Cao Dewang became the biggest Chinese investor in Ohio this year when Fuyao Glass, the car glass manufacturer that he founded in 1987, spent $200m buying an old General Motors factory in Dayton.
Few people outside China have heard of Mr Cao even though Fuyao supplies everyone from Toyota, VW and Ford to BMW, Daimler and Bentley. Its founder has been catapulted into the ranks of the wealthiest Chinese, with assets of $1.14bn, according to the 2013 Hurun China rich list.
Mr Cao would be richer still were he not one of his country’s most generous philanthropists, having donated about $1.3bn across 2011 and 2012, including to the Heren Foundation, a charity he created.
“The more I donate, the more I realise how little use I have for money,” he says. “It should be shared with others or used to educate children.”
While he may be at the vanguard of philanthropy in China, he started parting with his cash for unusual reasons that underscored the challenges of running a private business in China in the early years of the national economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. “In the beginning, I was punished during a local party campaign, which really scared me,” says Mr Cao, explaining that he thought he might lose his assets. “So I donated all the money that was in my name.”
Mr Cao, who is also known by his Cantonese name, Cho Tak-wong, boasts the kind of rags-to-riches tale that is becoming increasingly common in China as it emerges as an economic powerhouse. He was born in Shanghai in 1946 to a wealthy business family from Fujian province. The next year his family fled back to Fujian as the communists moved closer to Shanghai in the final years of the Chinese civil war. Mr Cao says they became poor almost overnight after being swindled along the way. “My father bought a boat and loaded up all our possessions. But we returned to Fujian on a cruise ship because the other boat was too small and we were worried about getting seasick,” he explains. But when his family arrived in Fujian, the boat carrying their possessions failed to join them. “We had hired someone to bring it back, but it never arrived. He said it sank.”
After losing everything, his family was forced to farm for a living. Mr Cao says he started school aged nine, but had to quit at 14 because his family could no longer afford to send him. He ended up herding oxen. “Back then, farming was really hard, nothing like today. We didn’t even have enough to eat,” Mr Cao says in an interview in the comfort of the Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong. “My dream was just to leave that place, I just had to escape”.
He began to educate himself, using a dictionary to learn the thousands of Chinese characters needed to read the language. But he also started his first business, buying and selling tobacco leaves to escape poverty.
“I made two or three renminbi a day,” says Mr Cao, adding that he had to find ways to avoid the police as private enterprises were banned. “I was caught many times, but I had no choice as my father was not able to farm. This was our only way out.”
During the cultural revolution – the violent, tumultuous decade unleashed by Mao Zedong on China from 1966 – Mr Cao started selling fruit at a time when people denounced as “capitalist roaders” were being killed.
“I had little trouble doing business during the cultural revolution,” says Mr Cao. “It was actually much easier as there was no government. There were rules and regulations but there was no government to enforce them.”
After the cultural revolution he found a job at a factory that made glass for water meters. Then, in 1983, he got a break when the local government agreed to sell him the enterprise because it was losing money. He bought it with his savings from trading tobacco, fruit and other goods, and managed to turn a profit of Rmb200,000 within a year.
“No one dared to take over the factory, as it was run by the Communist party,” says Mr Cao, adding that he owed his rise to Deng’s economic overhaul – with new reforms being rolled out during the early 1980s. “At the time, no one believed the party was serious about reform. I was lucky the government introduced them after I took over the factory, as otherwise I would have spent Chinese new year in prison.”
He continued making water meter glass but in 1985 changed tack after learning that Japanese companies were making glass for cars in China. They were selling glass for several thousand renminbi, which he thought was “shameless”. He was able to produce panels for Rmb50, which he sold for Rmb1,500, generating a far higher profit margin than he had earned previously.
In 1993, he listed Fuyao, which is based in Fujian province, on the Shanghai stock exchange. It started trading at about Rmb1.3, soared as high as Rmb19.19 before the global financial crisis, and today fetches about Rmb8. Last year it had revenues of $11.4bn, while earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation were $3.4bn.
Within a few years of listing, Mr Cao had persuaded Honda and Volkswagen to become customers, helped by a Chinese rule that 40 per cent of the components in cars produced in China had to be made by local companies.
Chinese companies have enjoyed variable reputations for quality but Mr Cao is adamant that he dealt with that challenge early on. “In order to supply Honda and Volkswagen, your quality absolutely had to be as good as them,” he says. “Now we are the biggest producer of car glass in the world.”
Mr Cao puts his success down to the penchant for hard work he developed when he was poor, saying he worked 16 hours a day, every day of the year for more than two decades.
But one more goal remains, says Mr Cao. While Fuyao employs more than 10,000 people around the globe, he wants to turn his hand to expanding in the US, and will start by creating 800 jobs in Dayton.
“I want to build a Fuyao for the American people, as the country’s car glass industry is in decline,” he says.
Mr Cao now enjoys some leisure time having handed the chief executive reins to his son, and likes reading. He is carrying several Chinese business magazines, but says he enjoys a Buddhist tome called the Diamond Sutra. He also plays golf, and smiles when asked if his competitive spirit has carried over on to the golf course. “I never count the strokes, but I am always the champion as I play by myself.”
Additional reporting by Julie Zhu
曹德旺今年成为了在美国俄亥俄州投资手笔最大的中国人，因为他于1987年创立的汽车玻璃生产商福耀玻璃(Fuyao Glass)斥资2亿美元，收购了通用汽车(General Motors)位于俄亥俄州代顿市(Dayton)的一家老工厂。
在中国以外的地区，很少有人听说过曹德旺，虽然福耀玻璃为丰田(Toyota)、大众(VW)、福特(Ford)、宝马(BMW)、戴姆勒(Daimler)、宾利(Bentley)等许多汽车企业供货。2013年的胡润中国富豪榜(Hurun Chinese rich list)显示，福耀玻璃的创始人曹德旺已进入中国顶级富豪行列，身家达到11.4亿美元。
在失去了一切以后，他家被迫种地谋生。曹德旺说，他9岁上学，但14岁就不得不辍学，因为家里供不起了。结果，他成了放牛娃。在香港舒适的香格里拉酒店(Shangri-La hotel)里接受采访时，曹德旺说：“那时候种田非常辛苦，跟你们（现在）种田是两种概念。连饭都没有吃饱。（我当时的梦想是） 离开那个地方，一定要离开那个地方。”