Business / Billionaires

Asia’s Richest Person Turned Water into Money

In a world dominated by Information Technology (IT) and struggling to recover economically from a global pandemic that has become something of a way of life, nobody would have expected that Asia’s richest man earned his billions primarily through selling water.

Mar 11, 2021 | By Abram Yum
66-year-old water tycoon Zhong Shanshan recently overtook Mukesh Ambani as Asia’s Richest Person with a net worth of US$85 million; Image Credit: Image courtesy of Nongfung Spring

Few have heard of him, even fewer have heard of his gruff reputation as a “lone wolf” or the businesses that made him rich. Zhong Shanshan, a Chinese water tycoon, recently became Asia’s richest person, seventh richest on Earth, after his net worth shot to US$85 billion, according to Hurun Report. In this article, we briefly examine his professional origins, businesses, and his award-winning personality which earned him the nickname “lone wolf”.

People typically associate affluence with stellar intelligence and academic prowess, especially since more and more of the world’s economy revolves around technically demanding industries such as IT. However, that could not be further from reality here. Zhong did not even finish his primary education, dropping out of school at 12 years of age during a period of transition for China’s political and cultural landscape. This was the age of the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Having no immediate qualifications, Zhong could only take up menial jobs such as a bricklayer and carpenter according to Chinese media.

Following the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, Zhong enrolled in university and earned a degree in journalism. He then took up a position as a news reporter with Zhejiang Daily. Following his departure from the news agency, Zhong tried his hand at various other trades including selling mushrooms and attempting to join Hainan’s gold rush in 1988. Unfortunately, he was ultimately unsuccessful in these endeavours.

Nongfu Spring is well-known for its signature red cap on its bottled water; Image Credit: Image courtesy of CNS Photo

In 1993, he founded Yang Sheng Tang a pharmaceutical company which developed and sold healthcare products. Most notably “turtle pills”, supplements derived from turtles meant to treat erectile dysfunction. In 1996, Nongfu Spring was founded as a subsidiary to Yang Sheng Tang which sold mainly packaged drinking water. Three years later, Nongfu Spring announced its decision to stop its sales of purified water and turn its attention to mineral water, citing that the former had no benefits to health. This turned out to be a turning point for Nongfu Spring as following this announcement, sales of its mineral water spiked immediately. However, the company received lawsuits from 69 purified water companies, accusing them of unfair competition. The issue was eventually settled in court where Nongfu Spring lost the battle, but it hardly had an effect on their economic performance. Zhong still holds an 84% stake in Nongfu Springs which controls more than 25% of bottled water sales in China. When you consider that most of the population, numbering more than 1.4 billion people, favour bottled water over tap for health reasons, that is indeed a huge source of revenue.

Beijing Wantai Biological saw a surge in profits following the development of its Covid-19 rapid test kit; Image Credits: Courtesy of Yicai Global

In 2020, Zhong added to his list of investments as he bought a majority share of Beijing Wantai Biological. Wantai serves as the biopharma arm of Yang Sheng Tang Group, specialising in infectious diseases. During the pandemic, the group developed a rapid test kit for Covid-19 which reportedly gave results in 75 minutes. There proved to be a large demand for this product and according to Wantai’s website, more than 10 million were shipped.

According to Hurun, Zhong’s share listings make him part of a small group of businessmen who have founded more than one business worth at least US$10 billion.

For all his financial power and business dealings, not much is known about Zhong Shanshan to this day. Contrary to the likes of Bill Gates, Mukesh Ambani (Formerly Asia’s richest person), or even fellow countryman Jack Ma, Zhong has tended to avoid the limelight, often declining interviews and public appearances. According to Business Insider, Zhong leads a fairly simple lifestyle. Comparing real-estate, Ambani is well known for his 27-storey skyscraper home in Mumbai with three helicopter pads and underground parking. Ma has purchased several properties such as a US$23 million New York Estate and fabled US$19 million mansion in Hong Kong. In contrast, Zhong never acquired any exorbitant properties and continues to live in an apartment in Hangzhou.

Zhong Shanshan reportedly offended many as soon as he opened his mouth to give a speech; Image Credit: Image courtesy of AFP/STR

Zhong also has a reputation for having a gruff personality, refusing to mince his words. A former business partner of Zhong’s said in an interview with Chinese media that he “went to the stage to give a speech, and offended everyone as soon as he opened his mouth”.

Additionally, he refuses to socialise in elite circles and famously spoke about his disdain for the Chinese practice of excessive wining and dining when doing business. “I don’t like to deal with people and have to drink,” he said of the practice.

All these practices earned Zhong the nickname “lone wolf” amongst Chinese media. Despite his prominence in the world of business, little is known about him. Given the Chinese Communist Party’s practice of placing well-known businessmen under political scrutiny, it seems that Zhong is likely to continue avoiding the Spotlight.

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