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Categorized | Property

Zhang Yue, CEO, Broad Group — China’s flat-pack skyscraper tycoon

Posted on November 21, 2016

China’s 322nd richest citizen eats just one meal a day, at 7pm, which possibly explains Zhang Yue’s extreme bad temper as he sits down for an interview in the early afternoon.

Then again, his anger and impatience could also be prompted by questions about his long-thwarted ambition to build the world’s tallest skyscraper.

“Of course we will build our sky city,” he says, referring to the 838m-tall building he wants to construct using prefabricated steel sections that fit together like Lego bricks.

His plan is to build it near where we are sitting in his dimly lit office on the outskirts of Changsha, a smallish provincial Chinese city with a population of 5.3m.

The building has been delayed since Mr Zhang broke ground in 2013, thanks to “people who intervened and made trouble, [government] leaders who were scared and other people who meddled and ruined our plans,” he says.

Chinese media say Mr Zhang’s plan for a structure 10m taller than the world’s record-holder — the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — was put on hold because of concerns about the safety of his proprietary technology, which he claimed would allow him to complete construction in only 90 days.

Throughout the first half of the interview, Mr Zhang barely looks up from his smartphone and when he does he closes his eyes and punctuates his speech with long pauses.

Several times during our meeting he declares the interview over before ignoring his own pronouncement. But despite his rudeness it is hard not to be impressed by Mr Zhang’s vision to overhaul and dominate the global construction industry.

“Construction is one of the most polluting of all industries but I can make the most environmentally sound buildings for half the price and 10 times the speed of anyone else,” Mr Zhang says.

He believes his company, Broad Group, which he founded in the late 1980s making boilers and air-conditioning units, and where he remains chairman and CEO, will eventually control 30 per cent of the global construction industry with its revolutionary but largely unproven technology.

“People say I’m crazy but this does not surprise me since they said that when I first started making air conditioners too,” he says.

Born in Changsha in 1960, Mr Zhang was unable to attend school until he was nine years old thanks to the Cultural Revolution, which temporarily shut down most schools in the country.

When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, university entrance exams were restarted and Mr Zhang was accepted to an academy to study fine art. As if to prove his education did not go to waste, Mr Zhang stops the interview, pulls out a pen and paper and sketches his interviewer, eliciting enthusiastic applause from several staff lurking in the back of his dimly lit office.

After working as a librarian and teaching drawing at primary school, Mr Zhang started a home renovations company before establishing Broad Group with his brother in 1988 to provide boilers for newly built factories.

“I just wanted to make money and I had no ideals,” he says. With factories springing up across the country, Broad’s industrial air conditioning units proved hugely popular and Mr Zhang soon became one of the country’s richest business people — his wealth is estimated at about $1.5bn.

He was one of the first people in China to buy a private jet. At one point he personally owned seven aircraft but after an epiphany about 15 years ago he decided to protect the environment and tackle climate change instead.

“Private jets are really very polluting so now I only have three,” he explains. “I was killing 16 trees every week.”

A desire to mitigate the shocking environmental degradation he saw all around him in China led him to enter the construction industry and establish a subsidiary, Broad Sustainable Building, in 2009.

Although his ambition to build the world’s tallest skyscraper is yet to be realised, Mr Zhang’s prefabricated steel technology has been used to construct about 30 shorter buildings.

The most prominent example is a 57-storey “mini sky city” built on Mr Zhang’s Broad Town campus on the outskirts of Changsha in just 19 days last year. The time-lapse YouTube video of its construction has been viewed about 2.5m times.

The windows are four panes thick and designed not to open — polluted air from outside cannot enter and internal temperatures can be regulated more efficiently. Residents separate their rubbish into eight different categories via evacuation tubes from each floor.

The rest of the Broad Town campus is a physical manifestation of Mr Zhang’s mix of hubris and environmental evangelism.

There is a small forest where animals are allowed to roam, an organic farm to feed company employees, a 40m-high golden Egyptian pyramid, a scale replica of a Versailles-like palace,and dozens of statues of historical figures from Abraham Lincoln to Plato.

A bronze statue of Napoleon on horseback stands in front of the faux palace and Mr Zhang, who is said to be the same height as the French autocrat, is fond of quoting him in corporate handbooks.

All Broad Group job applicants must undergo a week-long military-style boot camp and memorise Mr Zhang’s code of 110 rules, including one requiring employees to “love Broad Group”. Another orders them to brush their teeth twice day.

Mr Zhang makes no apologies for his uncompromising corporate culture.

“This is my personality,” he says.

“In a very short time I became a very top entrepreneur making air conditioning units and I perfected air conditioning. Later I decided I needed to perfect the environment. You can’t do this without being a perfectionist.”

Zhu Linfang, an executive at Broad Group, who works with “Chairman Zhang”, as she calls him, says: “He is an environmentalist and in 2011 the United Nations gave him an award naming him a ‘global bodyguard’. This was to commend him for his work in energy saving and environmental protection.”

Visitors to his monumental factory campus find that sycophancy is highly valued at Broad. Like all of his employees, Ms Zhu refuses to say anything less flattering.