“For a long time, I couldn’t even afford food and clothing. I climbed from the very bottom of the society.” –Zong Qinghou
Zong Qinghou is the Founder and CEO of Hangzhou Wahaha Group. The most impressive thing about Zong is his humble beginnings, focused mindset and simple lifestyle. Zong went from selling soda and popsicles to schoolchildren to owning 15% of China’s soft drinks market and becoming the wealthiest man in mainland China.
But Zong doesn’t look like your average multi-billion dollar CEO. He wears average clothes, eats tofu and pickled vegetables for lunch with his employees in the staff canteen and lives off of $20 a day. His hard work and meticulousness are also praised by his employees and business partners. It’s no wonder he has grown his business from a small shop serving school children to a successful empire that continues to grow.
Zong was born in 1954 in Zhejiang, China. From 1964 to 1978, Zong lived and worked on a farm commune during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution where he read Communist books about leadership and persevering through struggling times. Although Zong only finished secondary school, he was dedicated to working hard in order to achieve a better life for himself and his family. “When you are poor, you’ll have to think of ways to be better off” says Zong. And that’s exactly what he did. After Deng Xiaoping came to power, Zong was able to move back to his home province in Hangzhou.
With limited education, Zong could only find menial work at a local school. Through hard work and dedication, Zong eventually moved up to a salesman for a consumer-goods company. It wasn’t until 1987 that Zong’s first real business venture took off. With a $22,000 loan from family members, he and two of his retired teacher friends took over a mini grocery store that sold beverages and milk products to school children in the Shangcheng District.
Zong was diligent in his spending, ensuring that he did not spend any more than what they would make in profits. They started out selling cheap items, however Zong recognized that in order for the business to survive long-term, they would need to start manufacturing their own products and expanding the business. In 1989, Zong formally established Hangzhou Wahaha (“laughing child”), producing nutritional food and drinks for children. With limited options for food and beverage in the community, the business was a hit. So much so, that by 1991 Zong was able to take over an old state-run canned food factory and formed the Hangzhou Wahaha Group Corporation.
Zong’s business expanded to other areas over the years, including a joint venture with Groupe Danone in 1996 which brought them into the bottled water and dairy products making industry and expanded their reach to over 30 new ventures. In 2007 the companies ended their partnership; however Wahaha was able to pick up the pieces and continue its success, becoming the largest beverage company in the People’s Republic of China.
Zong is most noted for his diligent workaholic attitude and attention to detail. He still insists on reviewing every office expense, even for small items and personally signs off on every major spending decision. He lives on only $20 a day and tells reporters, “my only exercise is doing market research…my only hobbies are smoking and drinking tea.” Even his wife and daughter work in the company and it is said that he sometimes sleeps in the office building.
Despite his billion dollar success, Zong Quinghou remains a humble man and leads a simple life. He serves as a sharp contrast to many of the extravagant business leaders of today. He detests fancy meals and banquets and makes it a point to eat the same food as his staff in the company’s cafeteria. He wears a simple wardrobe and has been quoted as saying, “people cannot tell if I were wearing clothes worth a thousand (US$160) or a hundred (US$16) yuan, so why would I want to spend money on them?” Although Zong is extremely proud of his success, he clearly hasn’t lost sight of where he came from.