‘Women hold up half of the sky’
… so said Chairman Mao. And you won’t find many management publishers quoting him. But if it is figuratively true, then Chinese society has no more got the memo than has Western Society, and women still occupy a woeful proportion of its leading roles.
One exception is self-made multi-billionaire entrepreneur, Zhang Yin, whose paper empire is a dominant player in the three largest economies of the world: China, Europe, and the US. Her American Chung Nam business gathers high quality waste paper from the US and ships it to Hong Kong and China, where her Nine Dragons Paper Holdings business turns it into packaging materials for the cardboard containers used by many of the household name manufacturers like Sony, Coca Cola, and Nike.
Zhang Yin was born in 1957 and grew up in Guangdong, China. Although a former junior officer in the Red Army, her father was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, in 1966, so Zhang was unable to gain further education. She worked locally, as an accountant, before moving to Hong Kong in the early 1980s, to work in a paper trading company.
Zhang’s links to Hong Kong mean you will often see her name transliterated into its cantonese form Cheung Yan.
In 1985, the Chinese Government liberalised economic restrictions and Zhang took the opportunity to start a paper trading business in Hong Kong, with 30,000 Yuan of her own money (less than US$4,000). As her ambitions outgrew the opportunities in Hong Kong, she moved to the United States. There she re-married and, with her new husband, created America Chung Nam in 1990. Based in Los Angeles, it gathered high quality waste paper (made in the US from wood pulp) and exported it by container vessel to China, where paper pulp is of lower quality.
She expanded again, after returning to Hong Kong in 1995. With her husband and brother, Zhang created Nine Dragons Paper (NDP), which quickly became Asia’s largest manufacturer of packaging paper – mainly ‘container board’ – the corrugated cardboard used to package most of the world’s products. Of course, it uses recycled feed stock exported from around the world by America Chung Nam (ACN).
Nine Dragons is the literal translation of Kowloon, the district in Hong Kong where the business was originally based. Nine is an auspicious number in Chinese culture and the nine dragons are the sons of the Dragon King in Chinese mythology.
In 2006, the Hurun Report cited Zhang as the richest person in China with a wealth of US$3.6 billion. Without a doubt she is the richest self-made woman in the world, exceeding JK Rowling and Oprah Winfrey.
The business suffered a series of setbacks from 2007, but Zhang’s sense of privacy means there is little publicly available information to document this. But at time of writing, she remains a dollar billionaire and both ACN and NDP continue to trade successfully.
What Can We Learn from Zhang Yin?
I think managers and business people can learn a lot from Zhang Yin.
Zhang isn’t interested in celebrity, fame, fashion, or boasting of her wealth
Perhaps her primary business vice is nepotism – appointing her son (in his early 20s) to be the only non-executive director of her business. Time will tell if her counsel and mentorship makes this a wise or foolish decision. But many of the other trappings of her wealth and status seem not to interest her. She is a private person who rarely gives interviews. She just gets on with the job of running her paper empire.
Zhang spotted a big gap in a huge market
‘Where there’s muck, there’s brass’
This is a saying from the north of England. Zhang spotted a shortage of good quality waste paper to supply the Chinese paper making industry and filled that gap. At that point, she realised that the fragmented and small scale manufacturing industry in China offered a gap she could fill with one large consolidated paper packaging manufacturer. Now she had control of the raw materials and the manufacturing capacity.
Zhang has the ability to look ahead, forecast, and invest strategically
Zhang is patient and measured. Her investments grew her business rapidly but incrementally. Now it firmly trades on its green credentials. And, whilst far from the epitome of sustainability, Zhang’s paper making business at least eats its own tail: consuming the waste paper from the packaging it makes. While the world’s population has an insatiable taste for consumer products, this may be the best we can achieve.