comments iconNo 2–40 years profile: Gao Jisheng & Family


“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” Pele (3 time World Cup Winner with Brazil, 1958,1962,1970 and quite simply the greatest footballer, ever)

“Mr Goa does 60 press-ups every morning” said Xuelin  as she introduced me to her friend Mr Gao for the first time as she then patted my stomach gently to hint this might be a routine I might like to follow. Mr Gao welcomed me with a warm smile and a firm handshake. He had a commanding presence–a natural leader.

Sometimes even in a vast country of 1.4 billion people it can seem like a small world. Gao Jisheng is a well known Zhejiang entrepreneur best known in the UK as the owner of premiership football club, Southampton. Yet Mr Goa and his family are not only from the same city as Xuelin, Hangzhou, they were actually neighbours in a beautiful small quiet gated traditional community, an oasis of green, amongst the tall buildings and busyness of modern day Hangzhou.

The Gao family are wonderful hosts and ask us to join their family for dinner in Pudong. As a football fan the idea of spending time with a premiership football club owner was guaranteed to solve my jet lag problems.

It is a cultural difference worth noting because it explains so much that whereas in England the normal convention would be for child minders to be secured so the adults could go out for dinner together; in China the children not only join but are very much part of the occasion. So we sat down with Mr Gao and his wife Mrs Hang, their daughter, Nelly who has a senior role in the family business, her two children Laven (aged 12) and Lucy (aged 10) and the General Manager of Mr Gao’s business in Shanghai.

Mrs Hang told us a inspiring story of how she had established scholarships by identifying students in need of assistance on the Internet. I told her that this was a cause close to my heart because education is a gift which sends ripples through eternity. That after all was the purpose of our walk; to give more young people that chance in life.

Mr Gao agreed, he had begun life in the military and through his military service was able to attend university. His daughter had an excellent education and now his grandchildren attend the prestigious new Harrow School in China, established by Harrow School in England. They spoke excellent English but Levan was having to come to terms with playing strange sports like rugby.

After leaving the military Mr Gao worked as a local official in Shancheng District of Hangzhou. His ability was recognised and he rose quickly and stood for election as Deputy Mayor in 1993. He was not successful but that disappointment was to be the turning point of his life.

In 1992 Deng Xiaoping had under taken a very important tour of China’s south visiting cities like Shanghai, Wuchang and Shengzhen during which he made several speeches about China moving from a planned economy to a market economy. Speeches by Chinese leaders aften carry deep meanings which officials work to understand and implement. Wondering what his next step was in 1994 he believed this would be the moment to taken Deng Xiaoping at his word and start a business in the new market economy.

He took the life skills which he had learned in the military of hard work, being positive even when the odds are against you, perseverance, building successful teams and applied them in the commercial world. His efforts were rewarded with incredible financial success though he overlooks this and is most proud of the 2000 good jobs he has created.

I joked that I hope he had personally written to all the members of the Communist Party that hadn’t voted for him in 1993 to thank them for not voting for him. It is a good life lesson that defeat can often be the first step on the path to success.

Henry Kisinger, who was US Secretary of State when the major breakthrough in US-China relations happened between Premier Zhou Enlai and Richard Nixon, said that when he was faced with a setback or disappointment his first question was, ‘What can I do now that I couldn’t do before?’ Being an optimist I have found is a common denominator of most who achieve success in life.

I ask Mr Gao if he had anyone who inspires him or a role model–he immediately says Li Ka-Shing the Hong Kong businessman and one of the richest men in the world. He explained that it was when li Ka-Shing said he was moving his investments to the UK that he thought he should follow and so he bought Southampton Football Club for a reported £200 million. I suggest to him that he is also a role model for many Chinese and I hope they were following his example.

Being married to a successful Chinese businesswomen I have always been puzzled where the drive to keep going comes from after they have achieved financial security. ‘Why wouldn’t you just want to ‘cash out’ of the game, take your winnings and sit on a beach somewhere. Why still risk it all on another roll of the dice? He points out that he has become more balanced, he plays golf three times a week and has written four books, but he is still as excited by the challenge of business as he was thirty years ago, Xuelin nods in approval.

It is Levan and Lucy’s turn again to answer some questions. I ask what they want to achieve in life. Both grandchildren had followed the example of their grandmother by volunteering to teach financially poor children to read and write over the summer. I then ask Lucy what she wants to do with her life, she replies loudly and confidently, ‘I want to be an astronaut!’ Not to be upstaged by his little sister, Levan asks ‘Why do astronauts leave their wives?’–don’t know we replay–‘because they just want some space!’ The whole table collapses into laughter as we are not sure that Levan quite realises the implied truth in his answer.

As the laughter subsides I talk to Nelly, Mr Gao’s daughter, a very level-headed and competent young lady. I asked her what she thought the next forty years would hold for China. She looked at her father and then said, I think we are fortunate because we are ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. Nelly says that today ‘Made in China’ means cheap, just like ‘Made in Japan’ fifty years ago, but her hope was that in the future ‘Made in China’ will become a badge of quality and leading technology.

It was an optimistic and appropriate note to close.

As I reflected on the evening with Xuelin in our room I remarked that in addition to the ‘usual’ ingredients of success in China–hard work, education, family focus I had seen another moral dimension to work. A sense of a responsibility to the community born of their personal success.