Who’s Hu

Cosmo Lady

Zheng Yaonan

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Zheng Yaonan has a job that some might envy. He spends more than half of his working day watching women shop for lingerie. Dubbed “the man who understands women most”, the 39 year-old is set to become a billionaire for getting to know what women want.

Getting started

Born in 1975 in Fujian, Zheng failed to get into university after leaving high school. Instead he went to Shenzhen with just Rmb500 ($80) to his name. He started out as a security guard at a Walmart store, where he watched how the retailer managed its stocks and served its customers. After saving enough money to open a small shop selling cosmetics, he switched to socks, only to realise that a neighbouring store had a much higher turnover selling lingerie. In 1998, he founded Cosmo Lady and began distributing female underwear.

Zheng expanded even in dire times. For example, Cosmo Lady added nearly 50 shops in 2003, somewhat counter-intuitively at a time when the Chinese economy was savaged by the SARS outbreak. In 2009 he invested in production facilities just as many other factories were being hit by the global credit crisis. But in doing so Cosmo Lady was transformed from a distributor into a more integrated lingerie maker.

Big break

Zheng then unleashed another aggressive expansion by franchising the Cosmo Lady brand. By the end of 2013 the company had built a nationwide network of around 5,000 franchise outlets, as well as

721 self-managed stores.

Zheng’s goal: to make Cosmo Lady the first local bra brand with 10,000 retail outlets. The marketing effort has been huge. In 2012 Cosmo Lady made Taiwan model and actress Lin Chi-ling its image ambassador (pictured next to the entrepreneur in the photo) and Zheng made good use of Lin in recent weeks as he embarked on taking his company public, bringing her to roadshows to meet investors.

Cosmo Lady will list in Hong Kong next week in an offering that could raise as much as HK$1.8 billion ($230 million). If successful, Zheng’s 65% stake will be worth about HK$5 billion.

Need to know

Zheng may not have gone to university but he knows the value of a good education. He has attended the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, an institution founded by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing that’s an increasingly popular place for local business executives to learn and network.

One lesson he didn’t need to learn at business school: Zheng likes to take his female staff to stores and have them pose as customers so that they can check whether service is up to scratch as well as watch the buying behaviour of other shoppers.

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