Developer born into semi-rural poverty now invests in the development of Australia-China relations
|(Ma Xuejing / China Daily)|
When Huang Xiangmo migrated to Australia in 2011 he was relatively unknown outside of the local Chinese community.
In a few short years he has managed to establish a successful development company and become an influential figure in Sydney business and political circles.
A significant donor to parties on both sides of Australian politics, he has also given more than A$6 million (US$4.5 million) to charities and established the high-profile Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), headed by former foreign minister Bob Carr.
Huang himself has become a frequent contributor to publications in China, expressing his views on issues that affect relations between Australia and China.
His 15th-floor office in North Sydney is flooded with natural light from two large floor-to-ceiling windows. From here he can look straight up Sydney Harbour to the Heads — the mouth of the world-famous harbor — and to the left get a glimpse of the beachside suburb of Manly.
Wearing a white open-neck shirt and blue suit, the softly spoken founder and chairman of Yuhu Group (Australia) gave a warm welcome as he ordered tea.
His office is long, with black furniture, white walls and gray carpet. On the walls are framed photographs of him presenting checks or being presented with plaques for his donations to various charities and universities.
Despite his close relationship with key powerbrokers in the Australian Labor Party, Huang describes himself as a private person and rarely gives interviews, saying: “I am just an ordinary businessman.”
While still living in China, with the help of his family and some close friends, he managed to raise enough money to start the Shenzhen Yuhu Investment Development Company in 2001.
Specializing in property development, the company quickly earned a reputation for quality villas and high-rise apartments. Today it is not only involved in development but has branched out into agricultural production, electricity generation and mining.
Seeking to expand his business, Huang migrated to Australia in 2011 and established Yuhu Group (Australia) a year later.
“I had looked at other countries to expand the business but found Australia to be very welcoming,” he said. “The people are warm and friendly and the air is clean, very clean.”
Another factor favoring the move Down Under was his children, or as he put it, “the next generation”.
“I want them to take advantage of the opportunities Australia has to offer,” Huang said.
Australia has been an important move in the group’s internationalization strategy, where it plans to raise its global profile and target investment opportunities through expanding its business, particularly in the real estate, agriculture and medical research sectors.
Huang said the company has a set plan for expansion, but no time frame. The first phase, he said, is to focus on the real estate sector and the development of residential, commercial and mixed-use land, as well as commercial property management.
“That is our main priority,” he said. “But we still have an eye on other areas of investment in Australia such as agriculture and medical research.”
In 2013 the company bought the Eastwood Shopping Centre in Sydney’s northwest and is in the process of refurbishing the complex. It is one of five residential/commercial projects the company is currently involved in around the city.
Huang has also made his mark as a philanthropist, donating millions to universities and medical research in Australia.
In December 2015 he donated A$3.5 million to the Western Sydney University (WSU) for the establishment of a new Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture.
He sees the institute as an important point of access to Chinese culture, providing resources, support and expertise for those wanting to study one of the world’s oldest and most enduring societies. He also sees it providing opportunities for cultural exchange.
The donations follow similar gifts in 2013 to the Children’s Medical Research Institute (A$1 million) and an endowment of A$1.8 million over three years to establish the innovative China-Australia relations program at UTS.
“Australia has been very good to me,” Huang said. “This is my way of giving something back and to help create a better understanding between our two countries. The best way for that to happen is through education,” he said.
“While UTS and the WSU may not be among Australia’s top universities, they attract a lot of overseas students, many of whom are Chinese. And they have strong ties with China.”
It was through education that Huang managed to free himself from poverty. He was born in 1969 in a poor, semi-rural township outside of Jieyang, in South China’s Guangdong province.
“For my mother and father, life was a struggle, especially with five children to feed,” he recalled.
Leaning back in his chair, he looked around his office and said: “We lived in a room about half the size of this. Despite the hardships we were a close family.”
When Huang was 15, his father died suddenly. “I had to pull out of school to help the family. But that lasted for about one year, then it was back to school,” he said.
“My parents believed education was the passport to a good future.”
Huang said his mother was the bedrock of the family.
“She instilled in us certain values such as being kind to people and being thrifty and tolerant — these are values which have made China great,” he said.
Huang’s high school and university years coincided with China’s opening-up to the outside world and its rebirth as a modern economy.
He said he had no clear ideas about what he wanted to do after finishing high school, although he was interested in science and technology.
“My friend and I decided we would apply to the University of Science and Technology of China (in Hefei, East China’s Anhui province). For some reason we both found ourselves at Sun Yat-sen University (in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province). We found out later that the characters for both universities are very similar and we had applied to the wrong one,” he said, breaking into a broad grin.
Huang said a history degree “was a passport to a good job back then”.
“That’s why I chose to study history. I had no idea about the future, but I wanted to take advantage of the opportunities that were opening up in China at the time. You could feel the change taking place within the country.”
With the real estate market booming in China, property was a logical choice for Huang. And today, with the Shenzhen group “at a point where it can stand on its own two feet”, he is concentrating on developing the business in Australia.
“We still have a long way to go, but things are going according to our five-year plan for the company,” he said.
“Our first investment was the Eastwood Shopping Centre and since then we have had four projects. The latest is a mixed residential/commercial complex in Miller Street, North Sydney.”
Despite recent reports that Australian property is vastly overpriced, Huang believes the market still is pretty buoyant.
“We are not looking at mass building. We are simply looking at good investment opportunities, one project at a time.”