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THE ASIA BOOM : Pacific Rim Movers and Shakers : It took many years--and 'gallons of mao tai' liquor--to build good relations with the Chinese government, entrepreneur Gordon Wu says. But his work literally paved the way for other investors, and now he's setting his sights on other parts of Asia.

November 29, 1994|MAGGIE FARLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HONG KONG — From the 64th floor of his cylindrical building, which stands aloof from the glittering towers of central Hong Kong, Gordon Wu can almost see China. But that's not what people mean when they talk about his China vision.

When Wu concocted the idea of a 600-mile superhighway connecting Hong Kong with Guangzhou and Macao, the target region was mostly rice paddies, and only the hardiest investors were venturing across the border from Hong Kong. Now, fast-growing Guangdong province has been transformed into a construction site nearly the size of Nebraska and Wu's superhighway was in such demand that cyclists and 18-wheel trucks sneaked onto it before it was finished. Canny entrepreneurs were even collecting unauthorized tolls.

But Wu is the one who will rake in the profits. His company, Hopewell Holdings, not only earns a $12 toll for every vehicle that uses the road, it has development rights for the premium land alongside it. Rolls of blueprints for hotels, shopping malls and office space are ready to go.

Wu has also built two power plants to help fuel southern China's growth, and has two more under way there. It took many years--and "gallons of mao tai" liquor--to build good relations with the Chinese government, he says. But his work literally paved the way for other investors, and now he's setting his sights on other parts of Asia.

Just as truck drivers know him in China, any office worker in Manila can tell you exactly who Gordon Wu is: the one who is going to end the daily brownouts in the Philippines that make a flashlight and a lantern everyday office supplies. Hopewell already operates nine power barges and will soon add its fourth power plant in the country. Nothing creates a hero in the tropics faster than promises of air conditioning for all.

Wu's combination of connections and chutzpah allows him to do deals that other Asian entrepreneurs haven't, and that Western companies couldn't. The 67-year-old Hong Kong billionaire is known for doing deals on a handshake; he's able to make ideas become reality, while putting very little money down himself, and then finish the projects ahead of schedule. The early completion bonus for one of his Chinese power plants was three times the amount he had put in the kitty to begin with.

Hopewell's spinoff company, Consolidated Electric

Power Asia, is standardizing its power plant design with an age-old marketing strategy in mind: Buy in bulk and save. With his economies of scale, Wu can offer electricity to power-hungry countries for less than state-owned companies. And since most of his projects are of the "build-operate-transfer" type, governments end up the owners after granting Wu a healthy period to reap his profits.

Armed with this strategy, Hopewell's chairman is busy wooing the governments in India and Pakistan as they begin to privatize utilities. During an August trip to India by Wu, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao reportedly told him that "there is no power more expensive than no power," a remark that could become Hopewell's motto. India's neighbors also seem taken with his ideas: One investment banker at a Pakistan state dinner for Wu described the occasion as "a mutual love fest."

But that's it for romance. The new Guangzhou superhighway cuts the drive between South China's boom towns from seven hours to 90 minutes, which eliminates an overnight stay for truck drivers--and thus visits to mistresses. And more power in the Philippines means an end to brownouts and the candlelight dinners that go with them.

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