Insight: Outsider Ren pits Huawei against the world

Mon Apr 23, 2012 7:55am EDT
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By Jeremy Wagstaff and Lee Chyen Yee

(Reuters) - In the 1990s, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei visited the United States several times, hoping to learn from its leaders of industry about how to turn his Chinese telecoms equipment maker into a global company. On one trip in 1992, in the days before China had credit cards, he paid all his bills with cash from a $30,000 stash in his briefcase.

Sixteen years later, Ren was listed among Forbes' 400 richest Chinese and Huawei was one of the world's largest telecoms gear vendors, but the United States still treated him as an outsider. He was keen to win customers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint but had secured just $200 million of business in the U.S. in 2007 — in a $23 billion global market. Early that year, the United States effectively vetoed Huawei's bid for U.S. networking equipment manufacturer 3Com on security grounds.

In March 2008, according to a U.S. cable leaked to WikiLeaks, Ren visited the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou to complain he was issued only a single-entry visa. He was exasperated at U.S. suspicions that his company was close to the Chinese military and government. He pointed out that his parents were sent to labor camps during China's Cultural Revolution and the only reason he was allowed into the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was because they were short of skilled technicians.

While controversy over Ren's supposedly cosy links to China's officialdom has dogged Huawei's global expansion plans, his own story suggests the firm's success is largely down to a strong individualistic streak that pits Ren against the world.

Ren declined to be interviewed for this article. However, he has written numerous letters and articles which have been shared with Huawei staff, and, in some cases, with the public. Sources in the company have confirmed the authenticity of the material, allowing Reuters to piece together the most comprehensive profile to date of one of Asia's most reclusive business leaders.

Ren remains an aloof, enigmatic figure, even to the 40,000 workers at Huawei's headquarters. There are few photos of him on the walls, and for most their only contact with him has been via his missives, laden with flowery historical references, which arrive by email and prompt as much amusement as reverence. "He's a very smart guy who has a vision," one staff member said. "He sees it as his challenge to make his staff see his vision, so he spends a lot of time motivating people."

He certainly began life as an outsider.

Born on October 25, 1944 to a rural family in a remote mountainous town in Guizhou province, as the first of seven children, life was harsh. His parents were schoolteachers, and his mother often had to borrow money to make ends meet, he wrote later in an article published in an internal magazine. "Until high school," he wrote, "I never owned a proper shirt." His father fought for the nationalist Kuomintang against the Japanese in the 1930s, only later joining the Communist Party. This and their "intellectualism" condemned both parents to labor camps during the Cultural Revolution.   Continued...

The logo for China-based networking and telecommunications company Huawei is pictured at the ITU Telecom World in Geneva October 24, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse