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Billionaires eye Beijing gold

August 06, 2008 14:31 IST

China's Communist Party hasn't done much in the months ahead of the Olympics to quiet skeptics saying the country should have never been awarded this year's summer games. Among other controversial moves, it has cracked down on Tibet following unrest and intimidated domestic critics from even showing up in Beijing. Pollution threatens to sully the event.

Yet interest and anticipation is running high among ordinary Chinese in the first-ever Olympics held on Chinese soil. That excitement, in turn, is encouraging many marketers to make a play for China's 1.3 billion consumers. After all, the world's most populous nation is home to the fastest-growing major economy, and businesses positioning themselves well during these next couple of weeks could reap benefits with Chinese consumers for years to come.

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The world's billionaires and their brands will be among some of the more notable players at the games. Whether they travel to Beijing--like Microsoft's Bill Gates, Blackstone Group's  Stephen Schwarzman or Henderson Land's Lee Shau Kee--or simply send company representatives, they will all make visible marks.

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Topping the list of billionaire brands with a presence in Beijing is, no surprise, Nike, the American sportswear icon founded and still chaired by billionaire Phil Knight.

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Though not an official sponsor, the US company, which introduced its trademark swoosh at the 1972 Olympics, is working with 1,000 Olympic athletes from 100 countries--including high-profile sports icons such as US basketball players LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and China track and field phenomenon Liu Xiang. Plus Nike, which sold $1 billion worth of goods in China during its last fiscal year, is making products for 28 Olympic sports--including riding boots, track and field spikes and weightlifting shoes--and is providing goods to 22 Chinese teams.

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The world's largest manufacturer of athletic footwear, Yue Yuen, owned by Taiwan's billionaire Tsai family, is another company that should get a big Olympic boost. The maker of shoes for Nike and rival Adidas (an official Olympic sponsor), Yue Yuen also has 640 retail outlets in major Chinese cities, including Beijing. Sales in greater China surged 49% last year, and the Olympics could create still more growth.

A local player with much to gain is Li Ning, a Chinese gymnast and gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, whose eponymous company makes apparel and sports accessories. The tycoon, whose fortune hit $1.2 billion last year and is now down to $800 million, opened 800 stores this year in anticipation of the games.

Sportswear billionaires and their brands won't be alone, though. Beijing's richest property developers who were busy building ahead of the games and already got significant boosts to their businesses will keep up the pace over the next couple weeks, cultivating their images to attract new customers.

Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi--arguably Beijing's top power couple and main owners of Hong Kong-listed property developer Soho China--stand to impress Olympics visitors most with successful projects like Jianwai Soho. But they hope visitors will open up their wallets for space currently on sale, such as Sanlitun Soho, set in one of the city's most popular entertainment districts.

Hotel groups such as Marriott, run by billionaire Bill Marriott, and China Golden Resources Group, run by billionaire Huang Rulun, have also been gearing up for visitors. Marriott opened three new Beijing hotels in the past year and are days away from opening a fourth.

While Marriott anticipates "a solid Olympic season," the company is thinking much longer-term. "The Olympics will offer us a fabulous opportunity to showcase Marriott International's growing brand portfolio both to the Chinese people and to the travelers coming to Beijing from around the world," said a Marriott spokeswoman.

Even tech players like Bill Gates and Microsoft are hoping for a bit of that Olympic gold. Despite the company's history of problems with large-scale piracy in China, Microsoft is an official supplier to the games. Its Chinese Web site bears the Beijing Olympics logo, and touts its contribution to a "scientific," "IT" and "interactive" Olympics.

Though Gates has stepped away from daily operations, the chairman of the software giant will be there. With plenty of money and more time on his hands, maybe he wants to just watch some sports.

Russell Flannery, Forbes
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