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The man who aims to be Taiwan's president: Foxconn's Gou

Imperious style built tech giant but the test will be delicate US-China balance

Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou tells reporters in Taipei that he is considering running for the presidency on April 16. (Central News Agency/Kyodo)

TAIPEI -- Hours after a strong earthquake shook the east coast of Taiwan on Thursday, Foxconn's Terry Gou was spotted in downtown Taipei, squatting down to peer at the road. Running his hands over the buckled surface, the founder of the world's largest iPhone maker declared that Taiwan needed to do more to protect itself against earthquakes.

Gou's campaign for the Taiwanese presidency had begun.

The 69-year-old Gou this week declared his ambition to run for the nomination of Taiwan's China-friendly Kuomintang as its candidate in the 2020 presidential election. A celebrity at home for his success in parlaying a $7,500 loan in 1974 into a global tech giant employing 1 million people today, Gou drew crowds even before he declared. The test now will be whether this charismatic, but volatile billionaire will be able to make it all the way to the presidency.

If stamina is the criteria, Gou has it. The Foxconn chief runs his $41 billion company with an imperious style of management. He works round the clock and expects his high-ranking executives to be available whenever he needs them. Often, on his 6 a.m. or midnight walks -- part of his exercise regime to clock up 10,000 steps a day -- Foxconn executives can be seen striding beside him as he holds mobile meetings.

Mistakes are not tolerated. One executive recalls a morning meeting he attended in Gou's office. "One of the colleagues made a silly mistake and Gou was so mad... Everyone in that meeting just stood there, and quietly watched Chairman Gou doing his work from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. ... Nobody dared to speak or leave that room or even go to the toilet."

On weekends, Gou will call his executives and demand they come to his home for meetings. While they are there, he will often call others to come to deal with different issues. There is no guarantee that anyone will be seen in the order they arrive. "Some people need to wait over there for the whole day, and you can't leave as you don't know what time Chairman Gou will call your name. You just need to be there," another executive said.

Executives are also expected to be ready to travel with just an hour or two's notice, insiders told Nikkei Asian Review. Once at the airport, the destination can often be changed.

"One time when a colleague just landed at Taipei from a-month-long trip to Shenzhen, he got a call asking him to return to Shenzhen immediately as the big boss wanted him to join a meeting a few hours later," said a Foxconn employee.

Despite the grueling demands, most of those who have worked with Gou for many years admire his business acumen and insight. "The chairman told us that there is going to be a U.S.-China trade war in 2017, when nobody believed that was going to happen... He is very forward-looking and visionary. That's why still a lot of people would follow him and work for him. He is born to be a leader," one executive told Nikkei.

That assessment prompted Gou to decide to invest in the U.S., the executive added. In 2018 he broke ground on a $10 billion liquid crystal display factory complex in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin -- one of the biggest foreign investments in the U.S.

Gou describes himself as a "big tiger," his Chinese zodiac sign. Appropriately, he has a temper to match -- on display not only inside the company but on public occasions. The media is a favorite target. When a Chinese-language newspaper reported that he would not win his bid to buy Toshiba's memory unit in 2017, he tore the journal up in front of global media. On another occasion, Gou scolded a reporter while live-streaming a press conference when he thought the journalist had asked the wrong question.

This week, the day before he declared his bid for the KMT nomination, he lashed out at a DPP lawmaker at a conference because the politician had not made eye contact while answering his question.

But there have been times when the chairman had to be humble. After a wave of suicides in Foxconn's factories in China between 2010 and 2011, Gou was forced to apologize publicly to the families of the deceased and injured employees. Amidst questions over employment practices in his factories, he opened the gates of one of Foxconn's plants in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen for the first time to global media, taking them to see the living and working environments for employees there.

"We didn't do well enough and we didn't do enough to stop it from happening," Gou said at the time. "Over the past month, the thing I fear most is taking calls at midnight or in the early morning. The company's executives and I were all very stressed."

Foxconn later installed safety nets outside of the buildings in some of its manufacturing facilities and vowed to improve the conditions for employees. But the company is still challenged by labor rights groups for not offering satisfactory terms for its workers.

But, to the public, Gou's forceful personality is what sets him apart. Many Taiwanese admire his bluntness and he is also known for his generosity to those less fortunate.

The tycoon donated 15 billion New Taiwan dollars ($486 million) to build a cancer center in Taiwan after his younger brother and first wife both died of the disease. He built a farm in a southern Taiwanese city to create jobs for people who lost their livelihoods after Typhoon Morakot in 2009. Gou offered 700 million yen ($6.25 million) to support Japan after a devastating earthquake in 2011; he donated NT$200 million to Tainan City after another seismic event in 2016, and NT$60 million to Hualien City for the earthquake last year.

"Compared with other KMT candidates who want to run for presidency, Gou is a more convincing choice... to bring economic growth to the island, given his decisive execution and business background," Pan Chao-min, a professor at Tunghai University's Graduate Institute of Political Science in Taiwan, told the Nikkei.

Chung Hsi-mei, a business administration professor at I-Shou University, said Gou's advantage over others in politics was his ability to strike deals and negotiate with different parties or countries to build his gigantic tech empire.

The Foxconn founder has managed to steer a delicate path in the trade war between Washington and Beijing, remaining close to both the mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China.

"So far, Gou is doing great a great job in leveraging global resources to help his own business empire and he can even talk directly to the leaders of both China and the U.S. That's his great advantage," said Chung.

But commanding a commercial business is one thing. Running a democracy is another. Any setbacks could have repercussions for Foxconn. "Looking forward when he really becomes Taiwanese President it is not clear whether he will be able to continue to strike a good balance between Washington and Beijing," said Chung. "If he doesn't manage well, his advantage could become his vulnerability too."

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