Meet Zhang Yong, the Chinese billionaire behind cult hotpot chain Haidilao, who started life as a factory worker and is now Singapore’s richest man

Haidilao founder Zhang Yong, 49, and wife Shu Ping, 50, emigrated to Singapore in 2018 and rank among the Republic’s wealthiest people.
Reuters

 

  • Zhang Yong’s hotpot chain, Haidilao, granted him a net worth of US$13 billion in 2019.

  • The Chinese-born Singaporean is the richest man in the country.

  • Zhang was born into poverty in a backwater town in Sichuan, China.

  • He started his famous chain after visiting a local hotpot restaurant for the first time as a young adult, and having a terrible meal.

Thanks to a global empire of hotpot restaurants, Haidilao founder Zhang Yong is now the richest man in Singapore – a country that has quite an abundance of wealthy people.

Read also: Half of Singapore is in the world’s richest 10% – and 226,000 people are among the elite 1%

Zhang, born poor in a rural part of China, borrowed money from three friends to start his own hotpot restaurant, quitting a factory job that paid him just US$14 a month.

The restaurant grew into an international chain that turned Zhang into a mogul, and his three investors into billionaires.

Keep reading to see what we know about the labourer-turned-billionaire:


Zhang Yong, 49, lives in Singapore and is the richest man in the country.

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Facebook/Zhang Yong

He moved his family from China to the South-east Asian country in 2018, becoming a naturalised citizen and taking up a Singapore passport.

His name, Yong, means “courage” in Mandarin.


Zhang was born in 1970 in the rural county of Jianyang, which sits in China’s south-western Sichuan province.

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TripAdvisor

In a 2019 session with members of Hangzhou business management programme at Hupan University, Zhang said his childhood was marked by poverty and hunger.

“I’m from the countryside, where rural people believe that if you take money from other people and you don’t bring benefit to them, then you are a liar,” the Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying in 2013.

Most of Haidilao’s China employees are young people from rural towns with limited education. In a 2011 interview with Chinese newspaper The Economic Observer, Zhang said: “Why is it that I can understand my employees?

“It’s because of my value system, as well as what I experienced when I was 14 or 15.”


The Chinese billionaire earned his fortune from Haidilao, a global hotpot chain with a cult following he started in Sichuan as a young adult.

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Facebook/Haidilao Singapore

In 25 years, the chain grew from one store in Zhang’s hometown to over 460 stores worldwide, with branches in the US, UK, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada, Singapore and Malaysia.

In Mandarin, haidilao means “scooping for treasure at the bottom of the sea”. Mahjong players in Sichuan also use the term to describe a lucky move where a player wins the round using the last tile available.

In a 2010 interview with Chinese show Wang Yi, Zhang said he chose the name after his wife scored a haidilao in a mahjong game, and the phrase stuck.


As a teen, Zhang educated himself by reading international books from the county library – a rare find in communist China.

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Pexels

The Economic Observer wrote that Zhang read to escape his social awkwardness as a teen.

He told the paper: “When I was 14 – when most men’s voices break – my voice didn’t break. I became unsure of myself and nervous, I didn’t dare talk to girls.

“Up until now, I still don’t know how to dance.”

Until the 1980s, the county library contained only propaganda books, but new ones were brought in from overseas between 1983 and 1984, including history books and poetry penned by famous Indian author Rabindranath Tagore.

Zhang told Economic Observer that after reading the books, he realised he was “ignorant and dull”.


He then worked as a welder in a government-run tractor factory for six years – earning 93 yuan (US$14) a month – before eating at a hotpot restaurant for the first time.

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Pixabay

The South China Morning Post reported that Zhang dropped out of high school, graduated from a vocational school in Chengdu, and then worked at a local tractor factory for six years.

One day, he decided to eat at a proper restaurant instead of the company cafeteria. But the food was sub-par and the staff were rude, leaving him convinced of the value of customer service, Bloomberg reported.


After getting into a disagreement with his employer, Zhang quit his job and borrowed money from three friends – including his wife – to open a small restaurant.

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Haidilao website

Bloomberg reported that Zhang quit the factory after being denied a company apartment he had intended to share with his then-fiancee, Shu Ping, and decided to open a hotpot restaurant.

He borrowed about 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) from Shu and friends Shi Yonghong and Li Haiyan to fund it, The Economic Observer reported.

Zhang told the paper: “I was penniless, so the others were the real investors.

“I promised the others that our assets would grow to 150,000 yuan (US$21,500) within five years. I swore that if I couldn’t manage it, I would compensate them.

“That was a huge amount of money for a group of twenty-somethings in the 1990s, so they were all a bit startled.”

