Chinese Character

Huang Jianhua’s slamdunk

Cavalier move by Chinese businessman has his nation cheering him on

Onwards and upwards: Huang is the first Chinese owner of a US team

The Chinese have a “deep respect for the Jewish people,” observes Peter Hessler in his book about living in China, River Town.

In fact, in Hessler’s experience, Jews were regarded as “the next best thing to the Chinese”. He recalls the case of a fellow teacher: “Everything changed once it was discovered she was Jewish. One of her Chinese friends apologised to her, because before the revelation the friend had not treated her with the appropriate respect that should be accorded a Jew.”

Such attitudes will be familiar to Huang Jianhua, an entrepreneur who recently bought a 15% stake in a top NBA basketball team. He has spent much of his life cultivating connections with Jewish businesspeople in America: particularly in sport. One of the most prominent is former stock trader and Houston Rockets owner, Leslie Alexander.

As Huang told Southern People Weekly Magazine: “In fact the Jews are very much like the Chinese people – in that they also like the sports and entertainment [businesses]. I knew from an early age that there are three things with no age limit and national boundaries – sports, music and tea”.

Possibly true. Huang then throws in a quixotic aside: “In the eyes of the Jews, the British Queen is far removed from the masses and reality, but the Queen likes drinking tea instead of coffee. So when I chatted with them, the topics generally focus on sports, music and tea.”

Born in Guangzhou, Huang has come closer than most Chinese to conquering America. The 45 year-old – who is known as Kenneth Huang in the US – is not a princeling child of a party leader, but the son of a professor of English. But in many ways he typifies that generation of Chinese who – through a combination of luck and judgement – managed to be in the right place at the right time. For example, with his English already good, he chose instead to study Japanese at Sun Yat-sen University – a non-too popular choice in the early 1980s. However, it would prove crucial to landing his first big break.

Huang – who left China in 1984 – then obtained a master’s degree from Columbia University.

In 1988 he heard that the New York Stock Exchange was looking for someone to help crack Asia. The job criteria included an understanding of English, Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese. Huang thus became the first Chinese employee of the NYSE.

The role helped him gain an understanding of stock markets, and back in China it carried enormous cachet. He networked to meet and impress the super-rich, and in 1991 he started his own wealth management advisory firm, acting as a bridge between clients in the West and investment opportunities in Asia. As one of the first Chinese to succeed on Wall Street, he had the “unique advantage” of a five year headstart on other smart Chinese, he told the Southern People Weekly.

Huang recalls that he was able to accumulate substantial wealth during this period – and decided to take a break from the financial markets to consider his next move.

His instincts were evidently good ones: he got out of the markets a couple of years before the Asian financial crisis ravaged portfolios.

His new goal was to “thoroughly integrate” himself into American society, and he started out with a lakeside house in Orlando. As luck would have it, he soon became friends with a neighbour – who turned out to be the mother of basketball superstar, Shaquille O’Neal.

O’Neal was then playing for the Orlando Magic but Huang didn’t pay much attention to basketball (he received professional badminton training in his youth). All the same, his interest was piqued when Shaq’s mother gave him VIP tickets for the NBA Finals between Orlando and the Houston Rockets.

His interest grew and in 2002 – when Yao Ming joined the Rockets – Huang wanted to buy the team. He was introduced to the team’s owner Leslie Alexander by sports consultant Marc Ganis, and the three rapidly became friends as well as partners.

Huang did not manage to acquire the Rockets as planned, but he became involved in Alexander’s business dealings. Alexander made his fortune as a stock trader, but knew little of China. In the coming years – through Alexander’s Rocket Capital Investments – Huang would engineer a series of stock purchases in Chinese IPOs – such as for sportswear firm Anta and China Railway. “We appreciate and trust each other,” comments Huang. “We split the profits pro-rata.”

Huang also saw the potential for basketball in China. He says Alexander was initially sceptical about Yao Ming: “He thought Yao had a poor spring.” He also worried about a shoulder injury Yao had picked up. But Huang told him to stick with Yao because the Chinese market was growing fast, and the Rockets’ new signing was the key to unlocking its huge potential. He was proven right; the Rockets have since become the best known team in the world’s most populous market.

According to American newspaper The Plain Dealer, Huang then became a leading dealmaker for sports team seeking a China connection. This included partnering with the New York Yankees, and launching a Chinese Youth Baseball League to promote the sport in China. The Yankees were grateful; he even got a “Happy Birthday Kenneth Huang” marked in a huge typeface on the Yankees homefield.

But Huang wanted to own a team himself: hence his recent deal to buy a 15% stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The acquisition took some fans by surprise, but as one online wag put it : “The Chinese own everything else in the USA, why not the Cavs?”

Others recognised the upside: Huang’s consortium, his connections and his commercial savvy could deliver ever-greater China revenues and sponsorship deals.

It should also ensure the future of the Cavalier’s star player, LeBron James – who is also big in China (see WiC17).

“You have to think globally,” James recently said. “I have a lot of fans in China, and they’re important to me.” So important, in fact, that he dropped into China to play a little one-on-one with some of them last month.

As for Huang, his star has never been higher in his native land. He is, after all, the first Chinese to become an owner of a top US team (although perhaps not the last).

And what next for the consummate dealmaker? “Investment is in my blood,” he notes. True to his maxim, one of his current focuses is opportunities in the Chinese tea sector, where Huang says there are 7,000 factories but not a single well known brand. “Based on my experiences, a brand is vital,” he says. So perhaps the next Huang slamdunk will be to get Americans drinking a heavily branded Chinese tea.

Cavaliers Cha, perhaps? Back in London, Her Majesty might even be interested.


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