The Chinese company founder aiming to be Warren Buffett
- 13 May 2014
- From the section Business
If you live in the West you've probably never heard of Guo Guangchang - or Fosun, the company he founded and now chairs.
But if Mr Guo has his way that is likely to change - and soon.
In just two decades he has transformed Fosun into one of China's most powerful companies.
The Hong Kong-listed conglomerate spans insurance, industrial operations, investments and asset management. Last year it had revenues of 51 billion yuan (£4.8bn; $8.2bn) and its investment arm managed about $7bn (£4.1bn) in capital, according to its annual report.
Now Mr Guo is on a mission to become the Eastern equivalent of US investment legend Warren Buffett, transforming Fosun into a top asset management company.
"Our goal is very clear. We need to create a Buffett-style investment company, rooted in China but with global capabilities," he tells the BBC.
At first glance, Mr Guo - a bespectacled, modest and softly-spoken man who practises Tai Chi daily - seems an unlikely candidate to become the East's answer to the Sage of Omaha.
Yet at the start of this year, he managed to trump US private equity firm Apollo Global Management in a one billion euro (£814m) deal to take control of Portugal's largest insurer Caixa Seguros e Saude.
At the time, Mr Guo hailed the deal as "a solid step for Fosun to evolve into Warren Buffett's model".
It is Mr Buffett's investment firm Berkshire Hathaway's skill at picking good investments and its success at generating money for long-term investments in larger firms via its insurance investments that Mr Guo wants to emulate, but with a Chinese twist.
Fosun's strategy is to invest in foreign firms that want to establish a presence in China using its position as a "China expert" to help drive their expansion.
It also invests in Chinese firms that stand to benefit from the country's growing middle class and consequent increase in consumer spending.
It already owns several local insurance firms, and recently bought silver skyscraper One Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan for $725m - the largest acquisition of an overseas real estate asset to date by a Chinese investor - and Lloyds Chambers in London for £64.5m.
Yet the firm's roots are a far cry from these lofty goals. Mr Guo started the company alongside three founders in 1992 with just $4,000. It began as a small pharmaceutical company, although it rapidly expanded into real estate.
In those early days Mr Guo, who himself had grown up in a rural area in Zhejiang and whose parents had scrimped and saved to put him through college, just wanted to make some money to help provide a better standard of living for his parents.
"There was nothing so high and noble at the beginning," he says.
The firm's initial expansion was rapid - it bought lots of different businesses to establish itself as a conglomerate - before deciding to refocus the firm as an investment manager.
Mr Guo says the fact it was no longer able to operate the businesses it was buying itself drove the shift. "As we started to run two to three businesses, it became clear to us that we could no longer operate the businesses ourselves. So we redefined Fosun as an investment company," he says.
Even when Fosun owns a company entirely, Mr Guo says its strategy is to look at the business as if it were a shareholder. "My team or myself cannot run the businesses on a daily basis. Our task was to design strategy, and let better teams manage the business."
This shift also drove it to look beyond China to give it a "global perspective and capability".
Its track record of investments abroad helped it to persuade foreign firms that it was "the best partner for global companies to develop business in China," says Mr Guo.
With the transition, Mr Guo's role has changed dramatically as well. From starting out as a salesman with his sole focus being to generate an income he is now the main decision maker, which he says is "challenging".
"I am the one making investment decisions ultimately, no matter how many people provide information to me. My decisions might be wrong. But I have to play this role. I can't run away from the responsibility," he says.
The results so far suggest Mr Guo's decisions have tended to be right. The Forbes list of world billionaires ranks the 47-year-old 347th with an estimated net worth of $4.4bn thanks to his majority stake in the firm.
He has a while to go before he matches Mr Buffett, however, who is ranked third on the Forbes list with a net worth of $65.1bn.
But Mr Guo has no plans to step back just yet.
"The core capability of an investment company is decision making. I play a central role in Fosun. Likewise I believe Buffett plays the most important role in his company."
This feature is based on interviews by leadership expert Steve Tappin for the BBC's CEO Guru series, produced by Neil Koenig and Evy Barry.