Going by the English name of Diana, Chen Ningning is known locally as the “Steel Princess”. The nickname comes from her family ties to the steel and mining industry. But it is also said to stem from Chen’s success in cutting determined deals with her (mostly male) counterparts.
Chen, who was born in 1971 in Beijing, is the granddaughter of Lu Tong, a former mining minister and a key official in the shaping of China’s steel industry after 1949. She obtained an MBA from the New York Institute of Technology in 1994 and worked briefly as a fund manager for a US firm. Then, at the age of 25, she founded Pioneer Metal Company (PMC) alongside her mother (Lu Tong’s daughter) in Hong Kong. PMC went on to become one of the more successful mineral traders in Asia. At one stage it claimed to account for 10% of the iron ore imported into China. But PMC’s real skill lay in a flurry of successful pre-IPO investments, enhancing the group’s business and helping expand Chen’s fortune.
In 1997 PMC invested in Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth, becoming the steelmaker’s second biggest shareholder. It listed in Shanghai in the same year. PMC’s 10% stake is worth Rmb7.5 billion ($1.2 billion) at current market value. In 2002 PMC cut a similar deal with China Oriental Group which went public in Hong Kong two years later. PMC then sold its 28% stake to Lakshmi Mittal’s ArcelorMittal for $640 million in 2007 (the acquisition cost has been estimated at less than a tenth of that amount).
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Chen sold to Mittal after falling out with China Oriental’s controlling shareholder, and the tussle pushed her low-key profile into the spotlight, amid accusations flying between the various disputants. Nevertheless, Forbes magazine put the fortune of Chen and her family at $1.9 billion last year, ranking her as one of the country’s richest female tycoons.
Chen is now becoming more active in politics. She is the honorary president of the Y.Elites Association, a think tank with a membership largely comprised of the sons and daughters of Hong Kong’s business leaders. The association, which says its mission is to “deepen Hong Kong youngsters’ understanding of China” arranges for Hong Kong locals to attend courses offered by the State Council-run China Academy of Governance.
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