Is the clothing industry the most fashionable way to wealth? Zara founder Amancio Ortega is the richest man in Europe, while Yanai Tadashi owes his fortune in Japan to his shares in Fast Retailing, known for its Uniqlo clothing brand.
Another apparel billionaire is Ma Jianrong of Shenzhou International, who controls the knitwear maker that makes garments for foreign brands such as Yanai’s Uniqlo, as well as Nike.
Ma was born in 1965, in Zhejiang’s Shaoxing, the son of a textile worker from Shanghai. Ma senior moved to Ningbo where he was made deputy manager of the Shenzhou plant, a new textile factory set up by the city government in the late 1980s. Like his father before him, Ma Jianrong started as an apprentice when he was 13. In 1990 he joined Shenzhou’s knitting and weaving department. At the time, the textile industry in Zhejiang was in decline. As state funding dwindled, the Ma family gradually took control of the lossmaking plant and began to shift Shenzhou’s focus to working with mid-market Japanese clothing brands.
Ma junior took the helm in the late 1990s and decided that contract manufacturing on a mass scale was Shenzhou’s core strength. Indeed, while larger textile firms such as Weiqiao diversified into other industries such as real estate, Shenzhou stayed focused on manufacturing fast-fashion for foreign brands. “People say first-class firms make the standards, second-class firms make brands and only third-class firms make products,” Ma Jianrong told Zhejiang Business, a magazine. “But we insist on doing just one thing, and we insist on doing it well.”
The strategy has helped Shenzhou win the trust of foreign brands wanting to outsource their manufacturing procedures. The company went public in Hong Kong in 2005 and it has since developed into the largest integrated knitwear maker in the world. Its contracts are huge, accounting for 12% of apparel procurement from Nike and Adidas, 14% for Uniqlo and 30% for Puma, according to Forbes magazine.
Since its IPO, Shenzhou’s market value has climbed more than 16 times and Forbes estimates that Ma is worth $4.3 billion, making him the 39th richest man in China.
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Zhejiang has served as a leading manufacturing hub for the clothing industry but the province is becoming too expensive for Shenzhou, which has moved parts of its production process to Southeast Asia, investing about $300 million to set up factories in countries such as Vietnam.
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