A Life Ends, the Legend Lives On
A Life Ends, the Legend Lives OnBy Alice Yang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 408 )
"Nothing is easy in this world, but nothing is impossible."– Wang Yung-ching
Formosa Plastics Group founder and prominent Taiwanese businessman Wang Yung-ching has passed away. The familiar figure in the perfectly ironed dark blue suits with the straight back, gaunt face, slightly protruding ears and alert eyes has left this world.
He will no longer be seen competing in a white T-shirt and white shorts at Formosa Plastics Group sports festivals, crossing the finishing line after a 5K run.
Just one day before he passed away Wang was still busy inspecting one of his factories, and later dined with several subordinates. He had the heroic resolve of a veteran solider battling to his very last breath, and enjoyed the respect due a commander-in-chief.
When hearing the news of his passing, all the people of Taiwan felt a sense of loss. Those who knew him, and those who did not, all felt a tinge of sadness. It seemed that an archetypical figure had passed from the world, and that with him an entire era had faded away.
A Role Model Spanning Two Centuries
Yet Wang's spirit will not vanish so quickly. People who have some of Wang's rags-to-riches caliber can be found across Taiwan. This is particularly true for the founders of the island's small and medium-sized enterprises who built their businesses out of nothing and keep giving all until they die.
Wang believed in "diligence and simplicity" – an attitude that would stand Taiwan in good stead in the current economic downturn. His other tenet, "develop manufacturing, don't play money games," rings even more true now that Wall Street has been hit by a financial tsunami.
For half a century Wang's name has had various connotations. He symbolized unimaginable wealth, and his billionaire's fortune became a yardstick against which others were compared. ("Do you have more money than Wang Yung-ching?") He "went from rags-to-riches," was a "bold visionary," "became more vigorous with age," was "hardworking and frugal."
Synnex Technology International president Evans Tu likened Wang to "a roly poly doll that always bounces back up again – everyone was able to find a point of resonance with him."
Every year since CommonWealth Magazine launched its Most Admired Company Survey in 1994, Wang ranked high among Taiwan's Top Ten Most Admired Entrepreneurs, enjoying high esteem among industry peers and experts across the board, in the service, financial and manufacturing sectors alike. "No matter whether you were poor as a church mouse or came from a wealthy family, no matter whether you had a grade school education or held a PhD, everyone could learn something from him," notes Wang Chung-ping, head of human resources at BES Engineering Corporation, in explaining why people were fascinated by the Formosa Plastics Group founder.
Mastering His Own Destiny, Never Blaming Others
Wang was born in 1917 into a poor farmer's family in the Jhitan area of Sindian, in Taipei County. It took him three hours every day to walk to school and back home. Before leaving for school in the morning, he was required to fetch enough water for his family to use for the day. After returning home he had to help feed the pigs. Hit by poverty and disease, Wang's father even once considered hanging himself out of desperation.
At the age of 15, Wang left his hometown and went to Jiayi in the south to work in a rice store. The following year he opened his own small rice store with NT$200 that his father had raised from friends and neighbors. While the Japanese-owned rice store next door closed at 6 p.m., Wang kept his store open until 10:30. While his Japanese neighbors indulged in hot baths, Wang, covered in rice chaff and bran from head to toe after a day's work, took only cold showers even in windy cold winter nights. But this allowed Wang to save three Japanese sen a day (long out of circulation, a sen was worth one-hundredth of a yen), and as he once revealed in a speech at the Wharton School of Business, those three sen would buy him three pecks of rice.
When he was 38 Wang founded the Formosa Plastics Corporation starting with a daily output of four tons of PVC powder, which was delivered to customers by ox cart. Half a century later Wang's plastics business had grown into the world's third largest petrochemical conglomerate with an annual turnover of NT$2 trillion and almost NT$3 trillion in assets, easily surpassing established industry giants in Europe and North America. The two largest U.S. chemical makers, Dow Chemical and DuPont, view Formosa Plastics as a fierce rival and have even pulled out of petrochemicals altogether.
