Many a rags-to-riches tale chronicles the journey of overseas Chinese tycoons who’ve escaped poverty to find wealth and power in a foreign land. Most have been ruthless, cunning and lucky in equal measure. But perhaps few have managed to stretch the gifts of providence quite as far as Yan Bin, the 56 year-old chairman of Ruoy Chai Group.
The secretive billionaire keeps a low profile, both in his native China and his adopted country, Thailand. And he has good reason to avoid the spotlight. Yan, also known as Dr Chanchai Rouyrungrueng, built his business empire by straddling both the Thai and Chinese political and business elite. And it’s important he’s regarded by each as ‘one of us’.
Yan is half owner of the Red Bull energy drink’s China franchise but he also invests in real estate, hospitality, and tourism. Since his company isn’t publicly listed, it’s impossible to know the actual value of his holdings. But the Hurun rich list estimated his assets at about $4 billion last year, ranking him tenth overall in China.
Standing between two different worlds requires a delicate sense of balance, as well as a fluid sense of identity, something Yan has embraced. He reportedly holds dual Thai and Chinese citizenship. His company is also known as Reignwood to English speakers, and as Huabin to the Chinese.
He doesn’t take his relationships lightly. “At every stage of [Ruoy Chai’s] development”, the company’s website explains, “the importance of making friends and maintaining friendships has been paramount to [Yan’s] philosophy and the unquestionable secret to his success.”
If the ‘circle of friends’ section of the website is any gauge, they include the chairman of the Beijing municipal government, as well as Wu Bangguo (chairman of the Communist Party’s Standing Committee) and Bill Clinton.
Little is known about Yan’s early years. He was born into poverty in 1954, in coastal Shandong province. Like many of his contemporaries, he was sent to the countryside, and had to try and survive as a peasant in rural Henan province during the Cultural Revolution.
Then he caught a lucky break. Somehow he managed to find his way to Thailand. Things were tough at first; foklore has him selling pints of his own blood to survive financially. He would wake at 5am with nothing for breakfast but rice and soy sauce. But luck then apparently smiled on him. His new boss asked him to manage the business within two months.
If Yan’s early years are mysterious, the story of how he built his business is no less murky. Yan started his company, the Ruoy Chai Group, in 1984 at 30 years-old, to invest variously in Thai real estate, tourism, and trade. Zhang Xizhen, professor of International Relations at Peking University credits a close relationship with Thai political and business circles for his success.
China’s ‘reform and opening’ presented another opportunity. Yan started building connections in China in 1990, and stuck at first to what he knew best. He soon got into real estate and trading, and set up the first foreign joint venture travel agency in the country.
Perhaps Yan’s biggest break came a few years later in 1995, when he leveraged his relationship with one of Red Bull’s founders, Chaleo Yoovidhya, to start selling the highly caffeinated drink in China. And that’s when his Chinese connections really paid off.
Yan was able to get Red Bull into China early, and in a big way. He spent millions to market the drink and build a nationwide distribution network, with 20 branches and 50 offices across the country. It was money well spent. According to Reuters Red Bull has captured 80% of the Chinese market for energy drinks, and Yan’s JV has a production capacity of 500 million cans annually – fuelling Chinese partygoers and construction workers alike.
But his connections with the Thai elite go further. Yan was close enough to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, that during Thaksin’s rule he was known as the Thai Rak Thai Party’s representative in Beijing. In 2005, the Thai embassy even moved to his landmark development in central Beijing, Ruoy Chai International Plaza.
“Yan Bin has known Thaksin since his early years and they have a good relationship,” confirmed Guo Jie, president of Ruoy Chai Group, “They have cooperated in the past.”
Golf is Yan’s networking technique of choice, and he most likely to be found at the Ruoy Chai Manor, Yan’s luxury course and country club close to the Great Wall, less than an hour outside of Beijing.
The Manor, which is spread over 1,000 acres, was built in 2000 and includes a ‘White House’ hotel, 45 holes and two Jack Nicklaus club houses, a 75-acre polo complex, and even a hotel for visiting pets. Membership costs $100,000 and up.
The walls are decorated with more pictures of Yan and his ‘friends’, including Jackie Chan and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is even a snapshot taken with the late General Zhang Xueliang. Zhang was best known as the ‘young Marshall’, a Manchurian warlord famous for betraying the Nationalists and kidnapping Chiang Kai-Shek during the civil war.
So what use has Yan made of his ‘go-between’ status? He made hay during the Thaksin years, when his connections in Thailand were unmatched.
In 2004, he helped state-owned Sino Agri, Sinochem and the Exim Bank of China with access to concessions to mine Thai potassium, a potent fertiliser.
The same year, he also brokered a deal for his own company to invest in Thai rubber plantations, supplying the booming Chinese tyre market.
And he even set up a JV with Chinese state-owned steel giant Shougang Group, to build a steel mill in Thailand with an annual capacity of 4 millions tonnes.
He’s come a long way for a poor boy from Shandong. But Yan Bin’s story is no doubt still an unfolding one.
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