Dong Mingzhu Photo: Courtesy of Gree Electric Appliances Inc

When Dong Mingzhu won CCTV’s China Economic Person of the Year Award on December 12, 2013 in Beijing, she never expected that her company would be included in the Fortune Global 500 list in six years.

At the awards ceremony, Dong Mingzhu, CEO of Gree Electric Appliances Inc, made a bet with Xiaomi’s founder Lei Jun, saying that she would pay Lei 1 billion yuan ($14 million) if Xiaomi’s annual revenues surpassed Gree’s in five years’ time.

Today, there seems to be a clear winner: According to their annual reports, Gree had an annual revenue of 198.1 billion yuan, while Xiaomi took in 174.9 billion yuan.

“I won’t take the 1 billion yuan. The bet was just an argument of two different business ideas. But I would like to take this chance to make another five-year bet with Lei,” said Dong at a business conference held in Beijing in August. 

The Global Times interviewed Dong Minzhu in her office located in Zhuhai, South China’s Guangdong Province, on a rainy morning in September. She had just completed a business trip in Zhejiang Province, which is more than 1,000 kilometers away from Zhuhai.

“Doing business is about flying around. You have to get used to it,” said the 65-year-old Dong. 

Wearing light make-up, she looks slightly pale on camera. In a previous interview, Dong said that she only spent five minutes on dressing and make-up every day. She seldom takes vacations and spends most of her time working.

Through her persistence, this “superwoman” has led Gree to the top of the industry and made this Chinese electrical appliance brand famous in the global market. 

Why isn’t Made-in-China leading?

Gree started its air conditioner business in 1991. After years of struggling and exploring, it became one of the most famous Chinese brands in the world. For Dong, the reason for Gree’s success is simple. “There is no secret except for keeping our feet on the ground.” Nowadays, Gree’s business goes far beyond air conditioners. They sell all kinds of appliances, from water heaters to electric cookers, meeting every demand of its global customers. 

Dong’s aim is simple and clear: to make a Chinese brand an industry leader.

“In 2015, there was a news report that said many Chinese people go to Japan to buy electric rice cookers, which deeply irritated me,” said Dong, “Why, after so many years, can Made-in-China still not satisfy the needs of my countrymen?” From then, Dong decided to step up research and development of household electrical appliances. Soon after, Gree produced a top-class electric cooker and several cookers with different functions, which became popular with consumers. One wrote to her, saying Gree’s cooker is so good that she will never need to go to Japan to buy one.

“That’s our best reward – recognition from consumers,” said Dong.

From ‘making’ to ‘intelligent manufacturing’

After winning initial success as an air conditioner brand, Dong met another obstacle – how to rid itself of the dependence on mold and equipment imports.

To solve the problem, in 2015, Zhuhai Gree Intelligent Equipment Co., Ltd was founded. It’s an intelligent equipment manufacturing enterprise integrating research and development, production, sales and service.

With years of development, today there are more than 120 pieces of intelligent equipment that cover more than 10 fields, such as industrial robot, intelligent storage equipment, unmanned automatic production line and so on.

“From consumer electronics to intelligent manufacturing, it’s a great leap,” Dong said, “I’m really proud of it.”

Greater Bay is the future

Based in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, Gree is facing more opportunities and challenges.

“I think it’s a great chance not only for Gree and for Zhuhai, but for every city in the Greater Bay Area,” Dong told the Global Times. “It connects the mainland cities with Hong Kong and Macao. With the building of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, geographical boundaries are no longer a problem. Talent from different cities can exchange freely and contribute to the development of the Greater Bay together. It’s a mutual benefit.”

“Gree is a part of the Greater Bay. We need to do more and take more responsibilities in the future,” said Dong.