BEIJING – The most successful of China's entrepreneurs have created some of the world's biggest companies and amassed stunning fortunes. Often they are little known outside of China, but that is changing as they expand abroad and sell shares on Wall Street. Some of their counterparts in China's massive government-owned companies are making a mark as they try to instil innovation and efficiency in lumbering state giants. A look at key figures in Chinese business.
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E-commerce leader: Jack Ma, co-founder and chairman of Alibaba Group.
One of China's best-known entrepreneurs, this former English teacher from the eastern city of Hangzhou is credited with laying the foundation for e-commerce in China by founding Alibaba in 1999 to link Chinese suppliers with retailers abroad. The company expanded into consumer e-commerce with its Taobao and Tmall platforms. In response to China's lack of infrastructure such as credit cards to support e-commerce, Alibaba created online payments service Alipay. The company has become the world's biggest online bazaar, with total sales exceeding those of Amazon.com Inc. and eBay combined. Last year, Alibaba also set another record, raising $25 billion on Wall Street in the biggest U.S. initial public stock offering to date. Ma's net worth soared to $25 billion, making him China's richest businessman. Ma is known for colorful behavior that includes dressing in a leather jacket and platinum wig to sing rock songs at the company's annual Alifest employee gathering, a raucous event in a soccer stadium before an audience of thousands. Ma, who turned 50 in September, stepped down in 2013 as chief executive, saying he was too old for the Internet, but stayed on as executive chairman.
Online innovator: Ma Huateng, co-founder and chairman of Tencent Holdings Ltd.
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Ma, who is no relation to Jack Ma, is the quiet counterpart to his flamboyant rival at Alibaba. The company co-founded by Ma Huateng in 1998 has gone from success to success, first in online games, then with its QQ instant message service and now as operator of the hugely popular WeChat social media platform, which it says has 550 million active users. Its strategy is built on offering entry-level services for free, then charging for added features on games and linking social media to e-commerce and other money-making ventures. That has helped to make Tencent, with 25,000 employees, one of the most valuable tech companies, with a market cap of $150 billion. Ma is worth $18 billion. Along with Alibaba and search engine Baidu Inc., the third member of China's trio of leading Internet companies, Tencent is rushing to build a presence in mobile Internet as Chinese Web surfers switch to going online via smartphones and tablets. Since the start of 2013, Tencent has spent about $1 billion, according to Chinese news reports, to buy a 15 percent stake in China's No. 2 e-commerce company, JD.com, and to acquire or create services in online video and taxi-hailing.
China's landlord: Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda Group.
Wang became CEO of Wanda in 1993 following 16 years as a soldier and a stint as a city government employee. The company has grown to become one of China's biggest real estate developers, with dozens of hotels, shopping malls and cinemas, and has undertaken hotel development projects in New York City and London. In 2012, Wanda became one the world's biggest cinema operators with its $2.6 billion purchase of AMC Theaters in the United States. In 2013, the company announced plans to build an $8 billion film studio complex in the coastal city of Qingdao and flew in celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio and John Travolta for the launch. A Communist Party member since 1976, Wang ranked No. 1 in 2013 on the Hurun Rich List of the wealthiest Chinese with a fortune estimated at $22 billion. This year, he was No. 2 behind Alibaba's Jack Ma, but his net worth rose to $23 billion.
SUV queen: Wang Fengying, general manager of Great Wall Motors Ltd.
Appointed in 2003, Wang became the first woman to lead an automaker a decade before Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors Co. Wang joined Great Wall, in Baoding, southwest of Beijing, as a saleswoman in 1991 and later got a master's degree in economics. With 60,000 employees, Great Wall motored to success on an SUV boom in China and the popularity of its H5 model. It is now China's biggest manufacturer of SUVs and pickup trucks. In 2013, according to Bernstein Research, its profit margins were the global auto industry's fattest. Wang was named last year to Forbes magazine's list of "Asian Power Women." Under her, Great Wall has become one of China's biggest auto exporters, selling to more than 100 countries including Russia and Italy. The company stumbled in 2013 with the release of a new flagship model was delayed but has rebounded on the strength of high demand for its SUVs.
Net nuts and bolts: Ren Zhengfei, founder and CEO of Huawei Technologies Ltd.
A former military engineer, Ren founded Huawei in 1988 to sell imported equipment to Chinese phone carriers, then moved into technology development when its foreign supplier was bought by a competitor. It has grown to become, along with Sweden's LM Ericsson and the proposed tie-up between Nokia and France's Alcatel Lucent, one of the biggest suppliers of switching gear used by phone and Internet companies. Shut out of Chinese cities that were dominated by state-owned and foreign suppliers, Ren pursued a guerrilla strategy of selling to developing countries in Asia and Africa and to Chinese small towns before making inroads into major urban markets. Today, Huawei is expanding into consumer products with its own line of smartphones. With 150,000 employees, the company reported 288.2 billion yuan ($46.5 billion) in sales last year but has struggled to mollify concerns in the United States, Australia and elsewhere that it is a security risk. Ren, who turned 70 in October, has created a system of three co-chief executives who take turns to lead the company.
