In an age where billionaires represent the pinnacle of financial success, one entrepreneur stands out for banking on a product unique to Asian culture — and now enjoyed by customers in about 600 locations worldwide.
With a current net worth of $12.2 billion, Zhang Yong, 49, has become the richest man in Singapore, all thanks to his hot pot empire Haidilao.
Like many self-made billionaires, Zhang had humble beginnings. For one, he never finished high school.
Starting out, he didn’t know how to prepare the famous Sichuan hot pot, which would become Haidilao’s signature recipe. It was 1994, and he quit his job as a welder in a tractor factory.
While Zhang was born in Sichuan, China, he had never set foot in a hot pot restaurant until the age of 19. Unfortunately, he had a terrible experience as the food was sub-par and the staff was rude.
However, the experience helped Zhang realize the value of customer service. After being denied a company apartment, he quit his factory job of six years and set out to open his own hot pot business.
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With zero capital, Zhang co-founded Haidilao with Shu Ping, his then-girlfriend, now-wife, along with two other friends. At the time, they opened a four-table restaurant in his home of Jianyang in Sichuan.
“I was penniless, so the others were the real investors, although the entire investment was less than 10,000 yuan (about $1,400),” Zhang told China’s Economic Observer in 2011, according to the South China Morning Post. “Though I didn’t contribute much in terms of start-up money, I assumed the position of general manager and promised the others that our assets would grow to 150,000 yuan within five years.”
The risk paid off. In just a few months, the four-table establishment bested all other hot pot businesses in Jianyang.
They added an entire floor at the restaurant, which also had the best decor and boasted of air-conditioning. By 1998, they opened a second store.
In 2018, Zhang became a naturalized Singapore citizen. By the end of that year, Haidilao had expanded to 466 locations in more than 100 cities in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada and the U.S.
Last year, Haidilao grew to nearly 600 branches in 10 countries. Its first fully-automated restaurant also opened in Beijing, where robot arms from Panasonic prepare and deliver dishes ordered through iPads, according to Bloomberg.
As global consumer tastes continue to shift toward Asian flavors, Haidilao’s Sichuan cuisine looks towards a bright future. Its Mandarin meaning, after all, is “scooping for treasure at the bottom of the sea.”
And of course, it’s not just the food, but also the top-notch customer service. “I personally made sure that any guest who came through my door would return,” Zhang told Forbes.
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