ws logo Saturday, 20 July 2024

Ding Hemu, founder of China sports-wear giant Anta takes village charity nationwide

5 min read

By L Lim

Consistent giving through the years to his hometown of Jinjiang in China’s southern province of Fujian reveals the salt-of-the-earth generosity of Anta founder.

  • Anta founder and family sold stake in company worth $1.2 billion in 2021 to seed the Hemin Foundation that focuses on public welfare
  • Ding Hemu shows charity begins at home with consistent giving to causes at hometown of Andou
  • Gives promptly and generously to victims of national disasters

To the wider world, Ding Hemu is the billionaire founder of China sportswear giant Anta Sports – the nation’s answer to Adidas and Nike. But to those in his rural hometown of Andou village in Jinjiang county, in the southern province of Fujian, the mild-mannered elder with a ready smile often seen strolling in neighbourhood is known only as the “Old Chairman” or “Ah Mu.”

On the fifth day of each month in Andou, a queue of the village’s elderly would form in the wee hours at the Hemu Cultural Centre – a new seven-storey building named after its donor; they are there to collect their monthly cash stipend of RMB500 ($70) when the disbursement counter opens at 9 a.m. That’s courtesy of Ding Hemu, 85, and is available to each of the 800 villagers, 60 years or older, according to Ding Yuzu (no relation), a village leader in charge of elderly matters. Ding Hemu had moved away some years ago, but would still return to Andou a few times a month until recently, said Ding Yuzu.

“He’s very easy-going, and would chat with us elderly folks whenever he’s in town,” said Ding Yuzu, 71. “He has not forgotten us; he has done a lot to repay this village, and has given so much over the years.”

Ding Hemu’s donations have also helped path roads and build schools in Andou, said Ding Yuzu. Andou is a village across the strait from Taiwan; its 5,200 residents mainly comprise the Hui ethnic group, said to be descendants of Arab traders who plied the maritime Silk Road during the Song era (960-1279) and settled in the village after marrying locals. Most residents of Andou have the surname Ding. 

As a child, Ding Hemu – the only son to a farming couple with four other daughters – also would help his father dig for razor clams and catch small fish trapped on the sandbars to help keep the household fed; schooling fell on the wayside as he dabbled in trading during young adulthood to make ends meet. His first big break would come in the 1980s when budding entrepreneurs like him, then in his 40s, caught the wave of post-Cultural Revolution economic reforms that swept the country led by then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Demand for cheap manufactured goods, like no frills rubber-soled shoes, was booming both at home and for exports. A cottage industry of hundreds of shoemakers spouted in Jin Jiang to feed that demand, and Ding Hemu, too, opened a shoe workshop, and business prospered. To this day, Jinjiang is home to some of China’s top-selling sporting-gear brands; names like Anta, 361 degrees and Xtep all began as rubber-soled shoes on the county's cramped factory floors. 

“To know why people like (Ding Hemu) are so generous in giving back, you need to see where they came from, and how hard they worked,’’ said Ding Weiqiang (no relation), a leader at the Andou Village Committee, in a phone interview. “People support one another over here.”  Jinjiang in Quanzhou is also called the richest county in China. It is well known for its large number of overseas Chinese, billionaires and successful businessmen, who are referred to locally as Quan Shang ( 泉商), and are renown for their culture and traditions of conducting  commerce with philanthropy,“商行天下, 善行天下” , “where commerce thrives, kindness and charity thrive too”.

Ding Hemu’s charity started his first foundation in Jin Jiang, The Min Foundation, which is named after his father and mother. But his charity isn’t confined to his hometown, with his family, especially first-born son and Anta CEO Shizhong, 52, the Dings have emerged as one of the most prominent philanthropic families in China. Ding Hemu’s charitable giving first came into focus in 2008 -- a year after he successfully sold shares of Anta in Hong Kong for the equivalent of $406 million; that year, he began giving cash handouts of RMB300 ($42) a month to those 60 years or older in Andou, a sum increased to RMB500 ($71) in recent months, and started refurbishing schools and recreational buildings there. 

“When you see someone stuck in the midst of disaster, you couldn’t possibly just stare and not help,” said Ding Hemu, in a video on media platform Bilibili. “In situations like that, you just have to lend a hand.”

