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.
HUNAN — 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 — 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.
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Lens Technology in Liuyang, Hunan — 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.