BEIJING  Chen Dongsheng has amassed a fortune with attention to both the mundane of insurance and the glamour of fine art.

He is the founder of three completely divergent enterprises — China Guardian Auctions, the first Chinese auction company to specialize in the sale of Chinese artwork; Kangtai Life, one of China’s largest life insurance and asset management firms; and ZJS Express, a home delivery service company.

When interviewed, Chen inadvertently reveals his fatigue, before quickly shifting back to the competent and intelligent image of him more often on display in public. “Up to now, I haven’t been able to start to enjoy the life that wealth brings,” he says.

Chen belongs to the 92 Group, a group of high-ranking officials and scholars who, inspired by the economic reform speeches of Deng Xiaoping, changed their career tracks and went into business. It’s an elite group with a strong sense of national identity, but its members are also firm believers in the market economy.

In Chen’s view, many of today’s youth don’t understand the social background of this generation of Chinese entrepreneurs, and mistakenly believe that they made their fortunes through guangxi, or social connections.

Though they already enjoyed a better business environment than the first generation of Chinese businessmen, 92 Group members are nonetheless the people who tested the water for China’s modern market system. They are also China’s first entrepreneurs to possess clear and unambiguous shareholder awareness — and understand, respect and follow the law of the market.

Looking back, Chen admitts he was lucky to have chosen to go into business at the right time — when Deng made his famous “southern tour” and unleashed a wave of personal entrepreneurship that continues to drive China’s economy today. “When a society confirms the mainstream value that only the best talent will engage in business, a country’s market economy really advances towards maturity,” he says.

It was thanks to three important factors that China’s market system advanced.

First, the international political environment changed. The young elite who participated in China’s economic reform during the 1980s were all thinking about institutional issues and trying to draw from foreign experiences. In the early 1990s, these Chinese began to choose different paths and find their way forward. Some chose business. Then, in 1991, the former Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe went through dramatic changes. 

Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour was the second factor and a powerful driver of China’s continued economic reform.

The third factor was that in 1992, the Economic Restructuring Commission issued two important documents — the Limited Liability Company Ordinance and the Limited Company Regulation. They were the real turning point for China’s business sector. “They are revolutionary chapters that propelled the birth of China’s true modern enterprises,” Chen says.

Thanks to the introduction of these laws, Chen was allowed to raise funds and search for the investors he needed. Both China Guardian Auctions and Kangtai Life were founded then.

Though his auction company is nicknamed China’s Sotheby's today, Chen still recalls the pressure when he first started it. “To position it as a high-end business, we rented five rooms as our offices at $85 a day in the five-star Great Wall Sheraton Hotel,” he recalls. “Before we held our first auction in March 1994, we didn’t even have a single cent of revenue for a whole year. I don’t even know how we made it through that period.” 

It certainly wasn’t a smooth process for Chen. “Everybody thought I was mad. I didn’t have money or background, and I wasn’t an industry insider. Why should anybody even want to give me a licence? It was just dedication that helped me,” he says proudly. 

The motivation

It was while working as deputy managing editor at Management World that his passion for business was aroused. Having previously worked in the Ministry of Trade as a researcher, he was able to read masses of foreign periodicals such as Fortune and Business Weekly. He discovered that the world’s economic powers are highly consistent in the number of enterprises that make it to Forbes’ Top 500.

So he copied the same idea and started assessing China’s top 500 enterprises. Eventually, he became convinced that China needed more multinationals to become a world power, and he wanted to be the founder of such a great enterprise.

Thanks to the reputation and network he built assessing China’s top 500 companies, he was able to raise more than $3 million within a single week. 

Seeing China’s limited knowledge and the insurance market, he founded Taikang Life Insurance. But it took him four years to get approval from the People’s Bank of China to be a national corporation. Once approved, in 1996 he became China’s first financial services CEO.

As an industry ousider, Chen started his shortcut learning process from the mature insurance market. Between 1997 and 2002, he visited 21 large multinational financial and insurance groups looking for partners. “Innovation is first an imitation,” Chen has always insisted.

Like other Chinese insurers, Taikang has experienced rapid expansion over the past decade. “The risks that rapid growth brought to Taikang were mainly financial, managerial, regulatory and brand,” Chen says. Goldman Sachs became Taikang’s second biggest shareholder in 2011.

Though Taikang, like its peers, has been stuck in negative growth since 2012, Chen is convinced that the only way forward is by readjusting and changing itself. 

In recent years, he has advocated a customer-oriented strategy and promoted the idea of positioning insurance and finance as consumer goods. In his opinion, China will flourish over the next 10 years, and enjoy another decade of growth at a rate of around 8%. What is going to support the growth, he says, is a rise in the middle-class and the arrival of a consumption era.

Never satisfied, Chen achieved another remarkable career climax in 2009 when his company became China’s first insurer investing in retirement communities. 

“We are now on the runway,” he says. “Our goal is to become China’s pension community industry leader.”

Chen says he hopes that in the future Chinese people can also grow old gracefully. His ambition is to invest 100 billion RMB ($16.4 billion) in pension real estate and cultivate it into the insurance industry chain. “So that insurance, real estate, pension and medical care are all integrated, and open up the whole chain from cradle to heaven.”