Smartphone challenger: Jun Lei, co-founder and chairman of Xiaomi.
Founded in 2010, Xiaomi has soared past domestic rivals Lenovo and Huawei to become the world's No. 3 smartphone brand by number of handsets sold. Now, the company is expanding into India. Trained as an engineer, Lei has said he was inspired by the example of Apple Inc.'s Steve Jobs. Lei rose to become CEO and vice chairman of Kingsoft, one of China's biggest software companies, and played a role in the launch of Joyo.com, later acquired by Amazon as its Chinese arm. Lei spent the past decade as a venture capital investor before launching Xiaomi with former Google executive Lin Bin. Since then, he has taken on a second job as chairman of Kingsoft. After he was awarded a bonus of stock worth 93 million Hong Kong dollars ($11.9 million) by Kingsoft's board in July, Lei announced he would give it away to the company's employees in thanks for their work. Lei ranked No. 10 on this year's Hurun China Rich list with a net worth of $7.2 billion.
Beer boss: Chen Lang, chairman and CEO of state-owned China Resources Enterprise.
With an MBA from the University of San Francisco, Chen represents a generation of technocratic managers the Communist Party hopes can transform subsidy-guzzling state companies into money-making competitors. Chen oversees China's biggest supermarket operator and beer producer, a sprawling business empire with 152,000 employees, 2,800 grocery stores, 70 breweries and lines of business from fishing to pharmaceuticals. Unlike state companies in power, banking and other industries that are shielded by regulators from private and foreign competitors, Chen has to fight ambitious private sector rivals for market share. Chen began his career in 1986 at China Resources National Corp., which owns 51 percent of CRE and is one of 117 companies controlled directly by China's Cabinet. "There is no such a thing as sitting back and relaxing," said Chen in a 2011 interview with the newsletter of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "We need to attack all the time."
China's Warren Buffett: Guo Guangchang, chairman of Fosun International Ltd.
Dubbed "China's Warren Buffett" by the Financial Times, Guo is, along with Wanda's Wang, one of China's biggest private investors abroad. He has described his business strategy as linking global technology and resources with China's rapid market growth. In China, Fosun pursues an approach similar to Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, combining an insurance business with ownership stakes in businesses including pharmaceuticals, construction, mining and steel production. It bought Portuguese insurance company Caixa Seguros e Saude for $1.4 billion and agreed to invest in U.S. film producer Studio 8. In February, Fosun won a two-year bidding war against an Italian tycoon for France's Club Med.
Green champion: Li Hejun, chairman of Hanergy Holding Group Ltd.
Li is among a generation of Chinese entrepreneurs who have made fortunes from the growing global market for renewable power. He ranked No. 3 on this year's Hurun Rich List of China's wealthiest tycoons with a fortune estimated at $20 billion. Li set up Hanergy in 1994 to build hydropower projects. It became the first private company to be awarded a contract to build a dam in China when it was picked in 2002 to construct the 2,400-megawatt Jin'anqiao dam, completed in 2012. The company, headquartered in Beijing, also invested in wind farms but shifted its emphasis in 2009 to solar power. In 2012, it acquired Germany's Solibro and California's MiaSole and says it hopes to become a world leader in "thin-film" solar panels that can be used as tinted windows on buildings or integrated into building materials for use on rooftops. Last year, Hanergy was ranked No. 23 on the MIT Technology Review's list of the world's 50 "smartest companies."
Reformer in Chief: Xi Jinping, general secretary of China's Communist Party.
In a state-dominated economy, Xi has more influence over business than any entrepreneur or state company boss. The son of a guerrilla commander in the 1949 revolution, Xi has amassed more personal power than any leader since the late Deng Xiaoping, who launched economic reform in 1979. Under Xi, the ruling communists have promised to make the slowing economy more productive by giving entrepreneurs a bigger role. That will require Beijing to trim the subsidies and privileges of state companies and make government-owned banks more market-oriented. At the same time, the party is building state-owned "national champions" to control industries from oil and gas to telecoms to banking and has tightened censorship of the press and the Internet. Unlike predecessors who entrusted economic management to the country's premier, Xi named himself to head a ruling party committee in charge of reform. That puts his personal authority behind quelling opposition from state companies and their supporters in the ruling party. Xi has presided over an anti-corruption campaign that led to the arrest of a former member of the party Standing Committee, China's inner circle of power, and a retired army general.