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Taiwan’s Rags-To-Riches Billionaire Shuns Publicity

November 3, 1988

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) _ Billionaire Tsai Wan-lin, the richest man in Taiwan and one of the wealthiest in the world, is a rags-to-riches Midas who shuns publicity, loves solitude and finds comfort in quiet evenings at home.

The younger of two sons of a poor rice farmer near Taipei, Tsai and his brother ran a fruit and vegetable stand as teen-agers. Later they purchased a soy sauce factory and branched out into real estate.

Today, the 64-year-old Tsai owns Taiwan’s largest insurance company and a major real estate and construction conglomerate. Together their total assets of 132 billion Taiwan dollars - about $4.5 billion - is equivalent to roughly one-fourth of Taiwan’s annual national budget.

In July, Forbes Magazine ranked Tsai as the world’s eighth richest man with a personal fortune estimated at $5.6 billion.

But Wealth, a respected Taiwan business magazine, says Tsai is even richer, the result of a profitable killing on the volatile Taiwan stock market this year when share prices of his Cathay Life Insurance Co. tripled. Tsai and his family own roughly 90 percent of the company’s stock.

Tsai has seldom discussed his wealth publicly and he has never been interviewed. His associates say the reclusive executive doesn’t like to talk about his business practices and draw attention to his fortune.

But Cathay’s Managing Director Liu Chia-lin said Tsai told his executives once that, ″being a billionaire does not mean very much to me and I would be pleased if I could make those who work for me millionaires.″

A short, energetic and solidly-built man, Tsai still spends eight hours daily at his office, and maintains a lifestyle that is conservative when compared to those of other local tycoons.

For instance, he has rejected suggestions he trade in his 1987 Mercedez Benz 560 SEL for a Rolls Royce because he ″doesn’t want to show off,″ said Liu. Also, Liu said, Tsai prefers to spend quiet evenings at home with his family rather than wine and dine fellow businessmen and government officials in the common practice here.

Tsai and his family live in an unpretentious apartment building a block from his insurance company’s new 28-story headquarters in Taipei’s business district. Each of his three sons, who work at Cathay or its affiliate companies, have separate apartments in the building.

On weekends, Tsai and his wife of 40 years usually relax at their two-story villa in the exclusive Yangmingshan suburb of Taipei.

He has no hobbies but occasionally plays golf alone because he enjoys solitude, associates say. Cathay’s Liu says there is another reason why Tsai plays alone: ″He walks too fast on the golf course and others have a hard time catching up.″

Tsai and his brother Wan-chun, who died last year, established Cathay Life Insurance Co. in 1962 when the government approved licenses for Taiwan’s first eight private insurance companies.

For the next few years, Tsai traveled extensively throughout Taiwan, visiting branch offices and assembling an aggressive sales staff. Today, Cathay controls almost 60 percent of the insurance market.

As Cathay profited, it became the cornerstone of Taiwan’s second largest conglomerate that included extensive interests in financial institutions, restaurants, shipping, construction, real estate and advertising companies.

Tsai acquired sole ownership of Cathay Life Insurance in 1979 when he and his brother agreed to divide their fortunes. The younger Tsai received the flagship insurance company and several affiliates.

Cathay now owns 120 office buildings, mostly in lucrative downtown Taipei, and a dozen more are under construction. The company has a policy of renting, rather than selling, office space.

In the past year, Cathay’s purchase of vast tracts of land has been blamed for soaring real estate prices that have doubled.

Last year when the government liberalized its monetary policies, Cathay began searching for overseas investments. Earlier this year, it invested $90 million in the United States and Japanese stock and bond markets.

Liu says Tsai remains a cautious businessman and keeps a firm grip on each of Cathay’s affiliates. He diversifies into allied businesses only when he is confident his affiliates are solidly profitable.

To boost employee morale, Tsai’s conglomerate has a profit-sharing plan and workers receive generous bonuses. Last year, each of the conglomerate’s 22,000 employees received a traditional year-end bonus equivalent to six months salary.

In 1985, Tsai had to battle to prevent damage to his empire in Taiwan’s worst financial scandal blamed on elder brother Wan-chun’s second son, Chen- chou, 39, a free-spending member of Parliament.

Chen-chou was accused of issuing bad checks and diverting $200 million in loans from a major savings and loans cooperative where he was chairman to his other financially troubled companies.

Although Tsai was not directly involved in the scandal, his insurance company was threatened because of his family ties. Tsai dispatched 10,000 salesmen to placate his clients and made a personal loan of $7.5 million to his nephew’s savings and loan cooperative but refused further assistance.

The government eventually intervened and suspended the operations of Chen- chou’s cooperative. Chen-chou was convicted of various charges and sentenced to jail where he died last year from a liver ailment.

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