Blazing a paper trail in China

Updated: Jan 20 2007, 06:27am hrs
Just five years ago, Zhang Yin and her husband were driving around the United States in a used minivan begging garbage dumps to give them their scrap paper. She and her husband, who was trained as a dentist, had formed a company in the 1990s to collect paper for recycling and ship it to China. It was a step up from life back in Hong Kong, where she had opened a paper trading company with $3,800 to cash in on China's chronic paper shortages. "I remember what a man in the business told me," Zhang said. "He said, 'Wastepaper is like a forest. It recycles itself, generation after generation."'

Zhang took that memory all the way to the bank. As a result of her entrepreneurship, Zhang Yin (pronounced Jang Yeen) is now among the richest women anywhere in the world, along with Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and eBay's chief executive, Meg Whitman. Her personal wealth is estimated at $1.5 billion or more. Her companies take waste paper from the US and Europe, ship it to China and recycle it into corrugated cardboard, which is then used for boxes that are packed with toys, electronics and furniture that is stamped "Made in China" and often shipped right back across the ocean to American consumers. After the boxes are thrown away, the cycle starts all over again.

Late last year, Forbes magazine named Zhang the wealthiest woman in China. She may even be the richest self-made woman in the world, challenging a handful of others, like Giuliana Benetton, who started the clothing company with her brothers, and Rosalia Mera, who co-founded Zara, the Spanish clothing retailer, with her former husband. Most of the world's richest women inherited their wealth: from the Walton women of Wal-Mart fame to the daughters of the men who created Mars candy bars, L'Oreal cosmetics and BMW. But not Zhang.

A petite 49-year-old woman with a cherubic smile and a fancy for diamonds, she started out from a modest background, the daughter of a military officer. Now she dominates the world's paper trade through her giant companies, one centered in Dongguan just outside Hong Kong and the other based in Los Angeles.

"She's a visionary," said Herman Woo, an analyst at BNP Paribas, which helped her paper company list shares in Hong Kong. "She doesn't mind putting a lot of money in at the beginning, to build the company." That company, Nine Dragons Paper, is now China's biggest papermaker. The company raised nearly $500 million when it went public last March . and is now valued over $5 billion.

Zhang's smaller, LA-based venture, America Chung Nam, is also one of the world's biggest paper trading companies, with ties to recycling yards in New York, Chicago and California. "My goal is to make Nine Dragons, in three to five years, the leader in containerboards," Zhang says emphatically in her Hong Kong office. "My desire has always been to be the leader in an industry."

NY Times / David Barboza