Li Ning: Business Doesn't Have To Be A Contact Sport

Li Ning still smiling
Li Ning still smiling
Li Yuan

BEIJING It was 30 years ago at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics that a 20-year-old Chinese gymnast named Li Ning captured three gold medals, two silvers and one bronze with an array of never-before-seen flips and twists that he had invented himself.

Li, now 50, became China’s most decorated athlete and won the title “prince of gymnastics at China’s first Olympics after having boycotted the Games for nearly 30 years.

Five years later, Li Ning founded his eponymously named athletic shoe and sporting goods company in the Pearl Delta, which would grow into China’s largest. Back in an era where materials were still scarce and brands non-existent, these locally designed products quickly became a hit.

The former gymnast had once again performed a stunt no one had ever seen.

“The reason why I wanted to start a business was simply because China didn’t have its own sporting goods companies and brands,” Li recalls.

Photo: gilbert928

The road, however, wasn’t easy in the beginning. With his stature, Li was expected to become a coach for China’s next generation of gymnasts after his retirement from the sport. “People criticized me, saying that the nation had trained me as an athlete and what made me think I could just go off to become a businessman,” he recounts. “Anyway, nobody believed that I’d be able to create China’s own brand. I simply pursued the dream I had in my head and made it a reality.”

Li tends to change the subject when people talk about his Olympic glory. “I’m thinking about the future, not looking back.”

And to him, the country is just now hitting its stride. “China is undergoing a huge change in which the population is flowing towards the urban areas. At no other time in our history have we seen such a concentration of population and such abundance of both domestic and foreign investment capital.”

He predicts the ongoing urbanization will only continue to expand China’s domestic consumer market — and he is making sure the Li-Ning Company is best positioned to enjoy its fruits.

A Li-Ning store in China's Hunan province — Photo: PanShiBo

And there were plenty, especially before 2012, when the company posted its first losses since 2004. Competing with sporting goods giants such as Nike has brought its challenges, but it posted a profit of more than $63 million in 2011.

Man in the mirror

For companies such as Li Ning’s the risk is that China’s market transforms quickly from scarcity to overcapacity. These days de-stocking, or reducing inventory, is important for many sporting apparel and other companies. Li-Ning is no exception. “In such a commercial context we have to complete the transformation. Make the change, as the firm’s new slogan declares, is what poses the biggest challenge these days.”

Apart from constantly readjusting its brand positioning, the priority is to constantly improve its products by increasing investment in design and development that meet the demand of China’s trend-conscious young urban population.

Li has also introduced Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) business management software over the past few years. “This allows us to reconfigure our business model to allow us to succeed in each new round of competition,” he says. “Whereas in the past 20 years Li Ning won rather more by quantity, we are now beginning to compete both in quantity and quality.”

The moment of glory (in company attire) at the 2008 opening ceremonies (Tim Hipps)

Li says that he has always tried to be an entrepreneur with the same mindset he had as an athlete. “I was not born to defeat others. Rather it’s because I want to stand on the podium. That’s the motivation of my survival.”

Having said that, Li’s competitive spirit hasn’t changed deep down. He succeeded in having Chinese athletes wearing China’s own brand when receiving their awards on the Olympic podium in 1992. Then, he personally lit the torch for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics wearing his own company’s products in front of a worldwide audience.

Today, his business sponsors numerous Chinese pro sport clubs, as well as the Spanish and Swedish Olympics teams. “I want to build a brand that Chinese people can be proud of. Sports can help people achieve things they never thought was possible.”

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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