In a sports stadium in the regional Chinese city of Wuxi, 3,000 people are sitting down to dinner and a show, at least they are once they secure something to eat. The stadium is the only place in town big enough to house the annual staff get-together of Suntech Corporation. Last year there were only 1,000 staff to cater for, this time next year there will be 5,000. And presiding over this dinner, as he has presided over the amazing growth of Suntech, is mainland China's richest man - Australian Dr Zhengrong Shi.
Now, one of the most remarkable things about this event here tonight is that just six or seven years ago Suntech didn't even exist. Dr Shi was a research scientist living quietly in Sydney's suburbs. Now he has become one of China's most successful businessman. But he is not content with just making money, he also wants to save the planet. As his staff celebrate a successful year, they are entertained by, of all things, excerpts from Al Gore's environmental blockbuster 'An Inconvenient Truth'. And when Dr Shi addresses his staff, it is to pay tribute to St Al.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI, SUNTECH FOUNDER (Translation): In 2000, Al Gore failed in the presidential election but he did something greater than a president might have done. He spent six years telling everyone around the world the challenge that we face for human survival - that is global warming.

It is a message that doesn't appear to do much for many of the factory workers in the audience.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI (Translation): I feel that the noise in the audience is a bit loud. Can you all please be a bit quiet and let me finish my speech?

Later I ask why lecture his staff on the environment.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: The message that I tried to send the staff is our responsibility with the product we produce is to save the environment, to save the earth, so we should feel proud of what we are doing.

Of course for Suntech and Dr Shi, global warming is actually a rather convenient truth - their fortune has been made producing solar electricity panels. The company is now worth around $6.5 billion and Dr Shi himself is worth more than $3 billion. Yet, he says he is more interested in green products than greenbacks.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Because this global warming issue is really a severe problem. You know, human beings really face a challenge to survive on this planet if we don't control what we're doing now. But average people, they don't understand this.

REPORTER: So you don't want to just make money, you want to save the world?

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Yes, that is basically what we do. You know, like what we do in the company, like Al Gore's movie 'An Inconvenient Truth', right. We asked every employee of Suntech to watch this movie, then let them feel, have pride in the job we are doing. So that's why we educate our staff.

This is how Suntech makes its money - producing solar electricity panels to export to the world. It is a perfect marriage of high-tech product with low-cost Chinese labour. These workers soldering fragile silicon wafers together are doing what a machine might do in Europe or the States. It's a formula that has seen Suntech's profits and its New York-listed shares skyrocket. So how does it feel suddenly to be so rich, to have so much money?

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: I think for most, if not all, entrepreneurs I think the purpose is not for the personal wealth, although in the end it show up somebody earns so much money. But I think that's a side product of a human being pursuing his career, his dream.
This is our R&D area. This is our R&D lab. So I think this is the best lab in China, I believe.

Dr Shi spent 14 years researching solar technology in Sydney. He is familiar with every machine in Suntech's lab.

REPORTER: And all this technology, you understand it all?

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Of course, yes. We developed... The whole lab is basically designed by myself.

The solar power entrepreneur believes his photovoltaic cells will soon become price competitive with fossil fuels.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: You know, I keep telling people in 10 years time, if we do not have any technology innovation, the price will be at least half in 10 years time. So I think solar definitely will become more and more competitive.

REPORTER: So within 10 years?

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Within 10 years.

REPORTER: So what would you say to Australian politicians who say, "Look, if we replace coal, we need to replace it with nuclear because solar simply can't do it?"

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Well, I think that is why our politicians need to see solar in a dynamic way. It is not still, stands still. It is changing every day. Australian Government people should keep the quality coal underneath the earth, OK, to keep the value there. They should start to use sunshine.
If I don't solve this problem immediately, it is going to hit the company in the short term.

Keeping up with Dr Shi is no easy task as he is called from the lab to a crisis meeting.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: That's also I'm enjoy doing it, OK.

Suntech is already a massively successful company but it would be even more successful if it had access to radical new technology that Dr Shi himself helped develop in Australia but is not permitted to use. The story of what happened to that technology is instructive for what it says about Australia and for how it has shaped Zhengrong Shi's plans to shake up the global energy business.
Zhengrong Shi arrived here at the University of New South Wales back in 1988 to study for a PhD, but he had no real interest in solar power. In fact he had no real interest in research at all. He says what he really wanted was to find a way to stay in Australia and not come back to China.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Well, supposedly I should come back because that's sort of part of an agreement I had with the institute I used to work for. But from the bottom of my heart I did not plan to come back.

Then two life-changing events occurred, Zhengrong Shi and his wife were granted Australian citizenship and the young researcher talked his way into a position here with this university's world-leading solar electricity program.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: When I really started my research, OK, and then I realised it is so enjoyable. I keep telling people I never thought research...there was so much fun in doing research. And I could be a good scientist. I never thought of myself I could be an experienced or talented scientist. Before, I never thought of it, when I was in China.

Graduating with a PhD, Shi had helped develop a revolutionary new technology that used a fraction of the costly silicon used in traditional solar wafers. He continued that research at Pacific Solar, a company connected to the University of New South Wales, but it burnt through $25 million in research money without commercialising the technology.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: So I can tell you at that time if there were investors in Australia who can really see what is to happen to this industry or to especially this technology, can fund the technology in Australia, I guess Pacific Solar would have stayed in Australia.

