How the world’s wealthiest slip in and out of the billionaire club
History is uncertain whether it was John D Rockefeller or Henry Ford who became the world’s first billionaire in the early 20th century. It might be an arbitrary distinction, but ever since then generations of entrepreneurs have lusted after membership of the three-comma club.
With some 2,200 members this year, that club is not as exclusive as it used to be. It also has something of a revolving door. The tribulations of the stock market shunt people back and forth across the billionaire line with surprising frequency. The research firm Wealth-X identified 10 people who had remarkably dramatic swings in or out of billionaire status in the past year. Most made or lost their fortunes in China, which is now home to more billionaires than any other country.
FT Wealth details the world’s newly minted billionaires and profiles those who have just slipped out of the club.
Wang Jian, gene sequencing. Net worth 2017: $190m. Net worth 2018: $3.4bn. Change: 1,689 per cent
Wang Jian is no stranger to success. Before becoming an instant billionaire on the day his company, BGI, went public, Wang had already earned a PhD, climbed to the summit of Mount Everest and made unprecedented advances in sequencing the human genome. Born in Shenzhen, China, across the border from Hong Kong, then a city of a few thousand, Wang studied in Denmark and did postdoctoral research in genomics at the University of Texas and the University of Iowa. In 1999, he co-founded BGI, which later moved its headquarters to Shenzhen, now home to more than 10m people. Wang’s stake in the company, now billed as the world’s leading gene sequencer, makes up most of his estimated $3.4bn net worth.
Wang Zhenhua, property. Net worth 2016: $770m. Net worth 2017: $3.1bn. Change: 302 per cent
Wang Zhenhua pulled success from the jaws of disappointment this year when, frustrated by poor performance, he offered to buy back shares in his Hong Kong-listed property company and take the company private. Investors rejected the offer, but Future Land Developments’ share price jumped at the news, landing Wang a spot in the billionaires’ club. The company is one of several property concerns that are trying to get off the HKEX and seek better returns on a mainland exchange.
Zhang Yaoyuan, property. Net worth 2017: $450m. Net worth 2018: $1.8bn. Change: 300 per cent
Zhang Yaoyuan rocketed into billionaire status in 2007 as one of five leading shareholders in the property company Country Garden. The company’s successful IPO made the family of its chairman Yeung Kwok-keung the richest in China with more than $16bn, making Zhang’s $1.4bn look modest in comparison. That year was a milestone for China’s mega rich. The country more than quadrupled its ranks of billionaires from 15 to 66 and their combined net worth more than doubled. But 2007 was also a bad year to be riding high in property.
The global financial crisis cost Zhang nearly 90 per cent of his fortune. In the following decade, Country Garden’s share price remained at a fraction of its former value — although the company built millions of homes across China and expanded aggressively in Thailand and Malaysia. The company has only recently regained its pre-crash value, with its stock price more than tripling in 2017.
Perenna (Hoi Ting) Kei, inheritance. Net worth 2017: $860m. Net worth 2017: $3.3bn. Change: 283 per cent
Chinese heiress Perenna Kei was named the world’s youngest billionaire in 2014, then aged 24, after it was reported that her father, Kei Hoi Pang, had given her nominal ownership of the family property empire, Logan Properties. The South China Morning Post uncovered the byzantine offshore arrangement, which led another publication to dub Kei a “human tax dodge”.
A London School of Economics graduate and Hong Kong resident (with a handy citizenship of Saint Kitts and Nevis), Kei faded from public view after her father reportedly took back full control of the family trust fund. But Wealth-X estimates that Kei is a billionaire once again this year, after a surge in Logan Properties’ stock price. Kei remains a non-executive director of the company, which owns valuable plots in Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore.
Zhang Xuanning, groceries. Net worth 2017: $720m. Net worth 2018: $1.5bn. Change 108 per cent
Grocery store magnate Zhang Xuanning’s net worth more than doubled in 2017 largely thanks to his role as a proxy in a showdown between Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba.
The two technology companies have both made moves into bricks-and-mortar retail in the past year, prompting comparisons to Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. Yonghui Superstores, the supermarket chain founded by Zhang and his brother in 2001, is one of the largest in China but holds only a small share of the country’s $1.3tn grocery market.
