 1988.
Previously a government official in the city’s Xigang district, according to Chinese media reports, he dug his first pot of gold from contracts to renovate shanty houses in the area.
As the company turned around, it was renamed Wanda in 1992, and the state’s stakes were gradually bought out by Wang directly or through companies associated with him.
The eldest son of a captain of the Chinese Communist army during the civil war and Second World War and a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army himself, Wang runs Wanda Group “with military rigour and precision”, Fortune magazine reported last year.
Nearly all his senior staff are men and wear black suits, white shirts and dark ties as a rule. Employees are provided with three free meals a day at strictly scheduled hours.
Wanda executives claim the company has “never once had a project come in late or over budget”, the magazine said.
Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties says it is the second-largest commercial property owner and operator in the world, with 175 property projects across China.
– Kidman, DiCaprio, Zeta-Jones –
Wang, 60, turned to culture and tourism as Wanda Group’s new growth drivers in 2009, when the global financial crisis dealt China’s real estate market a heavy blow.
The company has expanded into film production, theme parks, print media and art investment.
At a red-carpet event last year, global A-listers Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Catherine Zeta-Jones flew in to showcase Wanda’s plan for an $8.0 billion studio complex in the eastern city of Qingdao.
It has also expanded overseas, buying US cinema chain AMC Entertainment for $2.6 billion in 2012 and reportedly seeking a stake in Lions Gate Entertainment, the American studio behind the “Hunger Games” franchise.
Last year, it acquired a 23-floor office building in London for a luxury $1.1 billion development and bought Edificio Espana, a historic skyscraper in Madrid, for $330 million this June.
A month later, Wanda announced it would invest $900 million in a five-star hotel and apartment complex in Chicago, and acquired a huge parcel of land in Beverly Hills.
Through the company, Wang has also accumulated around 1,000 pieces of fine Chinese calligraphy and painting, and last year spent $28 million on Pablo Picasso’s 1950 work “Claude and Paloma”.
Wanda became a household name across China after Wang, a diehard football fan, bought a Dalian soccer club in 1994 for six years and transformed it into the strongest team in China.
But Wang’s ambitions are bigger. He told CNN earlier this year: “Our goal is to make Wanda a brand like Wal-mart or IBM or Google — a brand known by everyone in the world, a brand from China.”