Economy

Meet Zhou Qunfei, China’s Richest Woman

An in-depth interview with the 45-year-old billionaire who has developed groundbreaking lens and smart-screen technology. Business, she says, is about distinguishing between rice pots and hotels.

Lens Technology founder Zhou Qunfei
Lens Technology founder Zhou Qunfei
Sun Chunyan

HUNAN â€" When the Hurun Research Institute recently released its 2015 list of the "richest self-made women in the world," No. 1 on the list was Chinese "touchscreen queen" Zhou Qunfei. The founder of mobile-phone glass manufacturing company Lens Technology has a net worth of $7.8 billion. Until March, when the company she founded was listed on the stock market, nobody really paid any attention to this 45-year-old entrepreneur.

In her fifth-floor office, Zhou Qunfei's desk is set at the far end. On the wall nearby, there is a hanging with a huge single Chinese character â€" Shan, meaning goodness. Apart from some green plants, the only objects on the desk are an Apple computer and a wooden statue of Mao Zedong. A billiard room, a kitchen and her bedroom are just next door.

Women entrepreneurs in China have a particular quality: perseverance. Zhou learned this when she was very young. Her mother died when she was five, and her father lost the use of his hands and was nearly blinded after an accident. Not only did Zhou have to travel 12 miles to and from school, she also had to cook for her father, feed the pigs and chickens, and collect bundles of firewood from the forest. She was thin and would sometimes drop her bundle and fall down the hill before climbing back up to retrieve it.

"If I couldn't collect enough in one go, I'd go back twice so I'd have as much as the others," she recalled.

The courage and determination she developed in her childhood have stood her in good stead during her business life. Her father's curiosity and desire to invent also left its mark, and is cited as a key to her success. He would repeat the famous Chinese saying, "If you are poor, even if you live downtown, nobody knows you. If you are rich, you can live on a remote mountain and distant relatives will come to see you." It made her strive to change her own life.

Since she has owned her own business, Zhou has always liked to master technologies herself. Whether it's silk-screen printing for watches, or glass coatings for mobile phones, she takes the lead in technical development. In fact, she holds over 100 patents.

She says she likes observing and thinking. Once, when she encountered a particularly difficult technical problem, she recalled a childhood memory. As a little girl, she used to run in the rain covering her head with a lotus leaf. The experience of observing the way water rolls off the leaf gave her inspiration for the anti-fingerprint coating patent.

At 17, she went to the southern city of Shenzhen to work, and by 23, she had begun her business career by renting three houses in a small fishing port near Shenzhen. She was producing glass for watch manufacturers. There were thousands of other workshops doing the same thing. Very often she was cheated by the watch manufacturers, who would close their businesses before the Chinese New Year to avoid paying their debts, and then reopen in another place.

One time, she found a delinquent payer. He said to her, "Well, I've got dollars, Hong Kong dollars and renminbi in that safe over there, but I have never thought paying you was necessary."

At such moments, she wanted to give up, but she persisted. "I want to do things while I'm still young, and develop even better technology for my company," she says. "I don't want to die regretting what I didn't do."

Her Vice Chairman Peng Mengwu characterizes her as particularly daring. "When others are still hesitating, she is already steps ahead," he says.

Two theories of business

Zhou says she has two pet theories about business: the rice pot theory and the hotel theory.

She says a business product line is like the rice pot in your home in that you should never wait until there is only one grain left to fill it up.

When she was both working and studying at Shenzhen University, she taught herself the entire set of techniques for processing watch glass. In 1997, amid the Asian financial crisis, she went to the watchmakers who owed her money and settled their debts in exchange for their equipment. That's how she gradually assembled an entire production suite for glass processing.

By 2001, China's major mobile phone manufacturer TCL contacted her to make glass screens for its products. Already a millionaire, she knew her pot needed more rice. In 2002, she founded Lens Technology to make glass screens for mobile phones.

Lens Technology in Liuyang, Hunan â€" Photo: Huangdan2060

With her grasp of glass processing performance and technology, and daring to switch from familiar watch glass to cell phone glass, she earned the moniker "mobile glass queen." She seized the opportunity to quickly develop "product design guidelines" for glass processing and "product testing standards," which have become industry-wide technical standards and processes.

