by David Barboza
New York Times
July 30, 2015
How a Chinese Billionaire Built Her Fortune
Zhou Qunfei started out making watch lenses for $1 a day, but honed her hands-on knowledge into a world-class, multibillion-dollar operation at the vanguard of China’s push into high-end manufacturing.
Zhou Qunfei is the world’s richest self-made woman. Zhou, the founder of Lens Technology, owns a $27 million estate in Hong Kong. She jets off to Silicon Valley and Seoul to court executives at Apple and Samsung, her two biggest customers. She has played host to President Xi Jinping of China, when he visited her company’s headquarters.
But she seems most at home pacing the floor of her state-of-the-art factory, tinkering.
She’ll dip her hands into a tray of water, to determine whether the temperature is just right. She can explain the intricacies of heating glass in an ion potassium salt bath. When she passes a grinding machine, she is apt to ask technicians to step aside so she can take their place for a while.
Zhou knows the drill. For years, she labored in a factory, the best job she could get having grown up in an impoverished village in central China.
“She’ll sometimes sit down and work as an operator to see if there’s anything wrong with the process,” said James Zhao, a general manager at Lens Technology. “That will put me in a very awkward position. If there’s a problem, she’d say, ‘Why didn’t you see that?’ ”
Zhou has honed her hands-on knowledge into a world-class, multibillion-dollar operation, one at the vanguard of China’s push into high-end manufacturing. Lens Technology is now one of the leading suppliers of the so-called cover glass used in laptops, tablets and mobile devices, including the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy. This year, her factories are expected to churn out more than a billion glass screens, each refined to a fraction of a millimeter.
In creating a global supplier, Zhou, 44, has come to define a new class of female entrepreneurs in China who have built their wealth from scratch — a rarity in the world of business.
In Japan, there is not a single self-made female billionaire, according to Forbes. In the United States and Europe, most women who are billionaires secured their wealth through inheritance.
No country has more self-made female billionaires than China. The Communist Party, under Mao Zedong, promoted gender equality, allowing women to flourish after capitalism started to take hold, according to Huang Yasheng, an expert in China’s entrepreneurial class and a professor of international management at MIT.
And in a country with few established players, entrepreneurs like Zhou were able to quickly make their mark when they entered business in the 1990s as China’s economic engine was revving up.
Zhou’s stake in Lens Technology, which went public in China this year, is worth $7.2 billion.
But she isn’t a celebrity chieftain, like Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant. Few in China had even heard her name before her company’s public offering this year. She rarely grants interviews or makes public appearances.
An elegant woman with glasses and a preference for Christian Dior suits, Zhou is fastidious and demanding — “Sit up straight!” she orders a general manager during a meeting. Yet she exudes a quiet recognition that things could have easily turned out differently.
“In the village where I grew up, a lot of girls didn’t have a choice of whether to go to middle school. They would get engaged or married and spend their entire life in that village,” she said in an interview. “I chose to be in business, and I don’t regret it.”
The youngest of three children, Zhou was born in a tiny village in central China’s Hunan province, a farming community about two hours south of Changsha, the provincial capital. Her mother died when she was 5. Her father, a skilled craftsman, later lost a finger and most of his eyesight in an industrial accident.
At home, she helped her family raise pigs and ducks for food and additional money. At school, Zhou excelled, but she dropped out of school at 16 and traveled south to Guangdong province, to live with her uncle’s family and search for better work.
She eventually landed a job on a factory floor in the city of Shenzhen, making watch lenses for about $1 a day.
After three months, she decided to quit and wrote a letter of resignation to her boss complaining about boredom and the 16-hour workdays. Even so, she expressed her gratitude for the job, saying she wanted to learn more.
The letter impressed the factory chief. He asked her to stay, offering her a promotion.
Three years later Zhou, then 22, decided to set out on her own. With $3,000 in savings, she and several relatives started their own workshop next door.
“In the Hunan language, we call women like her ‘ba de man,’ which means a person who dares to do what others are afraid to do,” said her cousin Zhou Xinyi, who helped her open the workshop and now serves on the Lens board.
Her work habits lean toward the obsessive. Her company’s headquarters is at one of her manufacturing plants in Changsha. In her spacious office, a door behind her desk opens into a small apartment, ensuring she can roam the factory floor day or night.
She was still making glass for watches when she received an unexpected phone call in 2003 from executives at Motorola.
They asked if she was willing to help them develop a glass screen for their new device, the Razr V3. At the time, the display screens on most mobile phones were made of plastic.
“I got this call, and they said, ‘Just answer yes or no, and if the answer’s yes, we’ll help you set up the process,’ ” Zhou recalled. “I said yes.”
Soon after, orders started rolling in from other mobile-phone makers like HTC, Nokia and Samsung.
Then, in 2007, Apple entered the market with the iPhone, which had a keyboard-enabled glass touch screen that rewrote the rules of the game for mobile devices. Apple picked Lens as its supplier, propelling Zhou’s company into a dominant position in China.
More than once as she expanded the company, colleagues say, Zhou put up her apartment as a guarantee for a new bank loan.
Within five years, she had manufacturing plants under construction in three cities.
“She’s a passionate entrepreneur, and she’s very hands-on,” says James Hollis, an executive at Corning, which has a partnership with Lens Technology. “I’ve watched her company grow, and her develop a strong team. Now, there are over 100 competitors in this space, but Lens is a Tier 1 player.”