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1 December 2011 Last updated at 11:10 ET
Zhai Meiqing at the forefront of Chinese philanthropy
By Neil Koenig
Producer, Start-Up Stories
Zhai Meiqing says her main motivation for being involved in commerce is philanthropy and contributing back to society
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Zhai Meiqing has had an extraordinary career. She is now the president of Heung Kong Group, a huge conglomerate with interests which include finance, metals, retailing and real estate.
She and her husband Liu Zhiqiang often feature in magazine lists of the richest people in China. She has also been at the forefront of a comparatively new phenomenon amongst wealthy Chinese - philanthropy.
But in order to achieve success in business, Ms Zhai has had to overcome some daunting challenges - including one which almost cost her her life.
Big dreams
Ms Zhai grew up in Guangdong in southern China, one of the nation's most prosperous provinces.
She says that she started to dream about having a business of her own ever since she was in secondary school in the early 1980s, just as the long boom in China's economy got under way.
Employees: 20,000
HQ location: Guangzhou, China
Year founded: 1990
Ownership: Private
Annual sales: RMB 18.3bn (approx. $2.9bn)
After finishing school, Ms Zhai decided not to sit college entrance exams. Instead, she borrowed a small sum from her mother and tried her hand at buying and selling garments. Things went badly at first and she made losses.
But whilst running her first business, Ms Zhai began to see opportunities in other industries. Guangdong was known as a centre for furniture manufacturing. Products from this area close to Hong Kong were considered stylish, and there was strong demand for them from customers in the north.
Ms Zhai decided to try her hand in the furniture business herself. At first she helped others to find good suppliers in the south. As she gained experience, she became more directly involved in trading herself.
By the time she had reached her early 20s, Ms Zhai had established a factory of her own in Beijing. In order to make managing costs and quality easier, she decided to focus on making just one product: mattresses.
The business prospered and word got around that her company was making lots of money.
A shocking experience
Ms Zhai did not want the expense of renting an apartment for herself, she wanted to invest every penny she had in the business, so she lived in the factory and slept in her office. Many of her employees also chose to live on the premises.
One night, a group of burglars broke in and demanded that she should open the safe.
Ms Zhai says she refused "since I believed they would kill me once I opened the safe".
She was then subjected to a brutal attack. "I was stabbed on my face and even in the throat". Several of her teeth were broken. In the end some of her staff heard her cries for help and came to her rescue, helping her get to hospital by tricycle.
Starting over
Eventually Ms Zhai recovered from her ordeal. She got married, and together with her husband in the early 1990s, she launched into furniture retailing back in her home province of Guangdong.
Zhai Meiqing opened large stores in the suburbs, where rents were cheaper and she had more space
Ms Zhai recalls that many people were sceptical about the business model she followed. "Actually it was a very creative one", she claims.
The plan she adopted was to open large stores in the suburbs, where rents were cheaper. Having lots of space meant a big range of products could be offered.
Ms Zhai says she tried to keep her prices low, with a profit margin of about 30%, something she says that was unusual in the industry at the time.
Another factor that helped matters was a change in attitudes towards home furnishing. Up until the early 1990s, much of the furniture to be found in Chinese households was home-made. But as prosperity became more widespread, demand increased for smart, professionally-produced items to furnish the homes of a growing middle-class.
Zhai Meiqing says her business plan proved to be successful and generated strong sales. She adds that the company quickly became the largest furniture retailer in the province.
As the business became profitable, the company began to expand into several other activities, one being the property market.
Ms Zhai expanded into property when she noticed her customers were investing in the sector
Ms Zhai says they noticed that many customers who bought furniture also invested in property and she regarded this a good indicator that real estate would be a good sector to invest in.
Many commentators are now warning of a potential looming crash in the Chinese property market.
Does Ms Zhai accept that this is a risky sector to be involved with at present?
No, she says - it all depends on your timing. Her company made major investments 10 years ago when prices were still low - so she feels the group is well-placed to ride out any potential difficulties ahead.
In 2010, two of the world's richest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, visited China with the aim of encouraging more of China's business elite to become involved in giving to charity.
It's an activity that Ms Zhai says she has been interested in since she first became wealthy in the 1990s, and that philanthropy now provides her main motivation for being involved in commerce.
"When I started my business, I wanted to escape from poverty. But I've come to think that our real value lies in what we should be contributing to society."
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