In 1988 George Wang, “wanting to go somewhere for more freedom,” was contemplating whether to study English in Australia or Canada. Wang, who grew up on Hainan, often referred to China’s Hawaii, decided to ditch Canada in favour of Australia because, he says, “Australia and Hainan are similar”. Both are “islands surrounded by water,” says Wang. But perhaps more importantly for a man who even then harboured business ambitions, “Australia is in China’s time zone,” he says.
A quarter of a century later Wang may be one of the most important bridges between the world’s second-biggest economy and Australia. Later this year Wang hopes that his Asia Pacific Stock Exchange will be up and running. Next year he hopes 50 companies from the land of his birthplace and his adopted homeland will be trading in the Australian and Chinese currencies. By 2016, Wang says, 200 companies may be trading on the Asia Pacific Stock Exchange.
“We will bridge the gap between Asian and western capital markets,” says the 50 year old whose cropped hair and constant fidgeting of Buddhist prayer beads makes him look more like a monk than a businessman in a pin stripe suit.
Wang has been assiduously courting top Chinese provincial officials as well as Australian prime ministers and cabinet ministers. In the boardroom of Wang’s Aims Financial Group, pictures of Wang posing with John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Peter Costello dominate a wall. In promotional booklets associated with the Asia Pacific Stock Exchange, Wang is pictured with the vice mayor of Shenzhen Chen Yingchun and the chief executive of China Merchants Bank Ma Weihua.
Wang believes Australia is uniquely situated, because it largely shares the same time zone as China, to become the preferred stock exchange for the hundreds of thousands of private Chinese companies anxious to garner capital and international credibility with a foreign listing. In the cities of Shenzhen and Beijing as well as the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, Wang has met with about 1,000 companies over a six-month period that were interested, he says, in listing on the Asia Pacific Stock Exchange.
“The Chinese government is encouraging private companies to go overseas,” says Wang. “China wants the renminbi to internationalize.”
Australian dollar trades on the Asia Pacific Stock Exchange will be cleared through the ASX. The exchange plans for renminbi denominated trades to be cleared through a Chinese bank but has yet to get regulatory approval. Still, the exchange’s listing, business and market integrity rules have been approved. Law firms Baker & McKenzie and Norton Rose Fulbright have agreed to help with legal work associated with company listings. Accountants BDO and Moore Stephens have agreed to audit the companies that wish to list their stock. The exchange’s servers that will process the trades sit in the Sydney suburb of Mascot. Wang hopes a number of companies will list on the exchange this year enabling its trading system to be tested.
Wang’s company now has branches in Beijing, Shanghai, Qianhai, just outside Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Singapore to go along with its Sydney and Melbourne offices. David Lawrence, a 20-year ASX veteran, is the Asia Pacific Stock Exchange’s chief operating officer.
All this is a far cry from Wang’s upbringing in the town of Qionghai, Hainan where he and his brother and sister were raised by a mother who was a housewife and a father who was a local government worker. After high school Wang went to Shanghai to study environmental engineering at China Eastern University and then worked in the southern province of Guangdong that borders Hong Kong. Perhaps getting a whiff of the capitalist air while working for the Guangzhou government, Wang applied for a Japanese visa and was granted one.
“But I said to myself, ‘why go there?’ There are too many people,” he says. Australia beckoned. Wang studied English at a now defunct language school in Sydney for six months and then did a computer course for another half a year. By 1988 he had got a job as an AMP insurance man selling investment products to Australia’s Chinese community. So successful was he that he was soon making $160,000 a year, mostly on commission. But by 1991 he was eager to strike out on his own and started a mortgage lending business, again mostly to the Australian Asian community.
By 2007 Wang’s Aims Financial Group had raised about $4 billion from the capital markets and underwritten about $5 billion in home loans with the help of 580 mobile sales consultants. But by 2005 Wang had been getting increasingly nervous the mortgage market was overheating. “Business was being done on the basis of volume rather than quality,” he recalls. He sought to cash out his mortgage business and looked around for a place to invest what was now a fortune – one that enabled him to buy a house in Sydney’s tony Rose Bay.
In 2008 he acquired the Australia Pacific Exchange. In 2009 he became the controlling shareholder of ASX listed fund manager MacarthurCook that has a number of real estate investment trusts. But the stock exchange has remained his primary focus even if it has yet to make a cent.
Australia, says Wang, badly lags behind the US and Europe in its engagement and sophistication with the world’s second-biggest economy. “The media is negative on China,” he says. “But we’re neighbours.”
Wang, who got his Australian passport in 1994, is going to China later this month, not for business, but for a two-day meditation course. He doesn’t drink alcohol, tries to swim in Rose Bay every morning he is in Sydney, eats very little meat and says he only needs five hours sleep a night.
“When your body’s healthy the less sleep you need,” he says.