Business

China's super-rich: Dai Zhikang

Shanghai-based entrepreneur Dai Zhikang has global ambitions.

The 47-year-old property developer, with a personal net worth of $1.2bn, says it is time for China to tread a global stage.

Dai is one of the most sophisticated business operators in China. His spiritual approach makes him unusual amongst China's property developers, and motivates the way he blends architecture, interior design and psychology.

With upmarket hotels and art galleries amongst its holdings, his Shanghai Zendai company is associated in the public mind with fashionable, mixed-use developments combining retail, office and residential zones.

Repaying debts

I interviewed Dai twice: the first time was at his $5m villa on the outskirts of Shanghai. As he talked, he showed us around his home and talked about his art collection. We spoke again inside his latest business venture, the 23,000 sq-m Himalaya Centre.

Dai's parents were farmers, and his early years were spent looking after their pigs and cows in Jiangsu province, the fourth of six children. But Dai's family were ambitious for him and maintained his schooling.

He won a place at Renmin University where he studied finance. The extended family paid his way, although it was hardly a princely sum. His living expenses were just $2.50 a month.

After graduation, Dai could have chosen the comfortable life of government service. That was the choice made by most of his university classmates, he says. But, he tells us, he had to repay his family loans, and this was the dawn of the "opening-up period", as the Chinese call the moment when they began the transition from communism to capitalism.

Finance to property

Dai went into banking, where he learnt the elements of finance that were to serve him well in expanding his property empire.

It was arriving in Shanghai to start his first job that led him to enter the property business, he says. He could see there was a gap in the market for real estate that was more than just functional, as most Chinese development was.

He had no regrets about leaving the world of banking behind him.

"As soon as everyone starts wanting to become a banker," he told a newspaper years later, "it is a good time to leave. The truth often lies with the minority."

But his time in finance certainly taught him about financial probity. When his first business went bust, Dai promised to repay every creditor and fulfilled his pledge.

China awakening

Dai is a collector of modern Chinese art and has a established a museum in his new Himalaya Center to house the collection. He also collects rare ancient scrolls and sculptures.

As he shows us one of his rarest scrolls during filming, he tells us about the way China is awakening to the outside world.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Mr Dai's story is the jeopardy of his own business.

He recently doubled the asset base with a 10bn-yuan purchase of a property in Shanghai's fashionable Bund district.

As the government tightens credit in the economy, hiking interest rates to tackle rising inflation, highly-leveraged businesses may suffer.

But Dai is comfortable with the risk, because of the strength of the market, but also because it's a decision he says he made from his heart.