In 2003, when Motorola was preparing to launch its V3 limited version, and its original glass supplier in Japan had quality problems, Zhou and her R&D team didn't leave the factory for three days and nights. They experimented with timings, temperatures and concentrations.

The Motorola V3 was selling more than 100 million units globally, and it made Zhou the leader in her field. Shortly afterwards, Samsung, Nokia and HTC all joined the market. But her biggest success was when Apple launched the touchscreen iPhone. The smartphone screen had to be even larger, thinner and even more difficult to break. Thanks to her deep R&D, Lens Technology became Apple's biggest supplier.

Zhou is a fervent believer of research and development. In 2014, out of Lens Technology's 1 billion RMB ($157 million) of profit, it invested 900 million back into R&D. "Cutting-edge technological reserves are the premise for attracting customers in the long run, so an enterprise has to come up with new materials, new technology and new patents all the time," Zhou says. "Certain companies grow to be very big in a short time and suddenly disappear again. It's precisely because their R&D didn't keep up."

Then there is Zhou's hotel theory: that a company must be run like a hotel. "You have to build the hotel first and provide the best services so it will naturally attract customers, not the other way around," she says.

In 2007, when the iPhone was first launched, Zhou decided to move her company back to Hunan Province, where she originally came from, to expand the company's production. At that time, the Guangming industrial zone in Shenzheng was almost all rented out to Lens Technology. "We had orders that could keep our business going for two to three years," Peng Mengwu recalls.

Company veterans were wary of Zhou's idea. They felt reluctant to leave Shenzhen.

Carrying a shoulder bag and wearing jeans, Zhou went ahead on her own. When she asked to visit and ultimately rent hundreds of acres of Hunan's industrial zones, local officials were skeptical of the young woman.

Today, Lens Technology owns more than 100,000 square meters of production and R&D facilities at several locations in Hunan. "All of Hunan's leaders suddenly know us," Peng says. "We have maintained for six consecutive years the record as the province's number one import and export processing trade enterprise, and our sales are nearly 10 times those of 2010."

Lens Technology now produces and supplies 50% of the world's smartphone screens. From design to every step of the process, Zhou is personally involved. "She is a perfectionist," one senior manager says.

No family members in management

Zhou started her business with the help of her family because at that time she couldn't afford to hire people. But once her company grew to a certain size, she decided that they would no longer work for the company but would be given shares to continue enjoying its success.

"I can't allow my business to get on the wrong track because my family member wasn't up to the required level," Zhou explains. "Meanwhile, I can't be disrespectful either if that person is in a more senior position in the family."

Zhou is notably down-to-earth for someone of her wealth. She still take trains, eats fast-food noodles, and will go anywhere she feels the need to go with her bag hanging on her shoulder. "I don't like brand apparel," she says. "I've been wearing certain clothing of mine for years. When I gain and lose weight, I just get them adjusted!"

Taking care of workers

Lens Technology doesn't have strategic investors. "The reason why we have gone for a public listing is so that my team will share the benefits of our company with me," she says. "My shareholders are all the core executives. Besides, as we succeed, many people try to lure our talents. When they hold the firm's shares, this team is more steady."

She also strives to take care of the company's ordinary employees. She provides free dormitories, including apartments for couples, and rental subsidies to all of her workers. "I want my workers to feel happy working here," she says. "And when they go home they feel warm." On Mother's Day each year she encourages her workers to invite their mothers over to celebrate together.

But when it comes to herself, Zhou's devotion to workers seems to come at a high price. She lost her mother when she was very young, and since she started her own business she has been living on her own.

Today, her 7-year-old son lives in the Unites States with his nanny. "Every time we part, I tell him my responsibilities are to take care of my employees, whereas his is to turn the knowledge he learns from teachers into his own. For the moment we have different responsibilities," she says with tears in her eyes.

“One time when I went to see my son, he happened to have a bad toothache. He endured the pain the whole night himself in his own room. The nanny took him to pull the tooth next morning, and my son insisted that he didn't need any anesthesia. And he asked me afterwards, "Am I very courageous, Mommy?""

Zhou says she often wonders whether she would have been as successufl if her mother hadn't died young.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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