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CHINA: Billionaire Builder of China

by David BarbozaThe New York Times
December 29th, 2005

There are only 10 known billionaires in China, and he is one of them. His name is Xu Rongmao, and he is no Donald Trump, Sam Zell or Mortimer Zuckerman. He's bigger.

Mr. Xu, who is the chairman of the Shimao Group, controls much more land than any private developer in America and builds luxury real estate projects that put even Mr. Trump to shame for their sheer scale and flamboyance. But unlike the ubiquitous Mr. Trump - who is never at a loss for words and goes out of his way to attract the attention of cameras - Mr. Xu almost never grants interviews and is highly secretive about his operations.

For all his reserve, Mr. Xu, a former textile factory worker, is one of China's wealthiest entrepreneurs and a prime example of the nation's first generation of real estate tycoons. "I don't know much about Mr. Xu, but Shimao has this uncanny ability to find the right projects at the right time," says Michael T. Hart, director of research in Shanghai at Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate consulting firm. "Their North Bund project has one of the best views in all of Shanghai."

In a country that started permitting people to buy homes only in the 1980's, developers like Mr. Xu (pronounced SHOO) found a way to gain rights to prime land in the nation's biggest cities. Now they reap huge profits by building large residential projects, often with hotels and other commercial buildings.

An industry that emerged only a decade ago suddenly has annual sales of $130 billion, making real estate one of the biggest engines in this nation's roaring economy.

The growth has helped propel Mr. Xu to No. 9 on the Forbes list of the richest people in China. With $1 billion in net assets, he runs two publicly listed real estate companies and a collection of private offshore companies, and is overseeing $9 billion in projects.

The Shimao Group is expected to complete building about 145 million square feet of property by 2010, more than the entire 120 million square feet controlled by Sam Zell of Chicago, the commercial real estate baron who is the biggest individual property owner in the United States.

By all accounts, Mr. Xu, who in his listed companies uses his Cantonese name, Hui Wing Mau, is a pioneer, willing to take big gambles. Through Shimao, he created one of China's first luxury real estate brands. He bought prime land in Shanghai in the late 1990's when others, fearing that the city was becoming overbuilt, were fleeing the market.

And now, with housing prices rising, the Shimao Group is so profitable that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are negotiating to take the company public in 2006.

Several of China's other real estate tycoons share Mr. Xu's rags-to-riches story. The developer of Shanghai's new Citigroup building, for example, was once a truck driver from impoverished Jiangxi Province.

But little is known about Mr. Xu, 55, particularly how he earned his early fortune and developed his network of powerful political allies, who include several high-ranking Communist Party officials.

He turned down repeated requests for an interview for this article, as did many other major Chinese developers. Some privately admitted they simply did not want the publicity and scrutiny in a country still officially communist and uneasy about the creation of individual wealth.

"The nail that sticks up gets hammered," said Jack J. T. Huang, chairman of Asia for the law firm Jones Day, citing a common Chinese saying that is also popular in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. "No one wants to be that nail and talk about this kind of business."

Perhaps for good reason. China's real estate industry, like those in many other places, has been dogged by scandal - tales of illegal land grabs, corruption, government bribery, shoddy construction work and the forced relocation of millions of peasants and urban poor.

Yet almost everyone with means in China these days seems to want to play the real estate game. Of the 50 richest Chinese, according to Forbes's rankings in 2005, half rely on real estate as one of their primary businesses.

People who have worked with Mr. Xu, a sprightly looking man with well-groomed black hair, say that he leaped to the top after he bought a collection of distressed properties in Shanghai in the late 1990's and began a huge riverfront development in the city's Pudong district, where some apartments now sell for more than $4 million.

"He's just smart," said one developer who spoke anonymously out of fear of angering government officials. "He got a lot of his land at ridiculously low prices, ridiculous. He knew where to go and when to buy."

Mr. Xu's start was inauspicious. Like just about every person in China who came of age in Communist China, he started out poor. He grew up in Shishi, an entrepreneurial city in coastal Fujian Province, the oldest of eight children born to a machinery worker and a doctor.

After graduating from high school during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, he was sent to the countryside to work as a barefoot doctor. In the late 1970's, he went to Hong Kong and worked in a textile factory. Then, he told friends, he got lucky and made a small fortune trading stocks.

By the mid-1980's, he was investing in textile factories in western Gansu Province. His leap into real estate began in 1988 when he agreed to invest $1.2 million in a knitting factory in his hometown. Some say he intended all along to build a hotel instead, even though investments in private hotels were forbidden.

