For decades, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei stayed out of sight as his company grew to become the biggest maker of network gear for phone carriers and surpassed Apple as the No. 2 smartphone brand.
Now, Ren is shedding that anonymity as Huawei Technologies Ltd. mobilizes against the latest threat to its success: U.S. sanctions and warnings that it is a security risk.
The billionaire entrepreneur embroiled in the Trump administration’s fight with China over technology is a 75-year-old former army engineer who worked his way out of childhood poverty. He has survived the competition that drove Western rivals out of the market, brushes with financial disaster and job stress so severe he contemplated suicide.
He sees American pressure as just the latest in a string of tests that have hardened him and his company.
“For three decades, Huawei has been suffering and no joy,” Ren said in an interview. “The pain of each episode is different.”
There is a personal dimension to the latest episode: Ren’s daughter, Huawei’s chief financial officer, is under arrest in Canada on U.S. charges she helped to violate sanctions against Iran.
Ren Zhengfei Huawei founder says the US sanctions not his toughest crisis
Ren and his company already have spent nearly a decade fighting U.S. accusations the company might facilitate Chinese spying. The Trump administration stepped up the pressure this year by imposing curbs on sales of U.S. technology to Huawei and urging European and other allies to shun the company as they prepare to roll out next-generation telecom networks.
The escalating clash with Washington has transformed Ren from an admired. However, but rarely seen businessman worth an estimated $3 billion into one of China’s most prominent figures.
He belongs to the generation of entrepreneurs who founded communist-era China’s first private companies in the 1980s. They navigated a shifting, state-dominated landscape, overcoming shortages of money and technology to create industries that are now expanding abroad.
Despite his success, Ren talks like a struggling rookie, worrying aloud that employees might get too comfortable.
He writes letters urging employees to “prepare for the worst,” said Nicole Peng of Canalys, an industry research firm.
“He is still quite important in dictating that urgency,” Peng said.
Tian Tao, co-author of “The Huawei Story,” says Huawei’s corporate culture stems from Ren’s upbringing in Guizhou. Also, one of China’s poorest regions.
Ren was raised by a schoolteacher who he said fed seven children on a monthly wage of 40 yuan ($6). They criticized his father as they confined a capitalist and at one point in a cow barn.
When Ren was a teenager, the ruling party embarked on the Great Leap Forward. Also, a disastrous campaign to become an industrial power overnight. At least 30 million people died in the 1959-61 famine that followed.
Ren’s mother declared no one would die and divided each meal into nine portions. However, one for each family member, Tian said.