Who is Richard Liu? Chinese billionaire seeks to raise profile as JD.com expands outside China

Richard, who? 

Richard Liu Qiangdong may have built JD.com into China’s second-biggest e-commerce company and amassed an estimated wealth of US$11.6 billion, but he remains a relative unknown outside his home country.

With recent investments into Southeast Asia and eventual plans to expand into Europe, the 43-year-old made his first appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this year. Speaking at a lunch for about 50 people including Adidas Group CEO Kasper Rorsted and Wal-Mart’s US chief Greg Foran, the guests listened over glasses of Chateau Montrose 2000 Bordeaux blend (full-bodied palate that is thick and rich yet refined and reserved, according to Wine Spectator) to Liu’s life story and how he came to start and build JD.com.

“The first reason I started my business was that I wanted to make money for my grandmother,” Liu said, speaking in what he self-deprecatingly called “Suqian English”, after his hometown in China’s Jiangsu province. “She was unfortunately sick at that time and she needed a lot of money for the medicine, but we had no money.”

From those trying times, Liu has built JD into a company with a market valuation of about US$67 billion, that employs about 162,000 workers and has begun to invest overseas as part of a plan to expand beyond China. 

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The first step to achieving JD’s global ambition, Liu said, is to bring popular foreign brands to China so that consumers can buy what they want without going overseas. The second step is to take “superior Chinese brands” to overseas markets, he said.

“I believe the next 10 years will see Chinese brands going to global market,” Liu said.

JD introduced a local-language version of the buying site in Indonesia in 2015, before expanding to Thailand. This year, the company plans to enter Vietnam, and earlier this month said it bought a major stake in a Vietnamese e-commerce company.

In laying out the expansion plan, Liu said he is mindful that JD’s direction is consistent with China’s overall economic strategy. JD will first focus on exploring the markets of Southeast Asia before venturing into Europe, in line with China’s “One Belt and One Road” project, a national investment project that seeks to project the country’s soft power through rediscovering ancient trade links that connected the Middle Kingdom with Southeast and Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

“JD or its founder Liu is not that well-known in overseas markets,” said Li Yi, chief fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “Attending such a global event is a way of marketing and a good time to show how he made his big fortune and went from poor guy to billionaire.” 

Born into a poor farming family in northern Jiangsu province, Liu is arguably less well-known outside China than his fellow billionaire countrymen like Alibaba Group’s Jack Ma Yun, Tencent Holdings’ Pony Ma Huateng and Baidu Inc.’s Robin Li Yanhong, who recently made the cover of Time magazine.

Liu got his start in business opening a counter store in Beijing selling computer parts. He had to shut it down in 2003 after Severe acute respiratory syndrome struck China, causing people to stay at home for fear of catching the deadly disease.

In one of life’s curious twists, the closure forced Liu to move his business online, setting into motion what would become JD.com’s e-commerce business today.

Onstage at the WEF, Liu also shared with interviewer David M. Rubenstein, Carlyle Group co-founder, how JD got its name. 

“I hope my wife is not here when I answer the question,” Liu said, in possibly the first public explanation overseas of how JD got its name.

The name, it turns out, came from the combination of the first letter of his first love’s name, “Jing”, and his own, “Dong.” Liu’s wife, Zhang Zetian, 24, nicknamed “Sister Milk Tea” after a photo of her holding a cup of milk tea went viral, sat smiling in the audience.

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The Chinese billionaire also shared a typical day with the Davos crowd. He gets up at 7am, holds a meeting with senior management at 8:30am, after which he starts replying emails and messages. For exercise, he swims and takes brisk walks. 

In order to fulfil his global ambitions, JD would have to first improve its overseas delivery times, Liu told Rubenstein. Currently, a customer placing an order Washington D.C. would only get his or her parcel in 10 to 15 days, which is significantly longer than in China, he said.

Back at the lunch in Davos, speaking at a lectern backed by boarding festooned with JD’s logo and the slogan “Future of Retail,” Liu told his guests that in China, people open their doors and let the company’s couriers into their homes.

As JD spreads its wings and ventures overseas, Liu may be hoping the rest of the world would do the same.

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