"He told others the construction was a factory," said Cai Shijia, a Fujian official who worked with Mr. Xu. "But the truth was, he was building a hotel.

"The construction on that land was all implemented according to hotel designs and standards. And as soon as the construction was completed, the government policy changed. Xu Rongmao became the owner of the first private three-star hotel in China."

Mr. Xu then plowed millions into developing residential complexes and resorts in Fujian.

Along the way, he struck up friendships with powerful political figures, including Fujian's party secretary, Chen Guangyi, whom he had known in Gansu Province, and Jia Qingli, who succeeded Mr. Chen in Fujian before moving to Beijing to became a member of the Politburo. Mr. Xu recently met with Mr. Jia, who still holds a high position and was one of the highest-ranking Communist Party officials under Jiang Zemin, the former president.

For all his personal connections, people close to Mr. Xu say much of his success came from his willingness to take risks and his ability to spot opportunities ahead of others. When business dried up in Fujian, he moved his family to Australia, where he invested in real estate in the early 1990's. Then he pushed his way into Beijing and Shanghai just before housing prices there took off.

He made money the same way other developers in China have: he negotiated with government officials to acquire cheap land, often with a small down payment, by limiting the commitment to a small initial phrase; then created a design for a new building that could serve as the template for a larger development.

"You can use Phase I cash to pay for Phase II or III," says one Shanghai developer who has observed Shimao's projects. "It's all about cash flow - it's about how you use the money. That's how these guys got off the ground. The early guys were visionaries and now they're ridiculously wealthy." The system in China favors developers. Homebuyers pay far in advance of their move-in date, often more than a year ahead of construction. Developers often use that presale money to build the project or buy additional land elsewhere.

"That was one way to go from a small amount of money to making a lot of cash," said Mr. Hart at Jones Lang LaSalle. "Many of these guys weren't necessarily good at developing, but they were in the right place at the right time."

Mr. Xu has worked the system to perfection. Following the money at Shimao, however, is difficult. Adapting a method honed to perfection by overseas Chinese, the Xu family controls a labyrinthine collection of public and private companies, official filings in China show, including offshore entities. The companies swap property, finance one another's projects and seem to shift profits around.

For instance, the Shanghai Shimao Group, which is listed in Shanghai, said it had revenue of $280,000 in 2003 but profit of $16.3 million. A year later, revenue jumped to $134 million, with profit of $20 million.

And in one of many related-party transactions, Shimao International, a company listed in Hong Kong, said it bought 100 percent of a company called Value Added from Dynamic Keen Developments, which was wholly owned by Mr. Xu. Value Added owned a construction company set up by Mr. Xu to develop a project on the China-Russia border.

Avoiding investment bankers, two of his companies went public in Hong Kong and Shanghai a few years ago by acquiring listed companies and changing their names, in what is called a "back-door" listing. The bulk of the Shimao Group's holdings would create a third company, which could go public soon.

Real estate experts here say many developers create project companies and engage in related-party transactions, partly for tax reasons. Indeed, Mr. Xu operates another Shimao company. One public filing says the "ultimate holding company" for Shimao's pieces is a shell corporation created in the British Virgin Islands called Perfect Zone.

Shimao has acquired huge tracts of riverfront land in some of China's biggest cities and has used it to build developments packed with signature features, including gardens, palm trees, villas and luxury high-rises outfitted with marble interiors.

In Harbin, Shimao acquired 43 million square feet in an area the city government is redeveloping, and then received approval to build a huge project north of Harbin, on both sides of the China-Russia border.

The project includes a casino that would operate just over the border in Russia, escaping the legal prohibition on gambling everywhere in China but Macao. Meanwhile, the government has begun an aggressive campaign to crack down on gambling elsewhere along its borders.

In Wuhan, Shimao outbid the Hong Kong billionaire Li Kai Shing and agreed to pay $380 million to develop 9.4 million square feet in the historic area of the provincial capital.

With the market slowing because of worries about a looming real estate bubble, Mr. Xu and his management team, which includes his son and daughter, are stepping up their investments. They have lined up international architects and five-star hotels to work with them.

People who work with Mr. Xu say he maintains his close ties to government officials and often makes large charitable donations to help stay in their good graces. When the chief executive of Warner Brothers Entertainment went to Beijing to meet Wu Yi, China's vice prime minister, Mr. Xu was there, too. And he often visits with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Next up for Shimao? An initial public stock offering in Hong Kong early next year, which could value the company at billions of dollars and catapult Mr. Xu to the No. 1 spot on China's rich list.

The name his parents gave him, Xu Rongmao, seems apt: in Chinese, it can be translated as "Wealth and Success."




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