Zong Qinghou: China's Richest Man Eats With His Workers and Lives on $20 a Day


Zong Qinghou is known for his simple wardrobe, gritty language from a youth spent during the height of the Cultural Revolution, and for living on $20 a day. But he is also known as the CEO of Hangzhou Wahaha Group and the richest man in China, personally worth $13 billion. Zong's lifestyle provides insight into the work ethic responsible for his company's enormous success, and provides a lesson for the more flamboyance-prone business leaders around the world.

The combination of humility and razor-sharp focus are key traits embodied by Zong that all CEOs should prioritize. Zong credits his stripped-down lifestyle to his success in business: "Focusing on doing one thing and doing it properly is the simplest but also the most difficult thing."

He has retained his position as the leader of the company since its launch, and the sales and production departments have been overseen by the same manager for the last 25 years. Zong, whose company has maintained a 60% annual growth rate since it started as a beverage producer, minimizes his distractions by limiting his choices. He sticks to a simple routine of cigarettes and tea as he proceeds through his day, overseeing an empire of 150 consumer products that produced a profit of over $8 billion in 2012.

He also detests banquets and fancy meals and eats pickled vegetables and tofu every day, and makes it a point to eat in the staff cafeteria of his company if he is not away on a business trip.

His devotion to his work clearly emerges from an unflinching entrepreneurial spirit. Even at 67, Zong shows no signs of slowing down or handing the reigns to someone else, and credits his own sense of responsibility to the company and to the products for this commitment.

His 31-year-old daughter Kelly Zong, who is now assuming a senior role in the company, has been rumored to be his successor but he shows his awareness of the fact that she has a while to go before he steps down: "If she has any problems, I’ll go and wipe her butt."

He is hailed for this salt-of-the-earth perspective and seems genuinely unfazed by his riches, which allows him to focus on the success of his company and not his own social status. When describing his wardrobe, he explains why only spends up to $2 on his plain sneakers and clothes: "People cannot tell if I were wearing clothes worth a thousand ($160) or a hundred ($16) [yuan], so why would I want to spend money on them?" 

His renowned focus is oft-repeated in stories by staff, including one where an employee suggested Zong relocate his office to a lake-side near a favorite teahouse.

Zong quickly shot the idea down: "I would be absorbed in the tea and the view and forget business completely."