THE ACCIDENTAL ENTREPRENEUR
The founder of Yongfoo Elite talks about his many ventures
From CHINA INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS (CIB) October 2010 Print & Web Edition
By Mina Choi
Wang Xingzheng doesn’t like to talk about money or business. Design and aesthetics is more important to him. “I’m not a businessman. To call me a businessman, you’re saying I’ve achieved something. I haven’t. I’m a designer first and foremost,” says the founder and proprietor of Yongfoo Elite, an unusual clubhouse-restaurant. Tucked away in the quietest corner of the Shanghai’s French Concession it has become a must-visit place for famous stars and heads of state.
Surrounded by his favorite antiques that he has accumulated over the years, including a bright green 1970’s leather sofa set by Gucci and a Ming-dynasty opium bed, Wang looks perfectly at home in the splendor of the sprawling mansion restaurant he created in the former residence of the British Consul General. His eclectic taste is in evidence all around Yongfoo Elite, from the elaborate chandeliers to the mosaic-tiled tables lazily placed in the half-acre garden. Velvet and lace fabrics line different pieces of antique furniture, while one wall shows off bright Tibetan colors and another holds traditional carved folding screen.
Tall and elegant, Wang’s carriage is that of a classic Shanghai gentleman. Born in Shanghai in 1952, he grew up in what he himself refers to as a ‘little bourgeois’ family who traded in silk. Being of the 1950s generation, Wang feels that he has experienced all three stages of modern Chinese development. “The first stage was the pre-Liberation life, which my family still lived in the 1950’s — life of rickshaws, going to theater and restaurants — a kind of mini-capitalist’s lifestyle; the second stage was the Cultural Revolution; and the last stage is the 30 years of economic reform,” Wang says.
He remains fond of the ‘Old Shanghai’ lifestyle, a way of life he feels is disappearing. For him, the quintessential Old Shanghai is the life of the small alleys (long tang), where neighbors would often bump into each other and chat and where children could play outside surrounded by small stalls that sold everything from stinky tofu to mini-wontons. This intimacy and the charm of the alley life is something that Wang has tried to capture with all his projects.
A FASHIONABLE CALLING
His first business venture, although he doesn’t like to call it that, started when he began designing clothes in the late 1970’s. After learning how to cut clothing patterns in vocational school, Wang started making clothes for himself. Seeing him wearing his uniquely tailored outfits, his friends would ask him to make them a copy. At that time, there weren’t many choices for fashion in China, and the stylish items that Wang had created for himself were unusual variations on the traditional Chinese outfits or the Mao suits.
“Instead of four pockets, I’d sew three pockets on the jacket. Instead of three pockets, I’d sew on two pockets. Instead of blue, I’d pick a brighter or bold hue,” he says. Wang was never proprietary about his designs, and freely showed others how to make them. The compliments never stopped coming in. “My friends would stop and say, ‘Wow—that’s quite something.’”
By the early 1980s, Wang decided he could turn his clothing designs into a business. “At that time, there was no such concept as design in China. There were no designers in China. I wanted to impact society with my clothes. I wanted to bring in change to society through fashion.”
He designed jackets, shirts and trousers and hired a local garment factory to produce the clothes. He then took his brand, which he called Sha-Er-Wei, to the few department stores that were opening in Shanghai and in Beijing as the reform and opening up policy of Deng Xiaoping began to take hold.
“All the top stores carried my clothes,” boasts Wang. Some years later, he discovered that being on the forefront of fashion at a time when people had very little choice had made him very wealthy. “I was one of the richest people in Shanghai,” Wang says. “You have to remember, back then, in the 1980s, my shirt sold for 40-50RMB each. In those days, the average monthly wage for a worker was 38RMB. Yet I managed to sell hundreds of thousands of each designed shirt, trousers, and jackets each year.”
Others copied his success. “If I was selling 100,000 units of one shirt design, then others were selling one million copies of the same shirt.” But having others copy his designs never bothered Wang, since his goal was idealistic – to keep himself amused by creating more new designs. “I design an item once, produce it once, and then I don’t bother doing it again. My goal is to surprise others and keep cultivating my creative desires.”
Although he professed himself to be very rich at the time — with annual profits of millions of RMB (‘jibaiwan’), Wang insists that he never thought about the money. “I didn’t really care about the money. Money is just a tool. It allows me to do what I want to do: to push the boundaries and do things other people won’t do.”
