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The Yabuli Forum: WHU alumni Tian Yuan’s masterpiece

In the lecture hall of the WHU Student Innovation & Entrepreneur Practice Center, the fifth Entrepreneur Forum was held last month. During the forum, Mr. Tian Yuan, a distinguished alumni of WHU gave a speech titled The Yabuli Forum and Entrepreneurship to a room full of keen audience including WHU trustees, leaders and young entrepreneurs.

Before Mr. Tian became a fruitful investor, he successively served as a soldier, college teacher, senior government official and groundbreaking master in China’s futures industry. It is him who established and organized the China Entrepreneur Forum, which is also known as the famous Yabuli Forum.

Always ahead of his time

In 1954, Tian Yuan was born in a doctor’s family in Zhengzhou, Henan province. Growing up in that revolutionary era, Mr. Tian did not follow his parents’ footsteps. Like most urban youngsters, he registered in a state-owned farm and worked in the countryside after high school. Four years later, he joined the PLA and was sent to Kunming, Yunnan province, becoming a soldier. In 1975, the second year of his military life, Mr. Tian was recommended to Wuhan University. From his entrance in October 1975 to his departure in December 1983, Mr. Tian spent eight unforgettable years on campus. Here he read, learned and taught, eventually working his way up to become a lecturer in political economics.

Still, as Mr. Tian looks back to these memorable days, he cherishes the gift that WHU has given to him. “At first, we were sent to the Xiangfan branch campus, the so-called education center for workers, peasants and soldiers. During those tough days, we were poor in material condition, but rich in spirits.” Mr. Tian is grateful to his two-year lecturing experience. He takes teaching as a process to persuade the audience and implant ideas into their minds. “During that period, I obtained this knack of speech, which is an essential ability for entrepreneurs and investors.”

The first leap of Tian Yuan’s career came in December 1983, when he went to the Development Research Center of the State Council which was, at that time, the main think-tank during the reform era in charge of policy analysis, market research and providing consultancy to state leaders. Working as party member, managing director and chief director in sequence, Mr. Tian found his passion for economic research. Then, in December 1991, he was chosen to go on a one-year study in Colorado University and the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT). When he came home, he was entrusted with an important post--the director of the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade under the Department of Foreign Economic Cooperation. Ranking high among China’s administrative levels, this position was enough to satisfy this 37-year-old knowledgeable and vigorous young official.

Tian Yuan’s second and most decisive leap took place in 1992. Shortly after Teng Hsiao-ping’s South Tour Speeches, a wave of civil servant resignation occurred. Tian took this opportunity to jump out of the administration system, establishing the China International Futures Brokerage Company (CIFCO). This company took advantage of China’s booming futures market, and soon developed into a futures’ brokerage giant. Tian Yuan, CIFCO’s chairman, was even venerated as the “Godfather of China’s futures industry”. Five years later, he reorganized the loss-making state-owned logistic company China Cheng Tong (CCT) into a modern parent-subsidiary cooperation and made it profitable in 1999. Now CCT has become a mainstay logistic company in China.

Tian Yuan (in the middle) with his colleagues in CIFCO 1st shareholders’ meeting, in November 1992

Before Tian Yuan made his third leap in 2010, he further proved himself to be a successful businessman beyond just CIFCO and CCT. He became the pioneer of the ski industry in China, funding and building the famous Yabuli Ski Resort. He was also the founder of a giant supermarket group. All the above are the stepping stones to his success in the VC and PE business, now Tian Yuan leads his company, Yuan Ming Capital, which concentrates on funding high-tech biotechnology enterprises, expanding aggressively in health industry investment.

The Yabuli Forum and the “92’s businessmen”

China’s market economic reformation has travelled across hardships and tortuous road. Every individual or group involved in this process have their own fascinating stories, yet the fate of the people are often linked with history and cannot be told apart. During the wave of civil servant resignations in 1992, a handful of experienced businessmen were gradually distinguished from the enthusiastic yet often mediocre bunch. These excellent entrepreneurs became known as the “92’s businessmen”. Among them, WHU alumni such as Chen Dongsheng, Mao Zhenhua, Tian Yuan, Ai Luming, Yan Zhi, Lei Jun, became the so-called “WHU group”. These business leaders are outstanding representatives of WHU alumni’s success in the marketplace.