The Formosa Plastics factory in Kaohsiung City's Cianjhen District has preserved Wang's old office up to today. In front of it stands a large banyan tree that Wang used to illustrate his business philosophy. Pointing out that tree, Wang would often admonish employees that the Formosa Plastics spirit was to get to the root of the issue. He used to say that once a tree blossoms and bears fruit, people notice the lush foliage and lovely fruit, but ignore its most important part, the roots. Therefore, he argued, a business must be grown from its roots. The entrepreneur also used the banyan's intricate prop root system to explain how all problems are intertwined.
Wang would not allow this small house from the Japanese era to be remodeled or sold. Wedged between high-rise office buildings, it quietly witnesses our changing times.
During his long life Wang took control of his destiny, racing against time in the hope of completing a never-ending mission within a finite span of life.
In favorable circumstances Wang spared no effort to expand his business. When facing adversity he steered around the obstacles and moved forward again. And he would never cast blame elsewhere for his problems. During the martial law period, Taiwan's government did not want Wang to expand his business, and after the island became a democracy, he ran into resistance from the environmental protection movement. He was like a general denied the chance to battle.
In the 1980s he resolutely decided to invest in the United States. But since no one was willing to sell him a factory, Wang decided to build his own – not just any plant, but the largest ethylene factory in the entire country. Today, the huge pipes of the petrochemical complex in Point Comfort, Texas, whose output almost equals that of the Formosa Plastics Group's Sixth Naphtha Cracker Project in central Taiwan, sparkle golden under the Texan sun. The Group's three major petrochemical complexes in Texas, in Ningbo in China's Zhejiang Province, and in central Taiwan complement each other, mutually exchanging experiences, talent and goods.
Thriving on Adversity
It was not money that Wang fussed about most, but time.
Having interviewed Wang many times over the past three decades, I learned to read the habits of this influential business leader. Once Wang had settled into his seat at the outset of an interview, his secretary would bring him a cup of water. If he developed an interest in the interviewer's questions, he would ring the bell for his secretary and bark, "Coffee," a clear sign that he was ready to spend time on a longer conversation. If he didn't call for a cup of coffee, the interviewer had better excuse himself or herself as soon as possible. But even if he had begun drinking coffee, he could get impatient during an interview and suddenly get up and leave.
Whoever came to see him needed to be well prepared and take care not to waste even a second of his precious time. Usually grandiose entrepreneurs and politicians would become timid and cautious in front of Wang's office, like grade school students summoned by the principal.
Controlling one's destiny means being completely autonomous. Therefore, Formosa Plastics very rarely formed joint ventures with other companies. At most, the conglomerate bought technology, paying patent royalties while researching technological improvements on its own, thus bolstering its technological prowess.
Even though Forbes magazine estimated that Wang's personal fortune was worth US$2.8 billion, he firmly believed that the strong should help the weak and the rich should aid the poor. When it came to charity, he was also convinced that people should be helped to help themselves, and that those who obtain help must be able to control their own destiny.
In the late 1980s, for instance, helping child prostitutes escape their predicament became a social issue. At the time, indigenous or socially disadvantaged teenage girls were often tricked or forced into prostitution. Civic groups began to stage rallies and demonstrations to draw attention to the problem and founded support groups.
But Wang thought that prevention was better than trying to fix things after the fact. So he founded a five-year nursing course in 1995 for students from indigenous groups at the Chang Gung Institute of Nursing, which is funded by the Formosa Plastics Group. The students do not need to pay tuition, room or board and are even granted a living allowance.
After graduating from the institute, the students have gained special skills that improve their chances of earning a living without having to resort to prostitution. They even have the opportunity to become nurses at one of the Chang Geng Memorial Hospital branches. Wang also met personally with the students every year to help solve their problems.
God or Common Man?
People liked to call Wang "the God of Business Management." Attaining such celestial prestige seems to be a mission impossible for ordinary people. Yet a closer analysis shows that Wang combined various leadership traits in himself. Everyone can learn something from him.
He had foresight. In the 1980s he became the first Taiwanese entrepreneur to massively invest in the United States. An antique English map of the world hangs on the wall right opposite Wang's desk at his old office at the Formosa Plastics factory in Cianjhen, underscoring that even back then, his ambitions did not stop at Taiwan's shores.
