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Nongfu Spring founder Zhong soars into top ranks of China's rich

School dropout who founded bottled water company is worth more than $50bn

Zhong Shanshan at a Nongfu Spring product launch in 2015. The entrepreneur is now one of Asia's wealthiest people.   © Getty Images

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG -- Nongfu Spring's bottled water is known throughout China -- but not so Zhong Shanshan, its founder who was thrust into the upper ranks of the country's billionaires after investor thirst for the company's stock market debut in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

Now Zhong, whose avoidance of the limelight has earned him a "lone wolf" nickname, must prepare for a much higher profile. The school dropout is worth more than $50 billion after success with stock market listings propelled him into the company of internationally known entrepreneurs such as Alibaba Group Holding's Jack Ma and Tencent Holdings' Pony Ma.

Zhong's business empire is not just built on water. The 65-year-old also controls Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmaceutical Enterprise, known for its HIV and COVID-19 diagnostic test kits, which also made a stock market debut this year.

Wantai, too, has surged in value, gaining 2,000% since its initial public offering in Shanghai. The company's COVID-19 candidate vaccine, codeveloped with the University of Hong Kong and Xiamen University has recently gained approval from Chinese health authorities for clinical trials in humans, joining a few others in the country in the rush for a solution to the coronavirus pandemic.

Zhong hails from Zhejiang, an eastern province next to Shanghai known for its industrialization and also as a cradle of enterprise. Alibaba's Ma and Geely Auto Group's Li Shufu also come from the province. "Zhejiang is known for the most dynamic entrepreneurs in China," said Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman of Hurun Research Institute in Shanghai, which tracks China's rich list.

Zhong was a fifth grader when he dropped out of school and began toiling as a bricklayer. He later became a reporter with a local newspaper but turned to selling health supplements, including the popular Wahaha children's nutrient drinks as well as "turtle pills" to treat erectile dysfunction in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

He withdrew from the unregulated market before a food safety incident led to greater regulatory scrutiny. In 1996, Zhong set up Nongfu, which means "farmer," drawing from the deep water of Qiandao Lake in his home province. China's resource-rich interiors such as the Tibetan Plateau and Mount Changbai in the northeast have also become water sources for Nongfu.

Chinese who grew up in those early years remember the company's TV commercial with the tagline "Nongfu Spring tastes a bit sweet." The red pop-up spout on its bottles was such a novelty that every child would want one.

Nongfu touted its natural water as healthier than purified water and gradually increased market share. The company has maintained its top position in the packaged beverage market for the past nine years.

Hoogewerf said: "Zhong has two businesses with a market capitalization that are worth $10 billion each. Very few people in this world can build one business that's worth $10 billion."

Zhong also controls Duoer Female Daily Necessities, known for its feminine products.

Despite his acumen, Zhong has relatively little business outside China. His acquisition of Otakiri Springs in New Zealand in 2016 ran into a legal tussle with the locals who opposed a plan to expand a water bottling plant. A court decision has been pending, and Nongfu said in its prospectus that it did not expect to suffer any material losses in case of a loss in the legal proceedings.

In a rare TV interview with Phoenix New Media in 2015, Zhong said he avoided publicity for fear of being misquoted by the media. "A true entrepreneur prefers to keep quiet," he said.

But he did open up on some of his business beliefs, expressing frustration with Chinese competition law and also showing skepticism with the way the internet had grown to dominate the country's economy.

"The internet has led to the Chinese economy getting lost," he said. "The internet is a tool but is not all of our economic development. We have taken it too seriously."

Zhong also expressed concern over the scale of investment in Chinese real estate over the past decade, suggesting it could become a "burden" and that it had diverted resources that could have been better used.

"In the past decade basically 90% of the entrepreneurs went to the real estate industry," he said. "Because there (one) can get rich overnight. ... We could have used the 10 years to do research on products, on competition and on technology. The majority of our entrepreneurs gave up this passion and went to research real estate, (because) it's easy to make a fortune.

"I think I don't know how to flatter people because of my personality. I don't like social life and I don't like to drink, so I won't be successful in property."

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