Fall of the Sun King: Shi ousted from chair at own company

It's a tale of soaring wealth and then plummeting fortunes rarely seen even in Australia's famously boom-and-bust mining industry.

It's a tale of soaring wealth and then plummeting fortunes rarely seen even in Australia's famously boom-and-bust mining industry.

Dubbed the "Sun King", Shi Zhengrong converted a PhD in electrical engineering in solar technology at the University of NSW into a fortune worth $3 billion in five years by the time he debuted on BRW's rich list in 2006.

A year later, Time magazine named Mr Shi, an Australian citizen, one of its "heroes of the environment". By last year, though, Mr Shi had dropped off the rich list altogether, missing the BRW's $210 million cut-off as his assets shrivelled to $170 million.

This week, Mr Shi was ousted as chairman of Suntech Power, the firm he founded in China's city of Wuxi in 2001, and believed to be his chief source of wealth.

At Wednesday's closing price for Suntech, Mr Shi's 30.2 per cent stake (based on 2011 holdings) is worth about $62 million.

Shi's journey is still a remarkable one. Born on Yangzhong Island in the Yangtze River in 1963 to farming parents, Mr Shi arrived in Australia in 1988 as a foreign exchange scholar, as UNSW's solar guru Martin Green recalled in the 2007 Time article:

"Destitute after the great famine and already supporting two children, Shi's parents gave him, the younger twin, up for adoption. The boy excelled at school and his adoptive parents honoured his teachers with a great banquet before their 16-year-old son left for university in Manchuria. In 1989, Shi knocked on my office door at the [UNSW] seeking full-time work. Instead, I offered him a scholarship to do solar-cell research."

Suntech, which became the first Chinese solar company to sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange when it listed in 2005, continued to expand through the global financial crisis. By 2011, sales topped $3 billion in 2011, making it the world's biggest maker of solar PV panels.

Mr Shi was "very straightforward and direct", and "had an immense amount of things whizzing around his head", said Richard Corkish, head of UNSW's school of photovoltaic & renewable energy engineering, and a fellow PhD student of Mr Shi.

Mr Shi, the inventor for 15 patents in PV technologies, helped translate "probably the first Chinese language text book on solar cell theory", a UNSW publication, Dr Corkish said.

"He really led the beginning of the Chinese photovoltaic industry, which has been hugely influential in bringing down the price of photovoltaics to the very affordable level where it's now at."

Australian consumers have been big winners from the solar boom, with PV panel prices falling about 80 per cent in the past four years.

Globally, though, the recession in Europe and the removal of some industry support have combined to flatten out demand. Pressure on Mr Shi, meanwhile, began to mount as the company hit a series of woes.

In July, Suntech revealed that it was investigating fraud involving a €554.2 million ($706 million) financing guarantee it made involving German bonds that may have never existed. By August, Mr Shi was replaced as Suntech's chief executive.

Mr Shi told Bloomberg this week he was "shocked" by the board's "misconceived and unlawful" decision to remove him.

Mr Shi said the solar manufacturer's board had no plans for refinancing the $US541 million convertible bond due in just over a week on March 15.

Despite his ouster, Mr Shi said he wants to remain involved in the company, and is still a director.

Suntech shares closed Wednesday at $US1.17, a fraction of the $88.35 record close in late 2007.

UNSW's Dr Corkish said his centre has four research programs involving Suntech, which "we do hope and expect" to continue even after Mr Shi's removal as head of the company.

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