The “Three Musketeers” of “WHU group”, from left to right are Tian Yuan, Chen Dongsheng and Mao Zhenhua

When it came to the establishment of the Yabuli Forum, Tian Yuan seemed to be fully infused with excitement. “The accession to the WTO provides China with opportunities, along with severe challenges to our small and medium enterprises. Thus we wanted to gather these relatively small players together to defend our national business interests against the impact.” With the help of his alumni, Mr. Chen and Mr. Mao, Tian Yuan invited dozens of business leaders to the Yabuli Ski Resort. They went skiing during the daytime and discussed economic issues at night. The Yabuli Forum may not have attracted much attention at the beginning, but with its increasing high profile participants from both the business and academic worlds, the Yabuli Forum soon escalated into an economic summit which enjoyed nationwide influence. “Every year we spend three frozen days in the northernmost part of China with the most brilliant brains, analyzing our macroeconomy, and putting forward proposals. The forum is a grand meeting every year, and we have helped lots of entrepreneurs grow up faster and stronger.”

During Yabuli Form, entrepreneurs went skiing at daytime, had meeting at evening

At the very beginning, as the property tycoon Wang Shi said, Yabuli was an exclusive circle, containing only Beijing entrepreneurs and the “WHU group”, in which 6 alumni were council members. It took Tian Yuan a while to come up with a little trick to attract more entrepreneurs from different background. “Skiing is an addictive sport, but very few Chinese had ever tried to ski 15 years ago. Realizing this fact, I bought 500 nice ski sets from Switzerland, hired two world skiing champions, and trained 150 local forestry workers’ boys to be my guests’ private coaches, so that every entrepreneur could get a personal trainer when they go skiing. I reckoned that once they tasted the joy, they would come again the next year whether I invite them or not. As expected, everyone who attended last year’s activity would come again the following year. I think this is partly due to the magic of skiing.” With this kind of promotion in its first three years, the forum grew in popularity among Chinese entrepreneurs.

What is the meaning of entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship was considered to be an important motivation of economic development. People who choose to stand out, seek opportunity instead of security, and enjoy ups and downs while remaining levelheaded would be regarded as an entrepreneur. Based on his rich experience, Mr. Tian summed up eight elements that make up the meaning of entrepreneurship, such as ambition, responsibility, self-discipline, collective study ability and a dauntless spirit. He explained each character with theories and true stories which had the audience engaged attentively.

“What is entrepreneurship?” When answering this question, Mr. Tian took Wang Shi as an example. According to him, Wang Shi had demonstrated this word personally during his first time of skiing. He broke his thumb due to his own impatience, and Chen Dongsheng once teased about him “Dude, I bought insurance for all of us, so I’ll pay the bills for you.” When Wang Shi struggled to the platform that night to deliver his speech, he raised his gauze wrapped thumb up and said to the audience, “Look, this is entrepreneurship- dauntless, unbeatable and unyielding. I would have rested in the hospital if I were not an entrepreneur.” To Mr. Tian, Wang’s inspiring experience had become a vivid lesson he would never forget.

Mr. Tian in WHU Student Entrepreneur & Innovation Exhibition Hall, reviewing his juniors’ achievements

“Entrepreneurial success is always against the odds, regardless of the level of financial freedom. If you want to lead the trend and change the rules, you will have to spare no effort. You fail and you start again; you lose and you try it once more.” Tian mentioned the difficulty and requirement of being an entrepreneur. Furthermore, he also emphasized the significance of ambition. “Aim high, then you can go far. Take our alumni for instance, when Chen Dongsheng saw that skyscrapers in New York and Tokyo were mostly insurance companies, he decided to initiate the first insurance company in China; when Mao Zhenhua saw Moody’s decisive status as a world rating agency, he created a Chinese rating giant. As for me, when I first went to the States in 1987, I was exposed to the market adjusting function of futures. Back to China, I set up the China futures reform and subsequently I established CIFCO.” Tian described the final destination of people as a result determined by their objectives.

Undoubtedly the emergence of “WHU group” is of great significance for these entrepreneurs’ Alma Mater, because it is the first time in history that members of WHU alumni appeared on the stage of history as a distinguished group. Mr. Tian admired that WHUers may not be the very best, “but it convincingly illustrated that we WHUers are inferior to nobody.”

(Edited by Edmund, Wu Siying & Hu Sijia, Photo by Chen Ziyao/Yabuli Forum website)