He practiced what he preached. Wang liked to admonish his subordinates and family members to "work hard, be down-to-earth," principles that he personally implemented rigorously in all spheres of his life. When Wang drank coffee, he would dip his little cream container into his coffee to make sure he had used the last drop. He would stick soap leftovers onto new soap bars to use them up completely. And he would even consider a NT$120 necktie expensive.
He demanded discipline from his employees, but even more discipline from himself. For more than three decades he got up at 3:30 in the morning and did exercises. At the annual shareholder meetings he would show up ahead of all other Formosa Plastics executives to greet shareholders. In a five-minute address at a Formosa Plastics Group sports festival, he spoke for four minutes about the virtue Chinese people ought to cherish most – working hard without complaint.
Forty years ago, when even American management gurus had not yet invented the term "corporate culture," Wang was already busy establishing a distinct Formosa Plastics culture. Wang would personally train and lecture every newcomer to the company. Formosa Plastics Corp. chairman Lee Chih-tsuen still remembers that after joining the company, he had to work on Saturdays until 9 p.m. Then he would jump on a night bus to Taipei to attend training sessions on Sunday.
Wang was harsh on his managers, because he wanted them to be as tough as roaring tigers on their subordinates. He argued that only tigers could train tigers, and only a business led by tigers could be sustained for generations. If lambs take leading positions, they are not only unable to train tigers, but will also eventually turn tiger personalities into lambs.
Wang required his children to work hard without complaint like anyone else if they wanted to become members of the successor team. He regarded his offspring as subordinates, hiding his own paternal feelings, and demanding a lot from them from childhood on.
When Wang's eldest daughter Susan Wang, who now serves as deputy chief executive of the Formosa Plastics Group, headed Formosa Plastics Corp. USA twenty years ago, she kept driving her car to the office and working overtime even when she was pregnant. When doing an internship at a Formosa Plastics plant during her studies, Wang's second daughter Wang Jui-yu worked so hard that she even skipped breakfast and lunch.
But in addition to his demanding strictness, Wang also had a soft side. Amidst his stubborn persistence, Wang also showed flexibility.
Whenever the Formosa Plastics Group set up a factory in a new place, the company would first build employee accommodations. Wang believed that people needed to settle down to be able to work happily.
When the business group built its plant in Texas, it couldn't find a Chinese cook. Consequently, Wang transferred Chef Hsu, who worked at the Kaohsiung factory, to Texas for two years to cook Chinese meals for the Taiwanese workers there. Wang believed that only Chinese food could satisfy a Chinese person's stomach.
He also arranged a technology transfer, this time of culinary skills. Chef Hsu trained Mexican immigrants to cook Chinese cuisine. That's why up to today the cafeteria at the Texas plant offers various traditional Chinese dishes such as rice porridge, stir-fried eggs with vegetables, braised prawns with soy sauce, and steamed fish head.
A Lonely Giant Passes Away
After a life full of hardships and triumphs, Wang liked to say in his old age, "Nothing is easy in this world, but nothing is impossible."
For instance, when Wang came up with the idea to collect kitchen waste for composting, even his closest subordinates wondered behind his back whether he had gone crazy. Wang knew that he was up against many obstacles and that it would not be easy. But he worked to realize his idea step by step, first buying machinery, then researching technological improvements and negotiating with local government leaders.
Today, the Formosa Environmental Technology Corporation produces nearly 300 tons of organic fertilizer and grows more than 400 tons of organic vegetables per year. Meanwhile, kitchen waste is being recycled across the island and street corners no longer reek of rotten food.
During his long life Wang almost never took a vacation, working until the day before he died. Was it worth it? With eyebrows always knitted together and a thin, pinched mouth, Wang did not exactly look like a happy man.
"Of course he was happy," believes Wang's friend Wen-chang Ko, chairman of the WK Technology Fund. "Whatever idea he had, there were people who did their best to help him realize it. His life was full and magnificent. He did things the rest of us could never do."
Each era runs its own course. Now that the lonely giant has left this world, his era fades away. How much of his legacy the coming age will carry on, and how much it will discard, we can only quietly wait for time to tell.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 人生落幕，傳奇不朽