Li Zhaohui was born in Shanxi province’s Wenxi in 1981. He grew up in a privileged environment, and was sent abroad to study business management at Australia’s Monash University. At the age of 22 he suddenly found himself at the helm of the family empire after his father Li Haicang was assassinated.
Second generation wealth
First generation entrepreneurs have dominated the 50-odd Who’s Hu columns that have appeared in WiC so far. Li marks the first profile for second generation wealth. He inherited a multi-billion yuan business empire from his buccaneering father, who started out in coal before founding Haixin Iron and Steel in 1987. His father, known as ‘Shanxi’s Steel King’. On dropping out of university to run the business, Li Zhaohui soon got his own nickname as ‘China’s youngest super-rich man’.
Big shoes to fill
Southern Weekly reports that when he took over the business, Li was understandably uncertain as to whether he could cope. “I did not feel I had the ability,” he said. “But I had to bear the responsibility.” Initially his uncle acted as ‘regent’ alongside Haixin’s vice-chairman, and media speculated that Li would be a figurehead. However, within a few months he’d sidelined them and emerged as the group’s taipan.
In early 2003, just as SARS was ravaging business sentiment across the country, Li visited Guangxi to discuss building a mill in Qinzhou. It formed part of his strategy of diversifying production out of Shanxi. He finalised the Rmb8 billion deal to build a plant that would open in 2007 with a production capacity of 5 million tonnes of steel per year. He also inked a deal in 2004 to provide all the steel for the Ningbo-Hangzhou bridge, the longest of its type in the world. This cemented his credibility and ensured Haixin’s continued profit growth.
Different from dad
Li Haicang was a steel tycoon through and through, but the younger Li saw opportunities in financial diversification. He established a capital markets operation and in 2004 bought from China Nonferrous a stake in Minsheng Bank. The 3.1% stake made him the second largest holder of bank’s tradable shares. It would prove a successful investment and be followed by further investments in the Yinfua Fund and Minsheng Life Insurance.
The investments played a crucial role during the global downturn in 2008 when steel demand cratered. Investment profits were the group’s lifeblood as steel capacity got shuttered and Li tided cashflow over with partial sales of the Minsheng stakes. The storm weathered, steel demand picked up again as the stimulus package kicked in.
Southern Weekly assesses the difference between son and father thus: the elder was the industrialist, expert in local politics; the son is the capitalist, more enthusiastic about investment and bringing in educated returnee Chinese as professional managers. Li seems less passionate about steel than his father and there is speculation as to what the future holds, especially as government policy now seeks to consolidate the industry. At the right price, will he sell?
When he inherited Haixin, Li’s net worth was Rmb1.6 billion. According to the 2008 Hurun Rich List he’d grown it to Rmb12.5 billion.
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