When billionaire retail tycoon Huang Guangyu was sentenced to 14 years in jail on charges of illegal business dealings, the future of his company Gome looked more than a little uncertain. Few analysts expected that his low-key wife would rescue the situation. But this year Fortune recognised Du Juan’s achievement by naming her one of China’s top 25 business women.
Du was born into a relatively privileged family of teachers in Beijing in 1972 and graduated from Beijing University of Science and Technology. Her future husband came from a poorer background and relied on his street-smarts, building from scratch what would become China’s largest electronics retailing chain.
Du met Huang in 1993 when she was a lending clerk at Bank of China, working on the Gome account. In 1996 they married and started a family. She worked within the Gome Group too, but focused less on the day-to-day aspects of the business than on acquisitions and investments.
Baptism of fire
Just over a decade ago Huang was regularly described by the media as the country’s richest man – a title that could prove dangerous. As it turned out to be for the Shantou-born entrepreneur, who was arrested on allegations of stock market manipulation in 2008. After his imprisonment, civil war erupted between Gome management and shareholders, centred around the chairman Chen Xiao, who Huang eventually ousted in mid-2011, despite still being in jail.
Du had spent a short period in jail herself for insider trading but her sentence was reduced and she was released in late 2010, reports China Daily. Later, she was forced to confront a situation in which Gome had just announced heavy losses and was giving up market share to rival Suning. Gome’s management was heavily divided by its loyalties to Huang and Chen. With the company on the verge of collapse, Du reorganised the board, asking Chen’s supporters for their loyalty. “Let bygones be bygones. It is important we look to the future,” she told them. As Queen Weekly pointed out, she even cut her long hair short as a sign she was not going to waste time on personal grooming when the business needed so much work.
The hallmark of Du’s time at the helm has been greater attention to detail, and she has made it a habit to visit stores and pick up on the smallest flaws. She spent time as a saleswoman to better familiarise herself with store operations, but she has focused heavily on online sales channels, which have been growing much faster than the bricks-and-mortar business. Industry insiders say that Du also works closely with her husband, who has maintained his influence at Gome despite his imprisonment. Together, they are Gome’s largest shareholders.
Need to know
Once known internally as Mrs Huang, today her staff call her Boss Du. From inheriting a rudderless enterprise, she has helped to grow Gome’s revenues to Rmb64 billion ($9.45 billion) and it turned a profit in 2015 of Rmb1.2 billion. That said, net income was down last year after a revamp of 500 stores and investments in Gome’s distribution network.
“What comforts me the most is that, one day when Huang Guangyu comes back and I return Gome back to him, the e-commerce business of Gome will be quite successful,” Du has remarked.
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