No. 1 Zhong Shanshan
Company: Nongfu Spring
Net worth: US$72.2 billion
Zhong Shanshan, who chairs China’s biggest bottled water company Nongfu Spring and pharmaceutical company Beijing Wantai, is the country’s richest man with wealth estimated at US$72.2 billion by Forbes.
Similar to Jack Ma, Zhong Shanshan is a Hangzhou native. Born in 1954 to a family of intellectuals, Zhong however dropped out of school at age 12, and for 10 years, worked as a carpenter and a construction worker.
Trained in media and journalism, in 1984, he joined provincial newspaper Zhejiang Daily and for five years worked as an Agriculture reporter. During this period, he travelled to over 80 counties and cities in Zhejiang province and interviewed over 500 entrepreneurs. In 1988, when Hainan was announced as a special economic zone, Zhong saw a business opportunity and travelled down south. He opened up a newspaper agency, tried growing mushrooms, shrimps and selling curtains, but none proved successful.
During this period, he also came to know Zong Qinghou, founder of Wahaha Group, a native from Zhejiang as well, and became Wahaha’s agent for Hainan province. He was fired by Zong for selling Hainan-destined Wahaha products in Guangdong where Wahaha was in higher demand and higher price points too. This is when Zong and Zhong started a bitter and sweet relationship as colleagues and competitors.
In 1996, he founded Nongfu Spring, selling bottled mineral water. At the time, Wahaha’s bottled water was dominating the market and unfiltered and undistilled water was unheard of. Nongfu Spring went against the trend by selling undistilled mineral water. “We don’t produce waters, we are just nature’s porters”, he once said.
In 1998, he publicly said distilled water has no health benefits and promoted the health properties of mineral water, making him public enemy No. 1 for bottled water makers led by Wahaha. This was the start of legal battles between Nongfu and Wahaha.
It turns out his nature-oriented approach worked and consumers followed. Shortly, Nongfu Spring became a success and its water was hailed as “Kweichow Moutai of Water” for its popularity and quality.
Aside from bottled water, Nongfu Spring also makes sparkling water, teas, energy drinks as well as low-alcohol beverages. It launched a sparkling rice wine line called TOT in 2020, catering to health-conscious young consumers.
The same year, he publicly listed the company in Hong Kong, making him the country’s richest billionaire, surpassing his longtime rival Zong Qinghou from Wahaha and tech billionaires Jack Ma or Pony Ma from Tencent.
Different from his peers, Zhong is notoriously low key, which landed him the “lone wolf” nickname. He seldom gives public speeches or interviews, and said, “I am a solitary person. I don’t care at all what my colleagues are doing or thinking.” He is said to live in an apartment close to Hangzhou’s scenic West Lake.
Zhong owns 84% stocks in Nongfu Spring and 75% stakes in publicly listed Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise.