When Anbang Insurance Group agreed to pay $1.95 billion for the landmark Waldorf Astoria hotel in October 2014, it suggested the beginning of a new era in the scale — and audaciousness — of Chinese investment abroad.
Not only did the seismic deal set a record as the most expensive purchase of a U.S. real estate asset by a Chinese buyer, it was the highest price ever paid for an American hotel. In New York City especially, the Chinese appetite for property is a well-established fact. Between 2010 and 2015, Chinese real estate and investment firms snapped up $9.56 billion worth of commercial real estate in the city, accounting for nearly 56 percent of transaction volume, according to a May report from the Asia Society. Over the past 12 months, Chinese firms accounted for $6.44 billion in commercial real estate acquisitions in the New York metro region, according to Real Capital Analytics.
But who are the individuals spearheading these big buys? This month, The Real Deal set out to profile the founders of four of the most prominent firms that have invested in New York real estate. Aside from being wildly wealthy, they are also colorful individuals with distinct personalities. Wang Jianlin, the chairman of Dalian Wanda Group, spent his youth serving as a soldier in the Inner Mongolian desert and is today known for imposing a military style of discipline among his employees. Wang Shi, the head of China Vanke, has achieved celebrity status in China as much for his company’s success as his personal life, which includes mountain climbing and dating a starlet. Guo Guangcheng, the founder of Fosun whose brief disappearance last year sparked intense speculation about the Chinese government’s scrutiny of private businessmen, is a quirky philosopher-type, espousing an investment strategy that blends Confucianism, Daoism, and tai chi with a dash of the Western sage investor Warren Buffett.
While they have benefited from ties to the country’s political elite, most can be considered self-made compared to their U.S. counterparts. “In America a lot of money is old money,” said Al Tarar, founder of advisory firm Arcis Capital and a former partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Shanghai office.”But in China, these people actually made their money over 20 or 30 years.”
Some say these moguls are not only on a quest for money, but for empire. Omer Ozden, the CEO of RockTree Capital, an advisory firm representing the international interests of developers and investors, likened these Chinese titans to Zheng He, China’s most famous maritime explorer, who sailed the world around the same time as Christopher Columbus but who had many more ships and men on his expeditions.
“These modern real estate men are the same,” Ozden said. “They have the mandate to go abroad, and explore for China — a green light to venture out and invest, acquire and understand. Their resources are five and 10 times what perhaps U.S. real estate moguls may have available for overseas investment.”
Founder & chairman, Anbang Insurance Group
Net worth: $1.1 billion
Liquid net worth: $160 million
Although Anbang Insurance Group isn’t technically a real estate company, it has splurged on U.S. properties. Here in New York, aside from the Waldorf Astoria, it has shelled out $6.5 billion for Strategic Hotels & Resorts, including the Essex House hotel on Central Park South. Most recently, Anbang raised eyebrows with its $14.2 billion bid for Starwood Hotels but ultimately withdrew the offer in March. Where all that money comes from is as murky as the story of its chairman’s meteoric rise. Wu Xiaohui is arguably the most mysterious of China’s property moguls. His net worth is $1.1 billion, according to Wealth-X, which provided data to TRD. According to the Financial Times, he has never granted an interview to the press. But this much seems clear: He has worked his way to the top in part by making influential connections and benefiting from ties to China’s ruling Communist Party.
Born in 1966, Wu grew up in rural Pingyang county in eastern China. Today, relatives and acquaintances of his in the province are major shareholders of Anbang, while Wui holds no shares himself, according to a New York Times investigation in September. The practice is known as “white gloves” and common among wealthy Chinese who seek to keep their riches private.
In his younger years, Wu served as a low-level bureaucrat and worked as a restaurant manager, according to the FT. In 1996, he launched a car dealership company. He founded Anbang in 2004, the same year he divorced his second wife and married the granddaughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Media reports have since speculated that Wu’s marriage into China’s elite helps explain Anbang’s subsequent rise, which really took off with a series of high-profile fundraising successes in 2014.
