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Chinese beverage billionaire Zong Qinghou passes away


 , Updated 17:39, 25-Feb-2024
A file photo of Zong Qinghou from March 3, 2011. /CFP
A file photo of Zong Qinghou from March 3, 2011. /CFP

A file photo of Zong Qinghou from March 3, 2011. /CFP

Zong Qinghou, the founder of China's top beverage company, the Hangzhou Wahaha Group, passed away on Sunday, aged 79, the company said.

On February 22, it was revealed that Zong was receiving medical treatment at a hospital for a disease.

Zong was born in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province, in December 1945 and has long been regarded as one of the landmark figures in Chinese business history. 

"Zong is a model of Chinese civilian entrepreneurship and represents the contribution and strength of China's private economy," said Yang Yiqing, curator of Zhejiang Merchants Museum, citing Zong's pragmatic entrepreneurial spirit and hard-working style.

Listed as the richest person in China by Forbes as early as 2010, his success in building a fortune from a humble background also served as an inspiration for many in the country.

Humble billionaire

A late bloomer, Zong worked mostly in farms and school-run companies before venturing into the business world at the age of 42.

He started by taking over a small drinks distributor, an endeavor that involved him personally delivering products to schools riding a tricycle, paving the way for his later founding of a food factory that would become the harbinger of Wahaha.

A year into his business adventure, Zong's factory launched its first healthy drink for children, something that became immensely popular as he took a gamble on costly TV commercials even though he didn't have enough funds.

With a commercial slogan that reverberated across China, the new drink raked in 98 million yuan ($13.7 million) in sales in 1990. As the company shot to national prominence, Wahaha production lines expanded rapidly over the next three decades, with the introduction of drinks ranging from tea beverages to bottled water.

In one of its most consequential turning points, Wahaha was embroiled in a sweeping business and legal battle with its French partner Danone in the late 2000s, drawing widespread international attention. But as the face-off dragged on, the Chinese company came out on top, eventually dominating the Chinese market.

Zong, with an estimated net worth of $5.9 billion last year ranked by Forbes as the 53rd richest in China, had been known for frugality. According to media reports, he would travel in economy class and would spend less than 50,000 yuan a year, a trait that has historically won the respect of the Chinese.

"Whether I am the richest person or not does not cause my heart to miss a beat," Zong once said. "When I initially embarked on my entrepreneurial journey, it was a battle for survival. Now that I have amassed capital, I am contributing to society. Wealth, to me, is fundamentally communal – a mere figure reflecting life's value."

A memorial service for Zong will be held on Wednesday at the company's offices in Hangzhou. 

In December 2021, Wahaha announced on its official website that Zong Fuli, daughter of Zong Qinghou, was appointed as vice chairman and general manager of Wahaha, responsible for daily work. 

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