Spectacular rise and fall of the Sun King

Shi Zhengrong built a solar fortune but no longer controls the company he started, writes Peter Hannam.

Shi Zhengrong built a solar fortune but no longer controls the company he started, writes Peter Hannam.

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 when he debuted on BRW's rich list in 2006.

By 2007, Time magazine had dubbed Dr Shi, an Australian citizen, one of its "Heroes of the Environment", and the following year he was ranked 396th-richest person in the world by Forbes.

By last year, though, Dr Shi had dropped off the rich lists altogether, missing the BRW's $210million cutoff as his holdings wilted to $170 million.

This week, his denouement appeared complete, with his ousting as chairman of Suntech Power, the company he founded in 2001 - and believed to be his chief source of wealth - in the east Chinese city of Wuxi. At Thursday's closing price for Suntech, Dr Shi's 30.2 per cent stake (based on 2011 holdings) would be worth about $62 million.

Suntech became the first Chinese solar company to sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange when it listed in 2005. The stock rode an investor stampede for renewable energy firms, particularly for makers of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, quadrupling in value by the end of 2007.

Through the global financial crisis, Dr Shi's Suntech continued to expand in China and abroad. By 2011, sales topped $3 billion, making it the world's biggest maker of solar PV panels.

Dr Shi, born on Yangzhong Island in the Yangtze River in 1963 to farming parents, was lured back to China by a $6 million grant from authorities in Wuxi, located in one of its most prosperous regions.

As UNSW's solar guru Martin Green recalled in the 2007 Time "hero" article, Dr Shi's return from Australia was in marked contrast to his tough upbringing:

"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," Professor Green said at the time.

"In 1989, Shi knocked on my office door at the University of New South Wales in Sydney seeking full-time work. Instead, I offered him a scholarship to do solar-cell research," he said.

Dr 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 and renewable energy engineering, and a fellow PhD student of Dr Shi's.

"We're all his friends and he didn't really change as far as I could see," he said. "He had a nice mix of technical and business skills," Dr Corkish said. "He soared to very great heights."

Dr Shi holds 15 patents in PV technologies, according to Suntech's US filings.

Dr Shi also helped translate "probably the first Chinese language textbook on solar cell theory", a UNSW publication, DrCorkish 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.

"He's been a role model for many young Chinese and Chinese engineers who want to make a big positive influence on the world."

That influence, though, meant that Suntech soon had many Chinese producers - and rivals abroad - pursuing similar break-neck expansion rates, flooding the global market with cheap panels.

Australian consumers have been big winners from the solar boom, with PV panel prices falling about 80 per cent in the past four years. Total capacity almost doubled last year to two gigawatts, or the size of two large coal-fired power plants.

Globally, though, the recession in Europe and the removal of some industry support have combined to flatten out demand.

Last year, 32 gigawatts of solar PV was installed worldwide, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association reported last month. Global capacity tripled in a couple of years.

Europe and the US have moved to impose anti-dumping measures on China's solar PV producers, accusing them of selling at below production costs.

Pressure on Dr 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 ($A706 million) financing guarantee it made involving German bonds that may never have existed. By August, Dr Shi was replaced as Suntech's chief executive officer by his chief financial officer, David King.

The company's shares dropped to a low of US72¢ in September, less than 1 per cent of the record closing high of $US88.35 reached on Boxing Day 2007. And in December, the company cut its sales forecast.

In an interview with Bloomberg this week, Dr Shi said he was "shocked" by the board's "misconceived and unlawful" decision to remove him as chairman, and that he had been excluded from meetings for the past month. "The problem is they don't have a solution," Dr Shi said on Tuesday after issuing a statement. "They need a viable business plan. They need to talk to all the bondholders and suppliers and government.

"All the stakeholders want to talk to me. All the bank CEOs want to talk to me. They want to know why Dr Shi didn't show up."

He said the solar manufacturer's board had no plans for refinancing the $US541 million convertible bond due on March 15.

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

"I have good terms with all stakeholders, including the government, banks and suppliers," he said, adding that after his removal was announced, "banks started to worry that the company was going into bankruptcy".

Suntech shares closed on Thursday at $US1.17, down 3.3 per cent for the day and almost 24 per cent for 2013.

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

"He's been immensely generous and supportive of the university," Dr Corkish said, noting a $2 million gift to support Sydney Theatre Company's "Greening the Wharf" project.

Dr Shi also "raised our stakes in China and made us interesting for Chinese students", he said.

Dr Corkish said the current global PV glut was likely to end, leaving an industry with the scale to produce low-cost renewable energy - with a lot of the credit owed to Dr Shi and Suntech.

"It remains a technology that is one of the answers to our response to global warming and living more sustainably," he said. "It's got a huge future."

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