Heilan chief rides into new world of business

Updated: 2013-05-20 07:22

By Mark Hughes (China Daily)

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 Heilan chief rides into new world of business

Heilan Equestrian Club in Jiangyin, Wuxi, aims to become a national equestrian center.

I performed a comedy-style double-take as our van rounded a corner and we were presented with the sight of two giant Dutch-style windmills, their blades turning as if they were grinding grain into flour instead of deliberately attracting attention in a breathtaking way by being so out of place.

Two questions came to mind. Where was this? Xinqiao town in Jiangyin city, Jiangsu province, near Wuxi. And what was this? Heilan Equestrian Club, an enormous establishment with the ambition to become the center of all things show-horsey in China and all of Asia.

Not so long later, we were sat in a magnificent, packed baroque hall under a constantly changing light scheme based on exquisite chandeliers watching a series of shows featuring a wide variety of horses going through their motions under the expert direction of scores of riders.

They performed dressage, jumps, gallops and prances to a captivated audience clutching tickets with a face value of 800 yuan ($130) for the front row. Miniature horses pulled period-style carriages carrying women dressed in costumes based on 18th-century fashions. Masked men bestrode two horses as they raced around the enormous hall like Zorro. There were demonstrations by riders on black horses, on white horses and even horses of undistinguishable color in the dark, lit up by some form of electrical diodes strapped to their bodies.

It was a spectacular event in a spectacular venue that cost billions of yuan to establish starting in 2008 and 40 million yuan a year to run, including the cost of 280 staff (but not those working in the associated on-site hotel and restaurants), 100 riders and 400-plus horses.

Now, of course, the first question that comes to mind regarding this nonprofit one-day-a-week (two in high season) event is, "Why?"

It comes as no surprise that the brainchild behind it is one of China's richest men, Zhou Jianping, of Heilan Group, the largest manufacturer of suits in China and the club's president. He devotes 5 percent of the company's enormous profits to the club "because it fits well with our image". In other words, it helps create the ubiquitously necessary "brand".

Heilan Group was set up in 1988. It now has 10,000 employees and fixed assets of 3.5 billion yuan. It covers an area of 300,000 square meters and owns a stock company and a five-star hotel. Its annual production capacity is 15 million meters of worsted fabrics with 10 percent sales nationwide and 2 million sets of suits. So you can see that an equestrian sideline that makes no money but provides jobs and enjoyment is eminently feasible.

Zhou admired the traditional equestrian skills developed over centuries in Europe while he was scouting for business on the continent. He liked the pageantry, the clothes, the large number of breeds of horses and the skills of the riders, trainers and carers. So he decided to emulate the best, but bigger.

Not only has he achieved that, he is building on the accomplishment by creating an equestrian museum. Last year, the club bought 60 breeds, from the smallest to the biggest, from countries including Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and the United States, to help populate it. It also bought carriages from the Netherlands.

This is not a business taken lightly. Zhou sends his vets to study in the Netherlands every year for three months. He employs 14 foreigners as trainers, riders and vets from countries including the Netherlands, Argentina, Germany, Spain and Italy.

There may be no equestrian history in China. Horses are still ridden in the countryside and in some cities mainly as agricultural "machines" or on the plains of Inner Mongolia by tourists. But one thing is for sure. Zhou intends to create one. And he is putting his money where his mouth is.


(China Daily 05/20/2013 page6)