Reuters Edge

China web tycoon thrives on portals, pig farms

BEIJING (Reuters) - He may be a billionaire, but soft-spoken William Ding, founder of Chinese online gaming giant NTES.O, feels as comfortable on the farm with his pigs as he does in the boardroom.

William Ding, 31, CEO of Chinese Internet company NetEase, holds up national flags at the company headquarters in Beijing in this August 20, 1999 file photo. REUTERS/Andrew Wong

The publicity shy 38-year-old juggles his time between China’s No. 3 online game operator and a pig rearing business he started in February, in search of balance and quiet as the nation’s raucous online community develops at breakneck speed.

The bespectacled bachelor, China’s 23rd richest man worth $2.25 billion according to Forbes, was one of China’s earliest Internet pioneers when he founded NetEase in 1997 as a tiny search engine.

More than a decade and several controversies later, NetEase is one of China’s most prominent names on the web and Ding has acquired celebrity status in China, pursued everywhere like a rock star by packs of reporters and admirers.

“Ding has encouraged a whole generation of young people to want to enter the Internet business,” said Internet entrepreneur Edward Liu, who, along with Ding, attended one of China’s biggest Internet conferences this week in Beijing.

“They all want to be like him.”

Ding belongs to an elite group of Chinese mavericks who have made billions on the Internet in China, the world's largest market with over 300 million users. He sits alongside others like Jack Ma, head of Internet giant Alibaba Group and Robin Li, founder of online search leader Baidu BIDU.O.

Born in China's Zhejiang province, which churns out some of the country's most famous entrepreneurs, Ding was schooled as an engineer and worked for several companies including Sybase SY.N before founding NetEase.

The company lost its No.2 status in China's online game sector to up-and-comer Tencent 0700.HK in the second quarter.

Ding, whose Chinese name means “solid” or “sturdy”, has needed those qualities to weather a non-stop stream of controversies in China’s rough-and-tumble Internet market.

Early on, NetEase faced the possibility of delisting after it failed to turn in its annual report. It also saw its shares plunge in late 2003 as China embarked on a campaign to clean up pornographic mobile content.

More recently, NetEase has been caught in the crossfire of a government turf war that has threatened to put the brakes on one of its most promising new gaming titles, World of Warcraft.

A source close to Ding said the taciturn executive is in a real bind over the tussle and hopes the fighting ends soon.

“He is very principled and won’t do anything illegal to make things easier for NetEase,” said the source, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. “We are just waiting it out.”

Ding, whose casual attire in jeans and sneakers sets him apart at many of the suit-filled conferences he attends, retains his calm by finding solace in activities like his new pig farm.

This week at the Internet conference in Beijing, a cartoon on one notice board depicted a beaming Ding, holding one of Mao’s little red books in his right hand and a herd of pigs in the background.

“This is not an investment for NetEase or a way to make extra money, I hope that it will increase food product safety and work opportunities for rural folk,” Ding said in an interview shortly after starting the farm.

His aim is to raise the 10,000 hogs in a healthy, more respectful and less intensive environment than a typical Chinese livestock farm.

“He respects the natural law of things and believes that if it is not followed there will be negative consequences,” the source close to Ding said. (Editing by Doug Young and Lincoln Feast)