When in New York, he reportedly holds court at a suite in the Waldorf Astoria, which his company officially bought in January 2015. That same month, he participated in a question-and-answer session at Harvard University, during which he referred to Blackstone’s CEO Steve Schwarzman as a good friend and summed up Anbang’s strategy as “pursuing win-win relationships.” According to Wealth-X, he owns a residence in Beijing, where Anbang is headquartered.
Chairman, Dalian Wanda Group
Net worth: $34.9 billion
Liquid net worth: $2 billion
In March, Wang Jianlin met Mayor Bill de Blasio in City Hall. As the two men shook hands and smiled for photos, the tall mayor noticeably towered over Wang. But the latter’s small stature belies the fact that he is China’s richest man. In 2016, he became the first Chinese man to crack the top 20 of Forbes’ Billionaires list.
Wang’s meeting with the mayor, arranged for him by influential New York lobbyist James Capalino, could prove to be a turning point for the New York activities of Dalian Wanda, the real estate giant Wang heads. Last year, Dalian Wanda closed its New York office at RXR Realty’s and Blackstone Group’s 1330 Sixth Avenue, and it hasn’t made a splash here since buying the AMC Loews movie theater chain for $2.6 billion in 2012. But at the meeting, Wang “expressed his interest in investing in New York’s hotels, tourism and cultural sectors,” according to Dalian Wanda’s website.
Born in 1954 as the son of a Red Army veteran in the Sichuan province city of Chengdu, Wang began his career in the military. In 1970, when he was only 15, he joined an army unit in the remote desert region of Inner Mongolia. “The hardship then was unimaginable,” he told London’s Daily Telegraph in 2013, adding that there was a “scramble to eat.” He made it to the rank of cadre, a military officer who trains soldiers, by the age of 28, according to Wealth-X research, but was decommissioned in the mid-’80s. He then briefly joined the provincial government in the northern city of Dalian as an office director before getting hired by the then-struggling development company Dalian Xigang, which would later become Dalian Wanda.
Wang made his first fortune building shopping centers for China’s rising middle class, and successively built up Dalian Wanda into a real estate conglomerate. Despite his wealth, he still has a soldier’s mindset. “In our company if I make a decision and you do not carry it out immediately, you need to pay a fine,” he told the Telegraph. “The basic principle is I command and my employees carry it out immediately.”
Wang’s shares in the Dalian Wanda Group and its subsidiary Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties are worth a combined $25.6 billion, according to Wealth-X, and he also owns a $2.2 billion stake in AMC Loews.
Despite his tough upbringing and army-like demeanor, Wang is not opposed to personal luxury. He owns homes in both Beijing and London, was one of the first Chinese moguls to own a private jet and sent his son to the elite English boarding school Winchester College. But he has also personally donated around $280 million to Chinese charities that deal with issues like education and post-disaster relief.
Most recently, Wang made headlines by slamming Disney. The U.S. entertainment giant recently opened a theme park in Shanghai, which threatens to compete with Dalian Wanda’s own growing theme park business. “The frenzy of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and the era of blindly following them have passed,” he told state television CCTV in May, adding that Disney is “entirely cloning previous IP, cloning previous products, with no more innovation.”
Founder & chairman, China Vanke
Net worth: $30 million
Liquid net worth: $16 million
Considering that Wang Shi founded China’s largest real estate company and has led it as chairman since 1988, his estimated net worth of $30 million is surprisingly puny compared to his peers. The explanation: Unlike other Chinese moguls, he doesn’t own significant shares in his firm.
Nevertheless, China Vanke is arguably the most active Chinese developer in New York City. It is RFR Realty’s partner on the luxury high-rise development 100 East 53rd Street and has joined forces with Slate Property Group and Adam America on two smaller Brooklyn developments as well as the infamous Rivington House condo conversion.
Born in 1951, Wang began working for the Foreign Trade and Economic Relations Committee of Guangdong province after graduating from a technical university in the late 1970s. “I felt depressed. My life was slow-paced,” he recalled in a 2009 interview with China Daily. He moved to Shenzhen, a major city north of Hong Kong, in 1983 and started moving up the corporate ranks of the city’s state-owned enterprises. It probably didn’t hurt that he was married to the daughter of the deputy party leader of the local Guangdong province. According to numerous reports, Wang had his first business success with an animal feed trading company. In 1984, Shi founded Shenzhen Exhibition Center for Modern Science and Education Equipment. Four years later, the company was renamed China Vanke.
At the time, Wang donated all his stocks to charity, leaving him with no ownership stake and making him nothing more than an employee. He recently explained that he was worried about amassing extravagant wealth in a de facto Communist country that only 50 years ago launched a Cultural Revolution targeting those considered bourgeois. “Someone who got rich overnight could be in danger, probably even be killed… and I didn’t know what to do with so much money,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post. But the newspaper notes he may still control the shares he formally gave to charity, which would likely make him worth far more than $30 million.
In China, Wang has also drawn attention for his extracurricular activities. Around 1999, he gave up day-to-day control of the company and began climbing mountains. According to the website of the World Wildlife Fund, where Wang sits on the board of directors, he is the 11th person in the world to reach the tallest peaks on all seven continents, as well as both poles.
And from 2011 to 2013, with the help of a personal English tutor, he spent two years studying at Harvard as a visiting scholar. Around that time, he provided juicy fodder for Chinese newspapers when he allegedly split from his wife and began dating Tian Pujun, a Chinese television actress 30 years his junior.
This past summer, however, it was back to business for Wang, who has had to fend off a hostile takeover from its biggest shareholder, developer Baoneng Group. The company owns a 24 percent stake in Vanke and has tried to oust the company’s entire board, including Wang.
Through it all, the chairman has kept a sense of humor. Following a call for his resignation in June, the FT reported that he told a gathering of investors, “This morning I received phone calls from three headhunters. I just smiled. I am still the chairman, so don’t you worry. We will get the job done.”
Founder & chairman, Fosun
Net worth: $6.1 billion
Liquid net worth: $550 million
There’s plenty of mystery around the man who earned the nickname “China’s Warren Buffett” and owns the Manhattan office building 28 Liberty Street. How did he rise from farm boy to billionaire investor? Why did Chinese authorities arrest him in December only to release him a few days later?
Guo is the son of a devoutly Buddhist mother, and it shows: his investment shtick is layered with spirituality. “Some people make the wrong decisions, but that’s not because they don’t have superior intelligence but because they can’t resist the temptation of the monsters hiding in their heart,” he told the FT during a far-ranging and lengthy sit-down interview in 2014. At the time, Guo described his investment philosophy as being shaped by Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Warren Buffett.
Born in 1967 in the rural Zhejiang province in eastern China, Guo grew up learning how to ration food. The memory of the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous communal agricultural policy that has since been blamed for causing the death of at 45 least million Chinese, was still fresh in people’s minds. In the FT interview, he recalled that his mother would secretly grow sweet potatoes to feed their family. In 1992, three years after graduating from university, he and college friends founded marketing firm Guangxin Technology Development Company, which in turn launched Fosun. Following years of growth, Fosun got listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
Like his idol Buffett, Guo invests in virtually anything. Fosun holds stakes in Club Med, Cirque du Soleil, Forbes, Portuguese Insurer Caixa Seguros, and in July it bought a majority stake in India’s Gland Pharma for $1.26 billion. He practices tai chi daily, a reminder to stay balanced in both life and investment decisions. “No one holds a permanent speed advantage in the market,” he told FT. “Your advantage comes from your ability to feel the change faster and take decisive action faster.”
Fosun’s only New York real estate holding is 28 Liberty in Lower Manhattan, which it bought for $725 million in 2013. In December, Guo made headlines for vanishing for several days, prompting observers to speculate that he had fallen victim to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.
But he resurfaced a few days later. According to the country’s official dictum, reported in numerous news stories, he was held to help with an investigation. But since the episode, Fosun has pulled back significantly on its overseas investments. In March, he spoke to the Wall Street Journal for his first interview since his disappearance. Explaining the shift in strategy, he said, “This is our style: When everyone gets excited, we become more cautious.”