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Business Leader of the Week: Meet Zhang Xin, woman who built Beijing

IFM_SOHO China co-founder Zhang Xin
In 2011, Zhang Xin acquired USD 600 million dollar stakes in New York City's Park Avenue Plaza, followed by 40% stakes in General Motors in 2014

SOHO China is a Chinese building developer that specialised in office and commercial sector-related solutions. Their portfolio also includes residential and mixed-use properties. The name SOHO comes from the phrase “Smart Office, Home Office”, as the company decided to integrate office spaces and residential flats in the same building to facilitate a comfortable and productive atmosphere.

SOHO China primarily focuses on building homes in key business districts of Beijing and Shanghai. The company is renowned for its cutting-edge architecture, featuring work by architects like Japan’s Kengo Kuma and Iraq’s Zaha Hadid.

The company has also developed around five million square metres of commercial spaces. The Fortune and The New York Times have described SOHO China as ‘one of the country’s most high-profile real estate firms’ and ‘the only pure premier office developer in China’.

As of 2023, the company owns 1.4 million square metres of office properties in Beijing and Shanghai for long-term investment after switching from a ‘build to sell’ to a ‘build to hold’ strategy in 2012. Although SOHO China sold several properties in the late 2010s, the company stated that it will continue to hold and operate its core assets in these two Chinese urban zones.

The company had to go through some tough times while it made the switch to ‘build to hold’ in 2016, but by the following year, rental income climbed by 44%, contributing to a 69% increase in annual net profits for the company.

In 2021, the company decided to sell 50% of its shares to Blackstone for USD 3 billion.

The brain behind one of China’s successful real estate ventures is 57-year-old Zhang Xin, who is the co-founder of SOHO China. She founded the company in 1995 with her husband and Chinese businessman Pan Shiy.

    Who Is Zhang Xin?

  • Zhang Xin was born in Beijing and following her parents’ separation, at the age of 15, she moved to Hong Kong with her mother
  • In order to save for education abroad, she worked for five years in small factories that made garment and electronic products
  • Zhang Xin completed her bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex in 1987 and her master’s degree in Development Economics in 1992 from Cambridge University
  • After her master’s, she started working for the investment bank in Hong Kong, which was under Goldman Sachs
  • Zhang Xin co-founded the company ‘Hongshi’, which later became SOHO China, with her husband in 1995
  • In 2008, the Times Group described Zhang Xin and her husband as ‘China’s most visible and flamboyant property tycoons’
  • In 2011, Zhang Xin acquired USD 600 million dollar stakes in New York City’s Park Avenue Plaza, followed by 40% stakes in General Motors in 2014
  • The same year, Zhang and her husband launched a USD 100 million dollar charitable initiative, the SOHO China Scholarships, ‘to fund disadvantaged Chinese students at top institutions globally’
  • Zhang Xin was listed in Forbes ‘World’s Most Powerful Women’ and Financial Times ‘Top 50 Women in World Business’ in 2008 and 2011, respectively
  • She was named among The International Power 50 of the Most Powerful Women by Fortune in 2011
  • Zhang Xin moved to the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic and resigned from SOHO China in September 2022
  • As of January 2023, her net worth is around USD 3.6 billion dollar, according to ‘Celebrity Net Worth’

Zhang Xin’s Career Advice For Upcoming Business Leaders

In a 2019 interview given to CNBC, Zhang Xin gave advice to people who are getting on the career ladder.

She says, “The advice I gave my sons and my SOHO scholars is the same: ‘You should do the things that you want to do in life, and don’t worry about what other people expect you to do.’ They might expect you to be a great businessman, to be this and that.”

“But if you want to be a soccer player, go ahead to do that. If you want to be an artist, go ahead (and) do that. You would only do the best if you want to do it so badly. And that, I think, was the guiding principle for my life,” she added further.

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