By Esther Teo
The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network.
While shattering glass ceilings in a rags-to-riches story has earned Zhou Qunfei the title of China’s richest woman, it is not without irony that her meteoric rise to success is built on manufacturing glass itself.
Once a poor factory worker in southern Shenzhen city, Zhou, 45, is today chairman and president of Hunan-based Lens Technology, which makes touch- sensitive glass covers for mobile phones, computers and cameras.
She is worth US$7.6 billion and her name these days is often mentioned in the same breath as entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba who is worth $24.5 billion.
Zhou’s wealth soared after her company’s debut on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange last month.
Its shares surged by their daily limit for 10 straight days, bringing her wealth to $7.6 billion last Tuesday.
The figure surpassed the $7.1 billion fortune held by real estate investor Chan Laiwa.
The richest person in China is energy tycoon Li Hejun, worth $26 billion.
But the first half of Zhou’s life was more a nightmare than a billionaire’s dream.
Born into extreme poverty in a small village in central Hunan province, her mother left when she was just five years old while her father became almost blind after an industrial accident.
But this only toughened her resolve to succeed and at 20 years old, she headed to manufacturing hub Shenzhen and found work in a glass-processing factory where she made glass for watches.
“Although our family was poor, I’ve always had a high level of self-esteem because my father and my grandmother always doted on me,” Zhou had said in earlier interviews.
Unhappy with her monotonous job, however, she handed in her resignation letter after three months only for her bosses to promote her to a new department instead.
It was possibly their surprise that a young girl from a rural village was able to write well that made them take notice of her, Zhou said in media reports.
From then on, she quickly rose up the ranks to become the director of the entire manufacturing operation, before deciding to set up her own glass manufacturing company in 1993 when she was just 22 years old.
But things have not always been smooth sailing and Zhou revealed that she launched 11 failed companies before hitting pay dirt in 2003 with Lens Technology, around the same time she decided to go into making screen glass for mobile phones.
“Twice I even had to sell my house in order to pay my employees salary,” she had said.
Zhou often credits her success to her dogged persistence, although the stress, from jostling with jealous competitors that led to the firm’s supply of raw materials being cut off, almost drove her to suicide on one occasion.
“Much like climbing a mountain, it’s not your physical strength that will get you to the top, but your tenacity and persistence,” she said in an interview on a television show after her company was listed.
She revealed that in earlier days when the company was trying to earn the trust of its clients, she stayed over at her factory for three consecutive nights, personally conducting quality tests to ensure that high standards were met.
Zhou’s efforts have clearly paid off with Lens Technology achieving a revenue of $3.3 billion in 2013, according to Bloomberg. It also has 80,000 employees.
The company is a supplier to multinational firms such as Apple and Samsung, with its glass covers said to be used in one of every five of the world’s smartphones.
But Zhou, who has a daughter with her former husband, has not forgotten her humble beginnings and those who have helped her along the way.
She invited a former language teacher who had encouraged her to study to a pre-stock market listing party for her company.
“If it wasn’t for my primary school teacher reminding me to be observant, I may not have had the inspiration to think of my invention,” she said, referring to the patented, scratch-proof screens that have made billions for the company.
These were inspired by the way rain falls onto lotus leaves and then rolls off without a trace — a memory from her childhood years growing up in a rural village.
While there have been rumours that she achieved her current success by sleeping with her bosses in her younger days and poaching customers from the first company she worked for, Zhou brushed them off.
“For those who don’t know me and would believe these rumours, there’s no use for me to explain myself — and also no need for me to do so,” she had said.