With money drying up, Dr Shi suggested Pacific Solar start its own manufacturing in China.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: I proposed this to the managing director at the time - if Pacific Solar, instead of just focusing on pure research, if Pacific Solar started, apart from research, also started some manufacturing using conventional technology, Pacific Solar would have been very, very successful.

REPORTER: So if Pacific Solar had listened to you and had invested in manufacturing in China, this huge company, instead of being based in Shanghai could have been headquartered in Sydney?

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Could well be. Could well be.

The new technology Dr Shi helped develop has now been put into commercial production at this factory near Leipzig, in Germany. But it is protected by patent - he might have helped develop it but the Sun King can't use it. Indeed the failure by Pacific Solar to commercialise the technology so disheartened Dr Shi at the time that he considered giving away research altogether and starting a restaurant or a supermarket in Sydney.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: I just feel bored. So then I talked to my wife and said I want to do something different to fill my life in because I want myself always busy. And that is all. We talked, we started chatting about it. Definitely she would never agree. But on the other hand, I mean, I was just, sort of I don't think I was serious about doing that anyway myself.

REPORTER: You must be glad you didn't?


Meanwhile, in Dr Shi's absence, China had been undergoing a remarkable change. A new entrepreneurial culture had taken hold and the economy was booming. The government was now keen to lure back the generation which had been lost to the West. Dr Shi visited China and, convinced things had changed, established Suntech in 2001.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: So I realised if I come back here, I can really do something because I have so much more advanced experience and knowledge than people here do. So I think this country needs me. So with that Of course that's also egoism, right? So I can show my value here.

REPORTER: So the real reason you came back to China was because, unlike Australia, you felt that here you could make a difference?

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Yeah, right. Yeah, right. That sort of summarises it, yes.

Six years later Dr Shi and his wife have transformed $6 million in seed capital into a $6 billion company. They live in an apartment in this well-to-do neighbourhood populated largely by expats. Their two sons, both born in Sydney, go to an international school but still miss Australia.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Oh, they miss Sydney a lot. My boys like a couple of years ago they said, "I don't understand why my dad come here. Sydney is so beautiful "and so many beaches and nice waves all the time." So they do miss Australia and Sydney a lot. But basically, although we live in China but behind closed doors our lifestyle is still very much similar to what we had in Sydney.

Indeed, the entrepreneur remains an Australian citizen and flies an Australian flag outside his headquarters in Wuxi.

REPORTER: Why? Why have the Australian flag?

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Because, you know, still Australian flag because we have Australian shareholders. Still about 25% of shareholders are Australian shareholders.

REPORTER: So how do you think of yourself now - as Chinese or as Australian?

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: I think of myself as both actually. Because I still think of myself as Australian-Chinese because I am not Australian as a race but 14 years is my golden time that I spent in Australia. I learned a lot, especially the philosophy and the mentality type of thing and I find it is really important. People are very open, very straight, very honest and very objective in a certain sense.

Yet there are aspects of the Australian character that Doctor Shi is not so impressed with. He has opened his door to small entrepreneurs from around the world. Here he is meeting with a Chinese-American hoping to interest the Sun King in a new venture.

MAN: OK, so how we can use this? Firstly we have a plan for 25%.

Dr Shi says such dealings are based on trust but says it's something some Australians seem to have in short supply.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: So what we found is there is always a trust issue in the beginning. So I find some Australian companies' mentality seems always, "Maybe Doctor Shi wants to steal my technology or Suntech wants to steal my technology and try to copy it." But I keep telling them "I am Australian, OK?" I lived in Australia for 14 years. I came here to start a business. We are so successful. We make a lot of money. It is like we are not like a start-up company which depends on your technology.

REPORTER: So in many ways they're more interested in not being ripped off than they are about succeeding?

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Yes, yes. So that is the thing.

And yet Dr Shi's new business plan includes Australia. He learned from his time at Pacific Solar that research works better if it is married to manufacturing. Now he wants to vertically integrate his company even further by mining his own silicon in Queensland or Western Australia and refining it in Tasmania.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: So to refine silicon will require high purity quartz and cheap electricity and also some good engineers. I think Australia has all this. Suntech currently exports the great majority of its production but as it builds a massive new plant in Wuxi, Doctor Shi is carefully cultivating the market that holds the greatest potential for his company - China itself. Suntech has built a number of small-scale demonstration projects like installing solar panels on the roofs of these apartments that feed power into the nearby grid, and this car park, where the lighting is solar-powered. The parking is for visitors to Wuxi's lake - a famous beauty spot now clouded, like much of the country, in a perpetual haze of pollution.
The Chinese Government has recently declared the twin aims of improving energy efficiency and reducing pollution. Dr Shi believes that within five years it will embrace solar power. Looking out over Shanghai from Suntech's 63rd-storey office, he lets me in on the final stage of his plan. As well as mining and processing silicon, developing world's best solar panel technology and manufacturing the panels, he wants to start selling the power they generate.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: In 20 years time we are more thinking about the company as an energy company, it not just produce solar panels. As an energy company, as you can imagine, like BP or Shell.

Zhengrong Shi's vision would turn the energy industry inside out - solar would no longer be an alternative fuel and Suntech would be at the centre, competing with the fossil fuel giants of today.

DR ZHENGRONG SHI: Maybe in the future we are reaching the same scale of BP or Shell but we are a solar energy company not an oil energy company.

TX: 21/3/07 Ep: 5/2007

Feature Report: The Sun King





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