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Lei William Ding: China's Richest Man

Ding Lei established NetEase in June 1997 and developed his company from a team of about a dozen members to a private enterprise with nearly 300 employees.

In the first two years, Ding focused his money and energy on the development of Internet applied software, including a bilingual e-mail system, the first of its kind in China. That system, launched in November 1997, spurred the popularization and development of the Internet in China.

The Fall and Rise of NetEase

Ding says he's not interested in calculating the rise and fall of businesses on paper.

Still, the path of NetEase's success is phenomenal, if a bit rocky: Within one year and a half the company's Nasdaq share value rose from 95 cents in January 2002 to $70. It was a monumental comeback from September 4, 2001, possibly the darkest day for NetEase, the day when Nasdaq shut the doors to the company following allegations it had filed a false report of its 2000 revenue.

Ding and his company were in limbo until January 2, 2002, when his stocks were re-marketed at 95 cents a share.

"Life is just like chocolates with liquor," sighed Ding in a recent interview, "and you never know what's inside."

Ding never expected to be China's richest man, and he doesn't look excited talking about the ups and downs of his NetEase.

Some say he was just lucky, but Ding has other ideas.

"People who want to be strong always create opportunities," he recently told a class from his alma mater, the China Electronic Science and Technology University in Chengdu, where he earned a Bachelor's degree in Engineering. "Smart guys seize opportunities and never let them slip between their fingers. And those who think themselves weak always wait for opportunities."

Setting a Goal

As a young man, Ding dreamed of being an excellent mechanical engineer. Thomas
Edison and Albert Einstein were his heroes. At the age of 13, he showed great interest in electronics, and three years later, he was capable enough to assemble parts into six transistor radios.

His four years of college made for the most precious in his memory. During that time he didn't work hard for high marks but enjoyed reading IT books in the school library, which has a collection of 300,000 books on electronics.

"He often raised weird questions," recalled Feng Lin, Ding's tutor on his graduate essays. "And he didn't work like a normal student. He had his own idea on all matters."

What he has learned from his college was how to study. Even today, he maintains a habit of studying until midnight.

Before graduating, Ding could make software, standing out from his contemporaries. He quit a job he had at China Telecom and later gave up good pay from a foreign-funded enterprise to make his dream come true.

"Nothing is easy if one has no idea of where to go," Ding said.

The Responsibilities

To outside observers, NetEase might be anything from a glorious business example, a piece of property, a tool, or simply Ding's dream.

"It is a responsibility," Ding said. "A responsibility for investors, clients, users, employees, and the Internet. There are enterprises that don't make money, but there are no businesses that don't make money. I've been so focused on my own business that I have no time for blowing hot and cold. My goal is simple: to do what I can to make NetEase the best."

Ding said he hopes to make games both enjoyable and educational. He believes that in the coming decade the Internet will see even more dramatic development in China, especially in e-business.

Though young, Ding has learned from life how to keep a good heart. The sum $1 billion is nothing but a figure, and the title of China's Richest can hardly make a change in sharing take-away with his colleagues.

"Wealth means two things to me, money and talent," Ding said. "What I've got today belongs to yesterday, but what's in my mind creates the future."

This explains why Ding has spared no efforts in upgrading his employees through training and personally recruiting for his team at his alma mater and other institutes of higher learning, such as Xi'an Jiaotong University. He hopes to recruit 2,000 to 3,000 employees to enhance his competitiveness.

"I like his character," Ding's close friend said, "because he is as sophisticated and cunning as a businessman, yet as simple, frank, and straightforward as a child."

As for Ding, he misses his days as a university student, just him and the library and a mind full of questions.

"I feel tired sometimes, and miss my good old days hanging around on the Internet," Ding said. "But I've never worked for anything but my dreams."

(China Pictorial February 25, 2004)


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