Who Is Hui Ka Yan, Billionaire Founder of Indebted Chinese Property Developer Evergrande?

The struggles of China's second-largest property developer, Evergrande, have sent waves through the financial sector, leading to drops in stock markets across the world yesterday. As the company nears a Thursday deadline on an $83 million loan payout, its long-term future faces a precarious position.

International credit-rater S&P Global recently predicted that China's government would decline to bail out the indebted company. However, Evergrande founder and chairman Hui Ka Yan projected an optimistic attitude, writing in a letter to his employees that the firm would "walk out of its darkest moment." This letter was not met with praise.

Reuters reported that Hui's statement included no mention of a plan on how company leaders would lift the firm out of its over $300 billion worth of debt. And in response, Chinese users slammed the billionaire on social media outlet Weibo, calling him "delusional" and "a man who cheats people."

While Hui's company could soon face one of the largest economic failings in the world, he has long been a man accustomed to great success, despite facing nearly insurmountable odds.

China's National People's Congress Continues
Evergrande Hui Ka Yan's experience rising from poverty stands as a modern Chinese success story. Here, he speaks during a news conference on the sidelines of the fourth session of the 12th National People's Congress, on March 6, 2016 in Beijing, China. Photo by Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images

Hui Ka Yan, also known by his Mandarin name Xu Jiayin (Hui is a Cantonese name), was born in 1958 in the rural town of Jutaigang Village in the Gaoxian Township centered in the Henan province located in Western China. His father battled Japan as a member of the Chinese Revolutionary Army, and his mother died before his first birthday, Chinese state media reported. For most of his life, he was raised by his grandmother.

In his early life, Hui worked a number of laborious jobs. Chinese state media reported that he drove a tractor to dig out manure before working for two years in a cement factory. At some point, he claims he met a fortune teller who exclaimed that he would have a "golden bowl in the future."

Eventually, Hui worked his way out of the cement factory job and was admitted in the late 1970s to the Wuhan Institute of Iron and Steel which is now known as the Wuhan University of Science and Technology. After graduating and working a number of years within the Wuyang Iron and Steel Company, he soon found himself on a path toward that "golden bowl" when he founded the Evergrande Group in 1997.

Italian coach Marcello Lippi (R) shakes
Hui Ka Yan's success has allowed him to invest in one of China's most valuable soccer teams. Above, Italian coach Marcello Lippi shakes hands with him during a signing ceremony in Guangzhou, southern China's Guangdong province on May 17, 2012. AFP/AFP/GettyImages

The company made a string of property investments that propelled it to a $722 million initial public offering in 2009. As China's economy grew, so did Evergrande. By 2018, a Brand Finance report ranked it as the world's most valuable real estate company. Hui owned 70 percent of the company's shares, propelling him to a network of almost $11 billion, Forbes estimated, making him the 53rd richest person in the world and the 10th richest person in China.

As his wealth has grown, Hui invested in an electric car maker and purchased the Guangzhou Football Club, one of China's most valuable and successful soccer teams. Today, he sits on China's top political advisory body.

Hui's financial standing and political capital could soon be in jeopardy as his company faces potential collapse. With some 200,000 employees and hands in consumer products, electric vehicles, health-care services, and video production sectors, Evergrande's collapse could send a dangerous rippling effect throughout the Chinese economy. If S&P's report proves correct, such an effect could be imminent.