China Vanke founder Wang Shi on his tran­si­tion from ty­coon to ma­ture-age stu­dent and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist

Prop­erty devel­oper Wang Shi talks to Sheng Kai about his tran­si­tion from busi­ness ty­coon to ma­ture stu­dent and com­mit­ted en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

f wang shi were a char­ac­ter in a novel you were read­ing, you would scoff, put the book down and think no­body could be that ac­com­plished in real life. The founder and chair­man of China Vanke, one of the big­gest residential real es­tate de­vel­op­ers in the world, is one of the rich­est men in Asia. While amass­ing his for­tune in Main­land China, he has some­how found the time to pub­lish four books, be­come a vis­it­ing scholar at nu­mer­ous univer­si­ties, earn a master’s de­gree from Har­vard, scale Mount Ever­est twice, trek to the North and South Poles, and fight for en­vi­ron­men­tal causes around China.

“I’ve al­ways been quite an en­er­getic and in­quis­i­tive man,” says 64-year-old Wang from his home in Shang­hai. “When I turned 60, I de­cided to go to Har­vard. I think it’s es­sen­tial to stay cu­ri­ous about life and the best way to do that is to take your­self out of your com­fort zone. I lived a monas­tic life for the three years I was there. It wasn’t easy to over­come the lan­guage bar­rier, so I turned down all so­cial in­vi­ta­tions and fo­cused purely on my stud­ies. It was a won­der­ful time though. My thoughts, view­points and ex­pres­sions all shifted.”

Wang’s tran­si­tion from busi­ness ty­coon to ma­ture stu­dent had been on the cards for a while. His first ven­ture into academia was in 2009, when he was in­vited to lec­ture on busi­ness man­age­ment at the Hong Kong Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, which was fol­lowed by stints in Bei­jing, Sin­ga­pore and Cam­bridge. Dur­ing that time, he climbed Mount Ever­est for the sec­ond time, aged 60, earn­ing the ac­co­lade of be­ing the old­est Chi­nese na­tional to make it to the sum­mit. “Be­ing on the roof of the world is the most in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence. It makes you ap­pre­ci­ate the majesty of na­ture.”

A love of the nat­u­ral world has been the driv­ing force be­hind much of Wang’s re­cent work. He founded the So­ci­ety of En­trepreneurs in 2004, one of the largest en­vi­ron­men­tal-pro­tec­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions in China. Along­side Jewish and East Asian history, the ty­coon also stud­ied ur­ban plan­ning and the eco­nomic poli­cies of new energy dur­ing his time at Har­vard. “I be­lieve the era of mass de­mo­li­tion and mass con­struc­tion is over. Chi­nese cities now need to es­tab­lish them­selves as green cities. To­day, all residential prop­er­ties built by Vanke meet the high­est sus­tain­abil­ity stan­dards; they save wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, energy re­sources, con­crete and tim­ber, with less waste gen­er­a­tion and energy con­sump­tion. We own a lot of land in Shen­zhen and we are hop­ing to turn it into a greener, more en­vi­ron­men­tally aware city over the next decade. Shen­zhen’s trans­for­ma­tion will be sig­nif­i­cant, as many Chi­nese cities are mod­elled on it.”

Wang’s fo­cus may cur­rently be on the main­land, but like most en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, his vi­sion is global. “In the be­gin­ning I was very aware of my Chi­nese back­ground, but I’m in­clined to think of my­self as a world citizen now. Although 95 per cent of Vanke’s con­struc­tion takes place in China, the tim­ber is from Latin Amer­ica and Africa, and we’re de­stroy­ing their trop­i­cal rain­forests. The more I travel, the more I re­alise that we ur­gently need to work out what we can do to lessen our im­pact on our planet.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists around the world have lauded the ty­coon for his work. WWF se­nior vice-pres­i­dent Julie Miller said in an email in­ter­view, “Wang Shi thor­oughly un­der­stands the insep­a­ra­ble bond be­tween a healthy en­vi­ron­ment and a healthy busi­ness ven­ture. His knowl­edge of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment and his ded­i­ca­tion to green con­struc­tion will soon ex­ert a ma­jor in­flu­ence on global busi­ness tran­si­tions.”

So what ad­vice does the ty­coon-turne­den­vi­ron­men­tal­ist have for the rest of us? “Ev­ery­one can live a mean­ing­ful and ful­fill­ing life,” he says. “You must have con­crete goals and you should never be con­tent with where you are now—al­ways pur­sue a bet­ter life. You also need a strong set of mo­rals and val­ues, both on a hu­man and a busi­ness level. Know that life is lim­ited, so do some­thing that you can be proud of.”

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