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|August 31, 2000||
Chinese star vaults to successTan Ee Lyn
Li Ning, China's best known gymnast from the 1980s, is poised to make headlines again. But this time it won't be because of feats in an Olympic sports hall.
The former gymnast shot to fame in 1984 when he won three gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. Although he disappointed legions of fans four years later by failing to win even one medal in Seoul, he never really disappeared from public view.
He quickly vaulted onto television screens and giant billboards advertising health drinks and sportswear of the Jianlibao company, a state-backed maker of sports goods.
Li, now 37, struck out on his own in 1994, and runs Li Ning Sports Goods Co Ltd, which employs over 1,000 people, boasts 12 branches around the country and sponsors clothing for members of China's Olympic squad.
"This company will be listed. Li Ning wants to make this a public company," said general manager Chen Yihong, one of Li's closest business aides. "We hope to do it in two years, outside mainland China. We haven't decided where. Hong Kong is possible."
Li devotes much of his time to his family and to study for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Beijing. Whatever time he has left over is taken up jetsetting around China and overseas to tend to his business.
Li's company, which enjoys an eight percent share of China's sportswear and shoes market, is ready for the challenges that await China's imminent entry into the World Trade Organisation.
To tackle greater competition in future from foreign sports labels, the company will set up a retail joint venture in 2001 with a prominent American company to sell sports goods such as garments, shoes and golf gear.
"The first step is to set up retail units in Chaina selling quality brands. After that we'll sell outside China," Chen said.
He declined to name the partners or the venture, in which Li's company will invest US$10 million for a start.
One advantage of the WTO is it will bulldoze cumbersome export quotas now placed on Chinese sports goods, Chen said.
"I think exports will comprise more than 50 percent of our sales in two years after WTO entry," he predicted.
The company began exporting this year to Europe, a market that will account for five percent of total sales by end 2000. Chen estimates total sales will hit 625 million yuan (US$75.4 million) in 2000.
Li has taken on his role as the clothing sponsor for Chinese athletes with an almost missionary zeal.
"He used to say he never wore Chinese-made garments during his athletic days. His wish is to make clothes for Chinese athletes now," Chen related.
Since retiring and turning businessman after the Seoul Games, Li has sponsored podium suits for Chinese prizewinners in every Olympics since Barcelona in 1992. Sydney will be no different.
"Sydney will cost us nine million yuan," Chen said.
Li's company will also sponsor competition gear for the Chinese table tennis, gymnastics, archery and diving teams.
It announced in July it will sponsor competition and training gear of the French gymnastics team for the next four years.
Chen would not disclose the cost, though he said it would be higher than the one million yuan the company spends each year on the heavyweight Chinese gymnastics team.
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