Zhong Shanshan has an amazing journey to becoming a self-made millionaire which began with decades of hard labor and dedication. According to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, he is now China’s richest man, with an estimated fortune of US$66.8 billion.
While many people would anticipate China’s richest man to come from the IT industry, Zhong’s money has come through bottled water and pharmaceutical businesses. The entrepreneur behind the mineral water Nongfu Spring and the independent pharmaceutical company Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise overtook Alibaba’s Jack Ma in wealth a few months ago.
From a dropout to a businessman
Due to his family’s poverty, Zhong had to drop out of junior high school during the Cultural Revolution in 1966-76. He ended up working in construction to aid his family. Then in 1977, Zhong passed the college entrance exam and after failing the first time, he enrolled at the Zhejiang Radio & TV University.
Zhong worked as a reporter for Zhejiang Daily from 1984, interviewing over 500 self-made entrepreneurs. Writing about entrepreneurship sparked a desire to start his own company.
Zhong relocated to Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, in 1988 to start a business cultivating mushrooms, prawns, and subsequently turtles, which are also eaten in China. Between then and 1996, he worked as a sales agent for Wahaha beverages before launching Nongfu Spring.
Innovation and branding of Nongfu’s bottled water paved the way to success
Zhong stopped extracting natural minerals from its water in 1999. This made headlines in China, where most bottled water is traditionally distilled, despite science informing us that this is not the best option for our health. Instead, he focused on the advantages of natural water.
Zhong was successful in developing the idea that “weak alkaline water” can improve your health. In 2008, he branded Nongfu Spring as a way for consumers to connect with nature through drinking water. His journey was not one without setbacks as he faced several controversies regarding the quality of his water.
Despite these setbacks, Nongfu Spring’s market share of bottled water has continuously climbed, reaching 28.3 percent in 2018, making it the most popular brand. The company generated US$3.5 billion in revenue in 2019.
Nongfu Spring’s IPO massively increased Zhong’s wealth
In 2020, Nongfu Spring made its market debut on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange rising 85 percent to HK$39.80 from its IPO price of HK21.50. The IPO of Nongfu Spring boosted Zhong’s riches from 18.9 billion to nearly 50 billion. According to Bloomberg and Forbes, he was China’s wealthiest or second-wealthiest individual in 2020.
Zhong’s rise coincided with a wealth wave in China when over 200 billionaires were minted in 2020, adding 1.5 trillion dollars to their collective wealth. This was more than any other country in the world that year. By September 2020, Zhong owned a 75% stake in Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy. Wantai went public in April 2020. After selling COVID-19 test kits, it is currently in the process of developing a COVID-19 vaccine.
According to Bloomberg, the majority of Zhong’s income stems from his bottled water company, in which he has an 84 percent share.
The ‘lone wolf’ lives in a humble apartment unit
Asia’s new richest man prefers to remain private. In addition to not being involved in politics, Zhong rarely appears in public or speaks to the media. There is also not much information on his personal life, with no indications of extravagant spending. According to Nongfu Spring’s prospectus, Zhong resides in an apartment in Hangzhou’s Xihu district, near West Lake.
“I am a solitary person, and I don’t care what my colleagues are doing or thinking,” Zhong was quoted by the Business Insider.
Related: If bottled water helped make Zhong a billionaire, find out if your business idea could also be hit. You can read 8 Ways to Know If You Have a Great Business Idea.