Zong Qinghou - A No-Frills Beverage King

Zong Qinghou (left), head of China's biggest beverage empire Wahaha
Zong Qinghou (left), head of China's biggest beverage empire Wahaha
Tang Xiangyang

HANGZHOU — It's well known that nobody in Wahaha, China’s biggest beverage empire, dares challenge the word of Zong Qinghou. But the cult of personality surrounding the group’s founder, dubbed the "beverage king," goes much further: There are reports of how employees at a Wahaha dealers’ meeting shout Viva Wahaha! Viva Zong Qinghou!, and the rest of the audience breaks into applause.

After working on farms for 15 years, it was his mother’s retirement that pushed Zong, at the age of 33, to replace her in her job as a salesperson for a cardboard-box factory —and step into the world of business that he was destined to conquer.

Ten years later he borrowed 140,000 RMB ($23,000) and founded his own business selling frizzy drinks, ice pops, and oral solutions of pollen. By 2012, Forbes ranked him as China’s richest man. And although he is 68 years old today, he won't even speak of his own retirement. “I’m only a middle-aged man. I’m working until 90,” he quips.

As a member of the first generation of entrepreneurs after China's economic reform in the late 1970s, Zong is one of the few that got off to a rather late start — he was already 42 when he started his own business. In his early days as a mini-grocery boss, he would ride a tricycle delivering goods himself. At lunch time, he and the other dozen workers would cook their own meals because they couldn’t afford eating out.

Cities and towns

Even today, Zong still agrees with anybody who describes him as overworked and stingy. Staff who have been with the company for years will tell you that Zong doesn’t spend more than 50 bucks a day. Apart from his Davidoff cigars and Longjing tea he doesn't appear to have any great outside passions or hobbies.

His ascetic approach translates into the way he manages his business. In the early 1990s, China’s beverage market was more or less unchartered territory, and any new product could potentially evoke buying enthusiasm. In this context, Wahaha, meaning "laughing children," was born at the right moment.

Still, being ahead of the market means having to find out unexplored consumer appetites. Zong developed a habit of visiting markets all year around, traveling well beyond the confines of Hangzhou where his company is based, and the big coastal cities, venturing into small cities and towns all over the country. These are the markets that are especially difficult for foreign enterprises or even local businesses to take over, and they make up Wahaha’s core base to this day.

Zong also spends three months each year overseas studying foreign markets, tastes and products. And although he doesn't use a computer, he makes sure an assistant takes a printer so that he can print out Wahaha’s sales data for close study. Zong is able to go through the company’s balance sheets in major markets within half an hour. He can also tell you any and all details about his products; for example, that a Wahaha beverage bottle cap has 18 teeth marks.

A bottle of Wahaha water (right) — Photo: kanegen

Zong jokes about his workaholic ways. His favorite reading is the county maps of China. He plays no golf, and until last year, despite a net worth of more than 100 billion RMB ($16.5 billion), Zong took it as granted he could come and go on his own without a body guard or assistant. That changed when he was attacked on the street near his home last September by a mentally unstable unemployed man.

Single-mindedness seems to be Zong's key virtue as a businessman. When China’s stock market was booming, some advised him to invest in it. “I don’t understand this market,” he said. When the real estate was particularly hot he also refused the invitation to join in.

Since his business wisdom came from practical experience in his field, he won’t go into any activity he doesn’t know well. He notes that he took over a grocery store only after working for it as a contractor for 10 years first.

Bumpkins and kings

With no guide nor any overseas examples, it was up to Zong to react to his own experiences — it seems to be the singular shared characteristic of Chinese entrepreneurs of his generation. This is perhaps especially true for the ever-changing retail business. As Zong says, he has always relied on “intuition and experience.”

Wahaha’s advertisements target directly consumers’ demand. His sales network runs throughout the entire country, covering even the fifth and sixth-tier cities. He has no right-hand-man even today, and he meets personally with every one of his major wholesalers — there are more than 8,000 of them — every year. He wears Chinese-made suits with black canvass shoes, cutting a figure much like the average consumer of his products.

A huge statue of Zong was erected in the Wahaha headquarters in Hangzhou City, and staff always start their business reports by the words “Following your instruction…” Still, Zong is not an arrogant man, openly worried that crisis could strike.

His own daugther, who studied and lived abroad for years, has jokingly referred to this old-style Chinese entrepreneur as a “bumpkin.” To describe his cheap tastes and hard work, Zong has also used the old poor emigrant slur of "coolie" to describe himself. But the harder part will be how the beverage "king," with no plans of retirement, passes power onto the next generation.

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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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