Ding Hemu and his family declined to be interviewed for this article.

Anta’s giving featured most prominently in times of national disasters. In 2008, Anta was the first sporting-gear firm to donate to the victims of the Wenzhou earthquake in the southwestern province of Sichuan that killed more than 69,000; it gave the equivalent of RMB20 million ($2.8 million) in goods and cash, and also helped raise funds through a charity sale. In the 2020 COVID outbreak in Wuhan, Anta said it donated RMB30 million ($4.2 million) and gave yet another RMB50 million ($7.1 million) towards flood relief in the 2021 flood in the southern province of Henan. 

Difficult as it is to associate the wizened Ding Hemu with NBA stars like Klay Thompson, it is Anta, the brand that Ding founded in 1991 that agreed to pay the 6-foot-6 Golden State Warriors shooting-guard $80 million for 10 years through 2026 to wear its goods. Anta stoked Chinese patriotic pride yet again last year when it replaced the Spalding ball in NBA games after 37 years with a Wilson, a brand it controls after buying Finnish sporting-goods company Amer Sports. 

Anta doesn’t shy away from political controversies involving China, and always sides with the home team when they happen. In March 2021, Anta became one of the first Chinese companies to break with an international movement led by Geneva-based non-profit Better Cotton Initiative that turned its back on using cotton from Chinese northwestern province of Xinjiang; in a statement, Anta said it would continue to support local supplies. This year, Anta has continued to operate in – and sell to – Russia, according to a database compiled by the Yale School of Management, in contrast with the thousands of corporations worldwide that have quit the country to protest its invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

Companies like Anta are unabashed about waving the flag to promote sales, and have reaped rich rewards for doing so. 

Anta frequent leverage of Chinese nationalistic fervour has helped the company’s revenue more than quintuple to RMB49.3 billion ($7 billion) last year, the world’s third biggest behind Nike and Adidas, and ahead of Puma. Anta’s expanding sales and profit also have buoyed the Ding’s family wealth, making generous philanthropic giving possible; Ding Shizhong was worth $6.98 billion as of 30 November, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index.

“Philanthropy in China isn’t just about charity, it’s also about preserving the family legacy and wealth for the next generation,” said Nixon Peabody CWL in Hong Kong.

The family’s single, biggest philanthropic pledge took place in December 2021 when it committed 84.5 million Anta shares – worth HKD9.26 billion or $1.2 billion at that time – to charity. Monies from the share sale will eventually go into the Hemin Foundation, according to an Anta statement; the foundation is set up by the family to mainly focus on public-welfare projects, such as medical assistance, sports, rural revitalisation, and environmental protection, and is part of a combined $1.6 billion in pledged donations to Hemin. Anta said the first tranche from the Foundation of RMB2 billion ($286 million) is being used to build a Grade-A tertiary hospital in Jinjiang called the Shanghai Sixth Fujian Hemin Hospital, and ground-breaking work on the facility has begun.

“Keeping too much wealth is bad for the children and the grandchildren; it will sap them of the drive to work hard,’’ said Ding Hemu, in the video posted on Bilibili, when asked why he gave so much to philanthropy. “Just giving the next generation enough to guarantee their basic livelihood would suffice.”

Anta’s announcement on starting the charity Hemin Foundation coincided with a so-called “common prosperity” campaign by the Chinese government to close the gap between the rich and poor in the country. First introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping at a political meeting in August 2021, the concept of involves bettering the income and livelihoods of the rural communities and underprivileged; it also included a push to “regulate excessively high incomes, and encourage high-income people and enterprises to return more to society.” Other Chinese entrepreneurs that made large pledges to charity at around the time of Xi’s speech included Meituan Chairman Wang Xing, who donates $2.3 billion worth of shares in his company to his own philanthropic foundation, and smartphone maker Xiaomi’s co-founder Lei Jun, who announced in July 2021 plans to donate $2.2 billion of shares to two charitable foundations founded by him.

“Wealth is a sensitive subject in China” that needs to be carefully dealt with, said Fu. “But there’s no need to doubt the charitable intent of philanthropic giving by the rich in China, and the good such generosity produces is what ultimately matters.”


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