Born in 1958, Ning Gaoning is a native of Shandong province. Like many of his generation he went to the countryside for cadre education at the age of 17 and then joined the army as an artilleryman. In 1978 Ning enrolled in Shandong University as an economics student and in 1986 he received an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh.
Ning then joined state-owned firm China Resources Group when he was 28. Three years later he was made director of Yong Dali, a subsidiary listed in Hong Kong, where he gained a reputation as a problem-solver.
In 1992 the holding company’s name was changed to China Resources Enterprise. During the next 15 years, Ning served as general manager and eventually became chairman of the parent in 1999, conducting over 30 M&A transactions. Under his stewardship China Resources grew from a trading company into a consumer goods conglomerate, with interests that straddle real estate, beer, power, supermarkets and other major industries. China’s media have labelled him the “red Morgan”, comparing his style to the legendary Wall Street banker, John Pierpoint Morgan.
Boss of COFCO
In 2004 Ning was appointed as chairman of China National Cereals Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO), another state-owned giant. His preference for diversification endures. China’s largest grain trader, COFCO only had one listed vehicle when Ning joined. Within five years, he had completed more than 10 restructurings and acquisitions, and by the end of 2008 revenues had breached the Rmb100 billion threshold.
In 2009, Ning signalled his ambition to establish COFCO across the entire industrial food chain, looking initially at overseas models like Nestle and ADM. But eventually he concluded there wasn’t a foreign firm that fitted his vision. “We are not anybody else”, he told China Entrepreneur, “and we will explore our own way.” Ning’s strategy is based around eight food groups focused on wheat, corn, cooking oil, rice, barley, sugar, tomatoes and meat. Future acquisitions aim to ensure that COFCO controls each food from “farm to table” and the company now packages its foods and owns supermarkets.
Need to know
I am a “cow herd”, Ning once said of his job. “The company is the cow. You have to take care of it. You can’t kill it.”
In July 2009, COFCO set up a new joint venture with private equity firm Hopu, in which COFCO holds a 70% stake. The JV then bought a controlling stake of scandal-hit dairy company Mengniu. COFCO promised it wouldn’t get directly involved in Mengniu’s management for three years.
This year the promise expired, and last month COFCO sent Sun Yiping to replace Mengniu president Yang Wenjun, meaning COFCO is now adding milk as its ninth focus area. In fact, in the past three years COFCO has invested HK$10 billion in new farms for Mengniu, in an attempt to gain greater control over dairy sources. Reviving the Mengniu brand – once China’s biggest buyer of primetime TV ads – and earning consumer trust may be Ning’s biggest challenge yet.
And to relax
Ning likes a little reading, although his favourite book sounds like hard work: Das Kapital by Karl Marx.
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