Yang Kai, dairy. Net worth 2017: $2.8bn. Net worth 2018: $500m. Change: -82 per cent
Once considered the cream of the Chinese dairy market, business has soured for Yang Kai’s Huishan Dairy. Yang rose through the ranks of a state-owned dairy and took control of the company when it was privatised, renaming it Huishan. The business prospered in the early 2000s dairy boom after China’s then-premier Wen Jiabao endorsed dairy consumption. It made Kai the richest man in his home province of Liaoning.
But with tougher conditions since 2015, Yang increased his own stake in the company from half to nearly three-quarters, keeping the share price up, while pledging 71 per cent of the company’s shares as collateral for loans.
The wheels came off the milk float last March after rumours of embezzlement by an unnamed investor (which the company denied). Shares fell by 85 per cent in a single day, wiping $4.1bn from the company’s market cap. The business was bought out by Friesland Campina, a Dutch dairy company, in March 2018.
Zhang Changhong, financial data services. Net worth 2017: $1.6bn. Net worth 2018: $700m. Change: -56 per cent
Zhang Changhong has been in and out of the billionaire club over the past decade. He first made the cut in 2011 after making $1.1bn in his company’s IPO, but fell off the list the following year thanks to disappointing earnings. The 60-year-old’s company, Shanghai DHZ (formerly Shanghai Great Wisdom), sells financial information and software. It even offers a financial terminal to compete with Bloomberg’s $25,000-a-year workstation.
By 2015, Zhang had climbed back into the ranks of the billionaires with an impressive net worth of $3.5bn. Since then, things have gone south for the Shanghai- based tycoon. The company lost more than half its value in the summer of 2015. Zhang’s net worth fell to $1.6bn in 2016 and he dropped out of billionaire status last year.
He Zhitao, technology. Net worth 2017: $1.1bn. Net worth 2018: $560m. Change: -49 per cent
He Zhitao earned billionaire status in 2015 at the age of just 33, after building two successful software companies, Hangzhou Liaison Interactive Information Technology and Beijing Digital Grid. Both businesses have stuck mostly to less glamorous back-end software development, rather than consumer-facing products. Nevertheless, He made a little more than a billion dollars when Hangzhou listed in 2015.
Since then, the company has taken on some high-profile subsidiaries, including the American computer-parts retailer Newegg and the Chinese live-streaming platform Banli. Meanwhile, He’s fortunes have slumped after falling profits prompted a sell-off midway through last year.
Abigail Wexner, fashion retail. Net worth 2017: $1.1bn. Net worth 2018: $570m. Change: -48 per cent
Abigail Wexner made her name as a lawyer in London and New York before marrying Les Wexner, the businessman who famously bought Victoria’s Secret for $1m in 1982 and turned it into a global powerhouse that now turns over close to $8bn a year. Through L Brands, the Wexners own three lingerie lines plus Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel and White Barn Candle. Abigail Wexner sits on the board of the company and several others as well as non-profits, including Ohio State University.
To relax, the couple make an annual trip from their home in Columbus, Ohio, to their £20m shooting estate in the UK’s Cotswolds area. Wexner may need the break. Profits have been tight in the underwear business lately, thanks to stiff competition and an overall slip in bricks and mortar retail. Although Wealth-X estimates that Wexner’s personal holdings have fallen out of the billionaire bracket, her husband’s reported wealth still tops $5bn, leaving the couple with more than enough to retire on when the time comes.
Jorge Gallardo, pharmaceuticals. Net worth 2017: $1.1bn. Net worth 2018: $600m. Change: -45 per cent
Barcelona native Jorge Gallardo has spent his whole career serving the pharmaceutical company founded by his father, Antonio Gallardo Carrera, in 1944. The company, Almirall, is now best known for its range of acne treatments and skincare products.
Gallardo came under pressure to sell his family’s 62 per cent stake in 2013, amid challenging times for healthcare companies in southern Europe as governments moved to control costs. Despite calls to consolidate his company with other medium-sized family concerns, Gallardo insisted that he would pass Almirall down to the next generation. Hardly surprising, if you consider that he has worked for the company for 53 years. After earning a PhD in industrial engineering, Gallardo rose through the company to become chief executive in 1997. Almirall hit a rough patch in 2017, with revenue down 12 per cent, thanks in part to lower-priced generic manufacturers.
Net worth estimates from Wealth-X are calculated as of January 2017 and March 2018
This is one of a series of articles published in advance of the appearance of the May 4 edition of FT Wealth.