The environmental entrepreneur was born in 1963 at a time when China was plagued by three years of natural disasters. His parents were destitute, and while they kept his elder brother, he was given to another family. Hence while he was born a Chen, his name was changed to Shi. He was a smart child, and got enrolled in university at 16.
Partly thanks to his competence in English, Shi Zhengrong got on a scholarship programme in Australia and talked his way into the laboratory of Professor Martin Green, a Noble Prize winner that some call the ‘father of solar energy’. Shi began research on solar cells and in 1995 he and Green received $50 million to form Pacific Solar Power. By this stage Shi already held 10 solar cell patents.
Sun of China
In 2001 Shi decided to return to China after 10 years abroad. He sold his assets in Australia and began trying to persuade Chinese government agencies to back him. Shi was ready to ‘die to eat globefish’ – a Chinese expression that means you are willing to risk everything to try to achieve something exceptional. With persistence, he finally persuaded the Wuxi Municipal government to help fund his new firm, Suntech.
Darkest before the dawn
Orders were slow in coming and in the most difficult period between 2002 and 2004 he took only a quarter of his salary. He would also spend months abroad seeking markets for his solar panels. Changes in policy towards solar power, particularly in Germany helped turn around the company’s fortunes. It now sells its products in 80 countries.
Need to know
In January 2006 Suntech Power was listed with much hype on the NYSE. Shi was (for a short time) China’s richest man. Suntech is now one of the world’s largest makers of solar cells and modules. Last year it made a profit of $91 million and its total shipment of solar products reached 704MW – a 42% increase over 2008. To capitalise on President Obama’s green energy initiatives it recently opened a production plant in Arizona. It’s new Pluto technology is said by Shi to be an R&D breakthrough: it claims a 12% higher conversion efficiency and power output than conventional screen-printed photovoltaic cells.
He ranked 59 in the 2009 Hurun rich list with assets of Rmb11.5 billion. Material wealth and its trappings don’t seem to be big motivators for Shi. He says he is less interested in profits than in “solving problems for mankind”. His son claims he filled the family swimming pool with cement, telling other family members it was a “waste of resources”.
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