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The founder of China's rich list talks about the fine art of measuring wealth

From CHINA INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS December 2009 Print & Web Edition


By Mina Choi


It's difficult to pin Rupert Hoogewerf down. The founder and the chairman of the immensely popular Hurun Report, otherwise known as China's Rich List, is too busy managing his growing enterprise to stay in one place for long. If he is not opening the third annual Royal Salute Polo Championship at the luxurious Nine Dragons Polo Club overlooking Hangzhou Bay in Zhejiang, then he is running off to the city of Ningbo to receive a thousand guests for the announcement of this year's Hurun Philanthropy List. When he finally returns to his office in Lujiazui, Pudong, inside one of the new, shiny high-rises adjacent to the HSBC tower in Shanghai, he greets unannounced visitors from Inner Mongolia who have come to request a correction about their company partnership reported in the 2009 list. After examining the evidence provided by the visitors, Hoogewerf updates his vast database of information to clarify that shares in their company are held by two brothers and a business partner instead of three brothers, as was originally reported. He then politely ushers them out.

Now 39, Hoogewerf was born and raised in Luxemburg until the age of 11, and then completed his schooling at Eton College, the bastion of elite education in Britain. Good looking enough to be a poster boy, and nimble enough to react to a trend, Hoogewerf has carved out a unique position for himself in China. Not only is the Hurun Report — Hurun is Hoogewerf's Chinese name — going strong in its eleventh year, it has become the definitive guide to China's rich. Mentioned and referenced more frequently in China than both Forbes and local rival Xin Caifu combined, over the past 10 years the Hurun brand has become tightly linked to the emergence and celebration of private wealth in China. For Hoogewerf, this is perfect market positioning, and it is even more impressive for a business that started out as a hobby.


From Hoogewerf to Hurun was not an obvious path. As a child in Luxemburg, Hoogewerf grew up the son of accountants – his father had an accounting practice that specialized in tax advisory. After Eton, Hoogewerf entered Durham University intent on studying French and German (he is fluent in both), but a detour to Japan turned him on to China. "Chinese language for East Asia is what Latin is for Europe," he says. And in 1990 he registered for a year at Renmin University in Beijing to hone his Chinese language skills. Hoogewerf then returned to the UK to get a qualified chartered accountant degree, and subsequently joined Arthur Anderson Consulting in London. Asked why he decided to get an accountancy degree, Hoogewerf displays his pragmatic side: "Professional training is a great insurance policy." His accountancy training became a great asset several years later when he started to research and tabulate the net worth of China's rich. After a few years in London, however, Hoogewerf moved with Anderson to Shanghai. "Beijing was too polluted and Hong Kong was not pioneering enough so I chose Shanghai," he explains. And when he talks about his days at Anderson, Hoogewerf is almost nostalgic: "For four years, I was salaried without responsibilities."

Hoogewerf started the Hurun Report on a whim while working at Anderson. At the time, Hoogewerf had a weekly Chinese lesson in which he and his tutor explored topics ranging from Chinese culture to James Bond. One day he asked the teacher to come up with a list of private entrepreneurs. She couldn't. Strangely enough, both Hoogewerf and the Chinese teacher found that it was almost impossible to get information on private entrepreneurs. "In the West, you can consult a wide source of information, such as a list of charities certain people contributed to, or an assortment of biographies, or by tracking art donations," Hoogewerf says. "But in China there was no such information available." And so a project was born. In the early days he and his interns had to rely on domestic news clippings — "photographs of private entrepreneurs taken with Jiang Zemin or the Clintons during his visit in 1998" — and financial and ownership information on listed companies in the newspaper to compile their list. The first list, in 1999, had just fifty names. Forbes Global agreed to publish it, and it became an instant hit. After the second annual publication of the Rich List, Hoogewerf resigned from Arthur Anderson to work on it full time.

Following the publication of the first list, Hoogewerf envisioned himself mostly as a researcher. He crafted what he had learned developing his Hurun Report into a series of lectures described as, "If Mao Only Knew . . . the stories of these entrepreneurs tell the story of modern China," and embarked on a 15-country tour, lecturing at over 20 universities. Hoogewerf says he earned very little from this, "I spent a lot of time on people's floors." Yet he knew he was onto something. "This was a new angle to understanding modern China," he says. "The stock exchange had just opened. The private economy was growing at a record pace. We broke the taboo of talking about wealth." Hoogewerf then decided to turn his research engine, the Hurun Report, into a business. "We were losing money letting Forbes publish our list," he says. "I was forced into it to make a living."


