On all the rich lists ranking Hong Kong’s billionaires, the top 10 positions are always dominated by the usual suspects: real estate tycoons.
Tang Yiu (or Deng Yao in Mandarin) is a rare exception. The 78 year-old founder of footwear retailer Belle International has also achieved a feat that defies many of the city’s property moguls: building a dominant business in China itself.
Like most teenagers in Hong Kong born just after the war, Tang never received a proper education, but has spent more than six decades learning all there is to know about shoemaking. He began making shoes as an apprentice aged 15. Then he founded his own four-man factory eight years later close to Kowloon City, an area near Hong Kong’s former airport where shoemakers clustered to target foreign customers. Tang proved better than his neighbours at building up his business network. He moved downstream into retailing in the late 1960s, also founding the Federation of Hong Kong Footwear, which became one of the earliest Hong Kong business groups to explore the business potential of the mainland market. It was tough going. “Applying for a telephone line took three months and even a single nail had to be imported from Hong Kong,” Tang once recalled of early days setting up shoe factories in Shenzhen.
Tang began using the French-sounding name of Belle in 1991, first making female footwear for sale in Hong Kong. The big break came in 2004 when China fully opened its retail market to overseas investors. Belle bought back its retail networks from franchisees and tapped directly into the growing spending of Chinese consumers.
Unlike Chinese sportswear brands, Belle builds its own retail network within the fast-growing department store industry. Owning the distribution rights for a number of foreign brands, Belle now controls more than 20% of China’s footwear retailing market share.
When Belle International went public in Hong Kong in May 2007, its retail portion was oversubscribed by 515 times, breaking the record previously set by mainland bank ICBC. At current valuation, Tang’s 32% stake in Belle is worth $4.6 billion and Forbes ranked him as Hong Kong’s ninth richest man in 2012.
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Some of Tang’s former neighbours in the old Kowloon City district are still repairing shoes today. One of them recalled that Tang and his wife were famous for their frugal spending, even as his footwear empire began to expand.
“His wife asked me to repair her shoes all the time, and she liked the bargaining,” one of Tang’s former neighbours told a Hong Kong magazine.
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