China’s top businesswoman is a single mother who hasn’t taken a day off in 26 years

Needs a holiday.
Needs a holiday.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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Yesterday (Feb.6), Forbes China released its latest annual ranking of the top 100 outstanding businesswomen in China. Topping the list was Dong Mingzhu, president of Gree Electric Appliances, the country’s biggest air-conditioner maker.

The company, which is listed in Shenzhen, has a market cap of 151 billion yuan ($22 billion), and posted revenue of 82 billion yuan in the first nine months of 2016, according to S&P Capital IQ data. It employs some 70,000 people.

Dong is known as a rare outspoken businesswoman in China, never shy from engaging in wars of words with rivals. The 62-year-old from Nanjing has been heading the Guangdong-based company since 2001, where she started as a salesperson in the early 1990s. Under her leadership, Gree has evolved from a little-known brand to an appliance giant, with two out of every five air-conditioners sold in the country last year made by Gree.

It hasn’t always been smooth-sailing for Dong. Its air-conditioner sales have faltered as China’s economy has slowed in recent years. As a result, Dong tried to diversify into other products, including smartphones and electric cars. But these efforts haven’t been fruitful: In November, Dong was forced to abandon a nearly $2 billion bid to take over a domestic electric-car maker amid pressure from shareholders, and was subsequently removed from the top post at Gree’s parent company.

During several interviews with Chinese media, Dong said that she has never used a day of her annual holiday allowance since joining Gree over two decades ago. She has now gone 26 years straight without taking leave, and her dedication to the company is showing no signs of waning—Dong told China News Service (link in Chinese) last year that she “had no other choice but to stay with Gree” her entire life.

But her success has come at the expense of family life. Dong has expressed regrets for spending too little time with her son while he was growing up. She told the Chinese state broadcaster (link in Chinese) in December that she has never attended her son’s graduation ceremonies from kindergarten to graduate school. A single mother, Dong never remarried after her husband died in 1984, when their son was only two years old.

“To make the world a better place, a small number of people have to make sacrifices,” she said in the same interview, adding that she had sacrificed her personal life, her friends, and her family.