A Wang Lao Wu in Chinese slang means a middle-aged bachelor (it comes from the title of a 1938 Shanghai film starring Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, then known as Lan Ping.) Another popular term “Diamond Wang Lao Wu ” – rich but still single – is also the unofficial title of Li Houlin, the founder of diamond retailer Hiersun. Aged 39, Li made Fortune China’s list of the “40 Business Elites under 40” again last month.
Hiersun styles itelf as “the first Chinese firm specialising in the diamond industry”. Few know how Li made his first buck and he prefers to keep his educational background and early career out of the public eye.
By 2000, he had accumulated Rmb50 million ($8.1 million). Not bad, you might say, for a 26 year-old. He then invested two-thirds of his capital in Hiersun, a diamond retailing venture.
At the time, jewellery retailers seemed to be opening shops at a quicker pace than convenience stores. But Hiersun opened a single, giant store. Li spent Rmb30 million renting and stocking a 1,200-square-metre space in Beijing, naming it the Hiersun Diamond Palace. The flagship was 30 times bigger than the average diamond store, with a majority of the floor space occupied by educational displays about diamonds.
The unorthodox approach helped bring Hiersun nationwide recognition.
As far as free marketing goes, Li’s love life was hugely important in boosting Hiersun’s brand. In 2005 Li married celebrity TV anchor Li Xiang (pictured left with Li). The much-hyped marriage (and the equally high-profile break-up a year later) brought Hiersun priceless publicity.
Li’s diamond business prospered as spending grew on luxury goods in China. Hiersun still only operates a handful of ultra-large ‘diamond palaces’ but it has also expanded its national footprint with brands for less well-off customers, including “I Do” and “ooh Dear”.
In 2008, Sequoia Capital bought a small stake in Hiersun and the firm is now one of the candidates awaiting regulatory go-ahead to list. When that happens, there will be more clarity on Li’s true net worth as a Diamond Wang Lao Wu.
Need to know
Despite his glittering queue of celebrity girlfriends – including actress Zhou Yanhong and the singer Qin Hailu – Li doesn’t like mingling with those he calls “upper-class China”. He also hates playing golf, even for business networking purposes. “Making those types of friends isn’t worth the time spent,” Li told Beijing media.
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