Internet & Tech

Reflected glory

Meet the ex-factory worker that could be China’s richest woman

Leslie Chang w

The queen of mobile phone glass: Hunan-based Zhou Qunfei

Leslie Chang’s 2008 book Factory Girls is an enlightening study about the countless Chinese women who work long hours in the ‘workshop of the world’. Among her numerous interviewees, a young woman called Chunming offered one of the happier stories in Chang’s book. The 17 year-old arrived in Shenzhen from rural China in 1993 only to find she had been misled about the job and was being asked to offer sexual services at a massage salon instead. Chunming fled, later finding a position on an assembly line in a Dongguan toy factory.

She was not satisfied. “Friends, we were born in the world poor through no fault of our own,” she confided to her diary. “But to die poor is a sin.”

This enterprising young woman later went into direct sales and recruited fellow factory girls to join the sales network. Within a short space of time, her charisma and drive got her promoted to a new role in which she trained the salespeople. This raised her earnings to the point that she’d become yet another member of China’s new (and growing) middle class.

Zhou Qunfei is another factory girl who is determined not to die poor. The 45 year-old also started in Shenzhen in 1993, in her case working at a glass factory. But today she may be on her way to becoming the richest woman in China, thanks to the IPO of her company Lens Technology in Shenzhen this week.

On Wednesday Lens Technology debuted on the ChiNext bourse and climbed more than 44% from its offering price. It ended its first trading session with a market value of Rmb22 billion ($3.5 billion) and Zhou’s 88% controlling stake gives her a net worth of Rmb20 billion.

Local brokerages hyped up the prospects for Lens in a flurry of pre-IPO reports, with Shenzhen Economy Daily even predicting that Lens’ market value will surge to Rmb57 billion. If it does, Zhou’s net worth would more than double to Rmb50 billion, overtaking Yang Huiyan, boss of real estate developer Country Garden (who is worth Rmb44 billion according to Hurun). That would make her China’s wealthiest woman.

According to Chinese newspapers, Lens is now a major supplier of protective glass for Apple devices. Last year it reported revenues close to Rmb15 billion and a net profit of Rmb1.2 billion (implying that it was trading on a price-to-earning ratio of 18 times as of Wednesday). The China Daily reports that the company shipped 476 billion units of mobile phone or computer glass in 2013, equating to a global market share of almost a quarter. Between 2012 and 2014, combined sales to Apple and Samsung constituted more than 70% of Lens’ income.

Zhou is already known locally as the “queen of mobile phone glass” but the timely launch of the Apple Watch will add another dimension to her appeal for investors.

Zhou’s story makes her sound like an inspiration for the legions of factory girls still toiling on assembly lines. But the publicity surrounding Zhou hasn’t been universally positive. According to a report on Guangcha, a website for independent commentators, she formerly worked for Bai En, a glassmaking firm controlled by her ex-husband. In 2003 – with her new husband in support – Zhou launched Lens as a competitor, and then relocated the firm to her native province of Hunan. Lens became a fierce rival of her former employer Bai En.

Shortly before Lens’ listing, a widely forwarded article began to circulate on WeChat and weibo. The anonymous 157-word piece stated: “She’s been the boss’ mistress, the boss’ wife, and then the boss…. If you buy into this most inspirational story for mistresses, buy into the IPO of Lens Technology this week.”

Zhou has not commented on the article and most observers aren’t convinced of its credibility. “China’s richest woman, the queen of mobile phone glass, the most inspirational mistress… No matter which nickname you prefer for Zhou Qunfei, it doesn’t diminish her rags-to-riches journey, and her efforts in pulling off her success,” China Economic Times has countered.

The Oriental Morning Post concurs, pointing out that it is far more difficult for female entrepreneurs to be successful in China’s commercial jungle. “They have to follow the same rules as in the Hunger Games [a reference to the blockbuster starring Jennifer Lawrence]. They need to work even harder and defy all the odds. They are indeed the mockingjays,” the newspaper suggests.

Zhang Hewan, the government official who encouraged Lens to move from Guangdong to Hunan, also speaks up for Zhou.

“She is the pride of Hunan,” he wrote on his blog. “She became what she is because of her courage and wisdom, and perhaps a bit of luck, of course.” Zhang has plenty of reason to defend Zhou. Lens has grown into the biggest private sector employer in Hunan (after the relocation of heavy machinery maker Sany to a new headquarters in Beijing). By the end of last year, Lens was employing 82,000 workers.

Meanwhile, the reports linking Lens’ commercial success with the ebb and flow of Zhou’s personal life have only helped to drum up awareness of its IPO.

“It seems very difficult to tell if people are stirring the dirt, or indirectly marketing the listing of Lens,” remarked one blogger on Huxiu, a popular portal for tech news.

Zhou isn’t unique when it comes to rags-to-riches stories in glassmaking. Fuyao Glass, the world’s second biggest maker of glass for cars, is seeking to IPO in Hong Kong this week to adds to its existing. Shanghai-listing. Fuyao plans to raise as much as $950 million. Long time WiC readers may recall the man behind Fuyao was one of the earliest tycoons to be profiled in our Who’s Hu series. Cao Dewang was actually a chef before he landed his first job in a former state-owned glass factory in 1976. Seven years later he was asked to take over the failing factory by the local government (see WiC20). Cao turned it around and Fuyao’s market value now stands at Rmb30 billion.

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