Born in 1939, Li Jingwei grew up in a orphanage in Guangzhou. Struggling for a living, the young Li tried his luck as cobbler, a printer and a domestic help, and never spent a day in school.
Finally he got a position with the local government’s Sports Commission. Soon afterwards he took over a small firm selling rice wine. To promote sales, Li would go door-to-door. “I don’t know how to do business at all, but I do know there are children of my employees that I need to feed,” he would tell his prospective customers.
On a trip to Guangzhou in 1983, Li Jingwei drank a can of Coca-Cola for the first time. Then he heard there was a new soda drink developed by the Guangdong Sports Institute, which could help athletes regain their strength. In cooperation with the body he launched Jianlibao. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, he took the decision to sponsor some of China’s athletes, paying Rmb250,000 (a bold sum considering his revenue in the previous year was less than Rmb50,000). China won 15 gold medals and here were stories in the media that “magic water” – Jianlibao – had played a role. Within three years sales were up to Rmb130 million and Jianlibao became the major drink sponsor of China’s national teams. By 1997 sales had reached Rmb5 billion, then on a par with Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Fierce competition and the failure of new products dragged the company into debt. When the local government made efforts to sell it to a Singaporean company, Li Jingwei was angered, viewing it as his own child. He fought back aggressively, saying that he was trying to protect a domestic brand from foreigners. In 2002 the local government sold it to a domestic buyer instead – Zhanghai. When the deal was announced at a press conference, the media captured the moment – Li sat in the corner in silence, holding back tears. Nine days later he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage at home. Still in the hospital, he was then charged with misappropriating Rmb3.3 million of company funds.
The court case took years and his sentence – 15 years in jail – wasn’t announced until this month. Li is still in hospital but the Jianlibao Group also looks tarnished, currently embroiled in debt and scandal (see Planet China, WiC128).
Need to know
When Li Ning – China’s “prince of gymnastics” – ended his sport career, Jianlibao’s founder was the one who encouraged him to create his own sportswear company. He told Li Ning, “You are a swimmer, I’m the coach. I won’t go swimming with you, but I will watch and help you from the bank when needed. You will be a better swimmer than me.”
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