The Chinese tycoon who snapped up an abandoned Madrid landmark

Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, is the new owner of the Edificio España, empty for a decade

Patricia Gosálvez
Wang Jianlin, president of Chinese property firm Wanda Group, in his Beijing office.
Wang Jianlin, president of Chinese property firm Wanda Group, in his Beijing office.Suzie Wong (Reuters)

On the night of March 8 Chinese real estate magnate Wang Jianlin was dining in Madrid with the head of the regional government and a select committee of business leaders as part of a four-day trip to sound out investment opportunities in Spain. Among those at the table was Enrique Cerezo, the president of Atlético de Madrid soccer club (Wang is a soccer fan, and has sent Chinese youngsters to train with several clubs here). He suggested that Wang take a look at the Edificio España, the 25-story monolith that has dominated the Plaza de España since 1953, but has been empty for the last decade.

After their meal at the Teatro Real opera house, the group escorted Wang the few hundred meters past the Royal Palace and the Senate to the Edificio España. The story goes that he fell in love with the building at first sight, and agreed to buy it on the spot. The next day his team met representatives of the owners, Banco Santander, which had paid €389 million for the 68,000-square-meter property in 2005, letting it go for €265 million.

“He knows what he wants, he doesn’t beat around the bush, he’s as good as his word, and is always on the job,” says a businessman who was with Wang during his brief stay in the Spanish capital. He adds that Florentino Pérez, the president of Real Madrid, offered a deal that would have involved renaming the soccer side’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium in his honor.

Banco Santander, which paid €389 million for the 68,000 square-meter property in 2005, let it go for €265 million

Wang turned the offer down: sources say that this is in keeping with a man who has kept a low profile over the course of his rags-to-riches story. Born 59 years ago in a small community in Sichuan province, in the southwest of the country, he is the eldest of five children whose father was a Red Army soldier. “We often went hungry,” he says in interviews. At the age of 16 he too joined the Red Army, rising through the ranks over the next 16 years. But by the mid-1980s, the Red Army was being cut back, and after completing a distance learning degree, he become a civil servant in Dalian, a coastal city in northeast China.

By the end of the 1980s, using money he borrowed from a friend, and using the contacts he had established during his army career, he had bought a bankrupt property company, and began building low-cost housing in the outskirts of Dalian. As China’s economy expanded in the coming years, he focused on providing housing for the growing ranks of the middle classes, later branching out into office space, shopping malls, movie theaters, leisure and tourism. He says his guiding principle has always been, “work closely with the government, but keep out of politics.” He also insists that he has never been involved in bribery or corruption, despite having made his fortune in Dalian during Bo Xilai’s tenure as mayor. (Bo was implicated in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011 and has since been sentenced to life imprisonment.)

The Edificio España in downtown Madrid.
The Edificio España in downtown Madrid.luis sevillano

Wang runs his $10.5-billion empire – which is called Wanda, and he has described as a “sprinting elephant” – with military discipline, starting work at 7.20am sharp, and staying late most days. He takes one week’s holiday a year. The business is managed from the main offices in Beijing, and he moves his regional managers around so they don’t get too comfortable in their posts. He personally supervises all projects, and demands absolute loyalty, rewarding hard workers with holidays. “Our approach is to get things done quickly, work hard, and get the job done,” he says.

The group has been growing at 30 percent annually for the last eight years. It is now the largest property company in China, with 166 shopping malls, 55 five-star hotels, along with theme parks, movie theaters, and a presence in the telecoms industry.

Two years ago, it began buying abroad. In 2012, Wang bought the AMC movie theater chain, which has around 527 cinemas and 6,247 screens. In London, he is building a 60-story residential complex on the River Thames, less than a mile from the Houses of Parliament. His business plan is to create a $100-billion-dollar company by 2020, putting it among the top 100 firms in the world.

“Wanda is growing at a dizzying pace, is very demanding of its employees, pays well, and is known to work like a machine,” says Rupert Hoogewerf of the Hurun Report, which monitors China’s super rich. “Wang wants to be number one in everything he does,” says another China-watcher: “His ambition is to leave his mark on the planet.” The name of his company says it all: Wanda (which means abundance and longevity) Centennial Business.

A big fish called Wanda

- In 2013, the Wanda Group turned over €22.5 billion.

- The company owns 166 shopping malls, 55 hotels, 527 movie houses, and 84 karaoke venues. In 2017, in Qingdao, it will open China’s version of Hollywood, with 20 movie lots.

- With a presence in China, the United States, and Europe, Wanda is already the world’s second-largest owner of commercial land.

- In 2013, the company created 108,000 new jobs (out of a current total of 539,000).

Wang, like other international property developers, knows that the collapse of the market in Spain has created huge opportunities for cash-rich companies. Last year, Asian investors spent €50 million in Spain: in the first quarter of this year, they have pumped €368 million into the economy.

A keen soccer fan, in the 1990s, Wang financed a side in Dalian, but pulled out after several match-rigging scandals. He then decided to help improve the performance of the country’s national side, financing the hiring of Spanish coach José Antonio Camacho in 2011.

Wang plays a long game: he intends to send young Chinese players to learn their skills with Spanish sides, and to build up talent gradually.

“The majority of Russians become rich from one day to the next,” he said in an interview last year, “but Chinese entrepreneurs start from scratch and grow step by step.” He says his model is Bill Gates, both as businessman and philanthropist: he is now China’s biggest charity donor, giving away $50 million in 2013.

He is married, and has just one child, a son who seems not to have inherited his father’s martial discipline, and like many fu’erdai (second-generation rich) spends more time on the social networks than learning the ropes of his father’s business empire. Wang himself is not overly ostentatious, considering his fortune, but was one of the first Chinese entrepreneurs to buy himself a private jet, and has a customized version of the yacht that appeared in the recent James Bond movie Casino Royale. Three years after he bought it, he purchased the maker, British firm Sunseeker, for €400 million. He reportedly goes to Paris a couple of times a year to buy his Lanvin suits, although, as his stay in Madrid shows, when he really wants to splash out, he prefers bricks and mortar.

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