Dong Mingzhu: A Powerful Self-made Chinese Businesswoman

Dong Mingzhu, Chairwoman and President of Gree Electric Appliances Inc., is known as one of the toughest businesswomen in China. She is ranked 5th on the Forbes list of Asia's Power Businesswomen 2015.

The youngest of seven children from a working-class family in Nanjing, Dong, unlike many of the women who pepper China's rich lists, did not inherit wealth and had no man beside her and no political connections. She married after graduation from university, but her husband passed away when their son was two years old. Since then, Dong has bravely taken the entire family burden on her shoulders and has become a very strong woman.

As a young widow, she seized the chance in 1990, when she was 36, to leave her son with her mother in Nanjing and travel to the more economically developed southern city, Zhuhai, where her rise began. She joined Haley (Gree’s predecessor) as a salesperson, and as a result of her diligence, she recovered 420,000 yuan in debts in just forty days and shocked the entire company. Then she was given the least-promising, economically poor region of Anhui to look after. Within 18 months, her sales had broken 16 million yuan, or just shy of a 10th of the company’s revenues. Dong’s reputation as a marketer extraordinaire was sealed, catching the attention of Zhu Jianghong, Gree's first general manager. Mr. Zhu nurtured her talent. Then promotions came quickly. By 1994, she was head of sales. She systematically broke the stranglehold that sales agents then had on suppliers by refusing to supply on normal “deferred payment terms”. By 1996, when the company went public, she was deputy president, and by 2001, she became president.

In her success, her own innovations played a major role. For example, she enticed customers with six years of free servicing. “We broke that abnormal game principle," she said, proudly, adding: “When you make promises, you need to follow through. You must offer good service and quality. And then trust follows naturally."

Since she became president in 2001, Gree Electric has become the world’s largest specialized air conditioner company. Under her current leadership, Gree Electric is developing new technology, helping Chinese manufacturing evolve from “made in China” to “created in China.” Dong has transformed Gree from a sleepy domestic brand into the world's largest maker of air conditioners based on sales.

In 2006, Dong ranked among the "magnificent 10" economic leaders in China. In 2013, Dong was named one of the Forbes "Asia’s Women in the Mix" for business. The New York Times called her "one of the toughest businesswomen in China." Dong is a member of 10th, 11th and 12th National People’s Congress; member of the Standing Committee of China National Democratic Construction Association; member of 10th Executive Committee of All-China Women’s Federation. She holds senior positions in a dozen industry, women's and charity organizations and has taught university business classes.

In 2014, Dong was honored as UNDP's global messenger of sustainable urban development project. The honor was given for Dong's role of leading the Zhuhai-based home appliances manufacturer to make sustainable development by producing environmentally friendly products over the years. Gree's latest self-innovated air conditioner, which is operated by photovoltaic power, realizes zero energy consumption. Moreover, the company has invested more than 1 billion yuan to build four recycled treatment centers nationwide since 2011.

Today, Dong is leading the world’s largest residential- air-conditioner maker, with 2014 revenue of 140 billion yuan, helped by a move into e-commerce. Dong believes the future is in solar-powered air conditioners, with a residential model launched following on a commercial unit. The units generate enough power to cool a home and run other appliances, with energy left over to sell back to the grid.

To most Chinese, Dong is known primarily for her determination. Some male competitors said: “Where sister Dong walks, no grass grows”, and “When Dong chews you up, she doesn't even spit out the bones”. Dong had a “win-win” approach, still somewhat unusual in China. She gives the same attention to the other party’s profit as to hers, and may refuse to collaborate if both parties aren't benefiting. Her understanding of sales is considered a major factor in Gree's success.

Dong has turned her experiences into a pair of influential books, including an autobiography titled Regretless Pursuit which was a bestseller in China and was made into a TV series aired by state-owned broadcaster CCTV.