Many on the Hurun Rich List are now household names and celebrities. Even the state-owned media has embraced this celebration of wealth in China, giving the list plenty of coverage. "We've created a revolution in the image of wealth in China," Hoogewerf says. The list has also introduced the international world to colorful Chinese millionaires, such as Liu Yongxing, "the pig-feet king," who made his millions from selling pig's feet.

However, even from year one, being ‘outed' as a wealthy individual on the Hurun list was a double-edged sword. Some simply don't like the publicity. The Hurun research team was finally able to put Duan Yongping on the top 100 list when he purchased more than 5% of Nasdaq-listed NetEase. In 2003, Duan Yongping came in at number 83 on the Hurun list, with a net worth of USD 120 million. When he found himself on the list, Hoogewerf says Duan told him that to avoid being tracked by Hurun he would never buy more than 5% of any Nasdaq-listed company's shares.

Others have suffered the "Rich List Curse" – with a growing line of entrepreneurs who have fallen quickly from grace after being featured on the list. Property magnate and orchid grower Yang Bin made the list in 2001. The following year he was arrested and sentenced to 18 years in jail for tax evasion – although insiders suggest it was also partly due to his efforts to set up a Special Economic Zone in North Korea without going through proper protocol. Huang Guangyu, of Gome, was arrested last year on charges of manipulating the stock market shortly after his net worth of USD 6.3 billion put him at the top of the 2008 List. And now, just one month after the release of the 2009 list it has been reported that number 88, Huang Shannian, chairman of the Zhonji Group, is under arrest on suspicion of bribery.

Despite the excitement and controversy that his rich list generates every year, Hoogewerf also admits that it is not absolutely conclusive. "The numbers are estimates, and we don't cover low- lying tax evaders," he says. He won't elaborate further and he keeps the Hurun Report's wealth-evaluating formula a tightly-guarded secret. Hoogewerf does have some vocal detractors, not least many of the wealthy who suddenly find themselves on the list for the first time, and any quick look through the blogosphere shows critics who are dismissive of both Hoogewerf and the Hurun Report.


The Hurun Report faces ongoing challenges from competitors, such as Forbes, Fortune and Xin Caifu, who Hoogewerf says never hesitate to copy his most successful initiatives. "Forbes copied our Philanthropy List lock, stock and barrel in 2003," insists Hoogewerf. A myriad of other magazines tapping into the exploding luxury sector in China also offer some stiff competition.

Hoogewerf tries to stay one step ahead of the pack by making research his number one priority. Just this year, Hurun's research team issued a report stating that China now has more than 100 US dollar billionaires; 50,000 people worth USD 10 million or more, and an astonishing 825,000 people worth at least USD 1 million – a great potential market for those who can mine it. He says he also tries to anticipate the services and information that billionaires want. Whether it is the Philanthropy List, or the Horse Supplement, the Watches Issue, the Art List, or sponsoring a polo tournament, Hoogewerf tries to make sure that the rich need look no further than him for advice on matters of luxury.

His efforts seem to have paid off. Despite the rising number of competitors, Hurun's name recognition, at least in China, continues to grow each year. In September, the Shanghai municipal government even awarded Hoogewerf the prestigious Magnolia Award for his contribution to the city.

Although Hoogewerf himself admits that the first five years were difficult, now the Hurun Report publishes more than 20 magazines annually – "We're profitable and we're growing." He also says the pivotal Rich List boasts a circulation of 90,000, and estimates the total number of readers to be more than 500,000. In addition, Hurun generates further revenue by developing themed events for Hurun Report clients — brands targeting China's rich — that aim to attract the entrepreneurs featured on the Rich List. Last month in Beijing, he says 25 individuals from the list attended Hurun's annual "Entrepreneurs Summit" and "Most Respected Entrepreneurs Awards Dinner."


There are still a few challenges. Hoogewerf admits that even Hurun wasn't immune to the decline in ad spending in 2009. A bigger issue is that Hoogewerf, the person, has become inextricably linked to his own enterprise, making his presence at many of the functions a necessity. "I've been trying to disassociate myself personally from Hurun," he says, but it seems so far unsuccessfully. When asked whether the constant consorting with the über-wealthy has changed his perspective on life, Hoogewerf offers a surprising answer: "For every yiyi (hundred million RMB) that people on my list make, I make yiwan (ten thousand RMB). But how much money do you need in life really? Unless you want to buy a yacht or a race horse, a really amazing house wouldn't cost more than RMB 20 million RMB in Shanghai. If you have 10-15 million net worth, then you can be financially independent."

Despite the sentiments of his worst detractors, Hoogewerf will probably stick around for a while, and keep divulging the names of newly minted individuals whether they like it or not. As Hoogewerf says, "The list deals with people; it will always be interesting because people are unpredictable."

For a complete list of Business Articles by Mina Choi click HERE