Their little loan to Zhang has since made Shu, Shi and Li billionaires, according to their profiles on Forbes.


Zhang attracted customers to his four-table restaurant through free snacks and discounts, and even listened to them talk.

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Facebook/Haidilao Singapore

Zhang told Bloomberg in 2019 that he did not know how to make hotpot well, so he focused on excellent service.

“I personally made sure that any guest who came through my door would return,” he told Forbes.


Four years later, he opened his third store in the central China, but it failed.

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Facebook/Haidilao Singapore

Within months of opening, Haidilao was the largest hotpot store in Jianyang, and Zhang was able to open a second outlet.

In 1998, a friend suggested partnering up to open a third outlet in Xi’an, but the store suffered losses of 300,000 yuan within half a year, Economic Observer reported.

Zhang attributed the failure to his absence at the outlet.

“Since then, we have never partnered with others (to open stores),” the paper quoted him as saying.


Zhang didn’t have a business strategy – he just wanted to escape the poverty that had dogged his childhood.

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Pixabay

At Hupan University, Zhang recounted how a childhood friend was murdered by his own mother with rat poison after his father left their family and she couldn’t make ends meet. The mother later committed suicide.

The incident profoundly affected Zhang, whose outlook on life was forever changed.

Hupan University reported him saying: “People ask why I started Haidilao and what my business strategy was, but I didn’t have one.

“At the time, I was only thinking: I want to change my fate of being born into poverty, and have a slightly better life than the average person.”

He added: “Haidilao’s mission, vision and values are one and the same: change your life with your own two hands.”

To do this, he said, start by earning money first.


Between 2011 and 2012, Zhang returned to school and completed two MBA programmes in Beijing’s Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.

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Zhang not pictured.
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Facebook/CKGSB

Haidilao stated that Zhang’s wife Shu also returned to school to achieve two MBAs, one from the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in 2015, and another from Shanghai Jiaotong University in 2016.


Eventually, Haidilao’s reputation for incredible service shot it to fame, with customers raving about thoughtful perks like free manicures, hot towels, and even menstrual pads in female toilets.

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The Straits Times

Zhang told Forbes in 2018 that Haidilao was opening a new restaurant every three days, with outlets breaking even within one to three months.

He added that this global expansion was driven by foreigners’ curiosity in Chinese culture and food.

Read also: Haidilao is trying to take over the world with snarky robots, free snacks and hand massages, and a noodle dancer. Here’s why I loved it.


Zhang credits the chain’s ability to maintain its legendary service to a policy of promoting from within, and paying staff fairly based on their workload.

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Facebook/Haidilao US

Zhang told Bloomberg that Haidilao often promotes staff to management roles, and seldom hires outside the organisation. Its CEO Yang Xiaoli, famously started out as a waitress.

Employees get wages far higher than the industry average, as well as perks like free accommodation and apprenticeship programs – resulting in an impressively low turnover rate of 10 per cent.

Zhang said at Hupan University that as the number of customers soared, he felt it was only fair to increase salaries, as staff had heavier workloads.

He said: “The staff weren’t as happy as they could have been when the business did well, because they might have gotten a a 100 yuan raise, but put in effort worth much more than that.

“I felt that was not right… and that’s why I devised a better remuneration system in 2014.”


The billionaire’s worth exploded when Haidilao went public on the Hong Kong stock exchange in September 2018.

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Reuters

The chain raised US$963 million from the listing, which was 20 times oversubscribed, Bloomberg reported. According to Forbes, it made US$17 billion in sales last year.


Zhang moved to Singapore that same year, where he lives with his family in a bungalow worth S$27 million (US$20 million).

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K2LD Architects

The Business Times reported that Zhang’s designer abode – named “The Winged House” – is located near the Botanic Gardens, a Unesco World Heritage Site. It has two storeys, a  garden, a pool, and five bedrooms.


In 2019, Zhang’s massive wealth shot him to #1 on Forbes’ list of Singapore’s richest people, attracting the wrath of Chinese netizens who were furious the businessman had emigrated.

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Pixabay

Before emigrating, Zhang ranked 19th on Forbes’ 2018 ranking of China’s richest people, making him the country’s wealthiest restaurateur.

After the move, his incredible net worth of over US$13 billion helped him steal the top spot on Forbes’ list from property tycoons Robert and Phillip Ng, who had dominated it for the past decade with a combined net worth of US$12 billion.

The ranking, however, took Chinese netizens by surprise, as few were aware Zhang had emigrated, South China Morning Post reported.

Many called for a boycott of the chain, upset that the founder had seemingly ditched the place that made him rich.


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