Building upon his success, Wang decided to create a men’s clothing label, Jun Long in the early 1990s. According to Wang, Jun Long was the only local Chinese brand to appear in the fancy department stores that had started to crop along Nanjing Road and Huai Hai Road. “My brand was one of the top five brands selling at Paris Spring Department store, Ruijin Department Store, and at Hongxiang Department store.”
But Wang suddenly came to a brusque realization in the 1990’s – he was no longer the only rich one. “With the opening of the stock market in 1990, other people were making money just investing wisely. I was running a business, creating designs, creating things, but still the value of my wealth was declining. I was just one of the many people with money.”
Although his Jun Long brand was going strong — his company had over 600 emnployees and the brand was carried in 35 department stores around the country — Wang was getting tired of the garment trade. In 1996, Wang decided to close the brand. “It got too tiring, too competitive. We were fighting against too many brands,” he explains.
True to his character, Wang closed the business down almost overnight. He says it was an emotional decision. Did he think about selling the brand or leveraging it to do something else? “My friends thought it was odd, but this is how I do things,” Wang says. And during those last years of Jun Long Wang discovered that he loved designing and fitting out the stores. “Everyone came and complimented me. They would say this is special or that this shop is a one-of-a-kind. I always tried to keep the oriental flavor and to design it to my special specifications.”
Freed from the garment business, Wang channeled his design impulses into lifestyle. “I wanted to create life spaces, creative spaces, an environment,” he says. He opened Xian Qiang Fang in 1996, the first of his eclectic restaurants, which exuded the charm of old Shanghai with unusual antiques and Art Deco elements. The menu was classic Shanghainese, but more importantly, it had an old world ambience and elegance at a time when almost every other restaurant was a hole-in-the-wall or a conventional hotel restaurant. It was instantly successful and within two years, Wang opened up two more branches in Shanghai. In 2001 he introduced another concept, a bar serving classic western food, called The Door in Hong Qiao, the western part of Shanghai.
DESIGNING A DREAM
In 2001, a rare opportunity came up: a ten-year lease on a historical property that was previously the former residence of the British Consul General. Wang spent three years renovating and decorating the place – taking everything down and starting from scratch several times until he felt it was perfect.
“Renovating Yongfoo Elite brought me three years of great happiness,” Wang says. “Sometimes I feel that it used up all my ideas for design.”
Finally in 2004, Yongfoo Elite opened for business, and almost immediately became a Shanghai institution. Yet for all its notoriety, the place doesn’t seem to be bustling with people or doing particularly great business, even on weekend nights. When asked whether he’d keep a business going if it were unprofitable, Wang waves the question off.
“All my businesses make money, but I never focus on profit. I don’t follow business rules. People have come to me and said, ‘Hey you have to leverage up the brand, expand the business, take it to IPO, but I never look at it from this angle. Now is not the time. Maybe I’ll consider this later, when I’m tired and I’ll let the others run the business. I’m simply not interested in ‘business production.’”
He talks about other restaurateurs who he says have come after him, like the owner of the Jade Garden chain in Shanghai, “He used to come frequently to my restaurants. He learned from me.” Or the owner of South Beauty, “She is amazing and very savvy business-wise, but we’re not the same, we’re not operating on the same model.”
He cautions, “What cost jibanwan ten years ago would take jiqianwan (tens of millions of RMB) now. The risks are higher being creative. You probably have one chance in a hundred to succeed. Which means you’ll most likely fail.”
Yet when asked whether he feels that he might start new businesses, he is quick to show he still has his verve: “Start-up costs are higher, but they are higher for everyone.”
For now, however, Wang is enjoying semi-retirement. He travels to a different city every week and spends a lot of time abroad. Ultimately, Wang feels that society has developed too quickly in modern China, “We need to slow down life’s rhythm. Everyone’s looking for something, and they have too many things they want, too many things that they owe, there’s too much pressure.”
When asked about what he might do with Yongfoo Elite when his ten-year lease on the building is up next year, Wang is nonplussed. “This is not my place. This place belongs to all of Shanghai, to the people of Shanghai.”
And does he see a point in the future, when he might just close all
the restaurants down, like he did with his clothing brand Jun Long?
Wang answers, “Of course. I’m capable of doing that, absolutely.”
Independent and mercurial, Wang is sure of one thing – his own
unpredictability. “I don’t like to repeat myself. I go with
my feelings. I have no idea what my feelings will be tomorrow.”
For a complete list of Business Articles by Mina Choi click HERE