Alex Ahlstrom
I am in love with travel, culture and finance around the world. After working in international real estate finance around Asia and America, I want to share some of my experiences.

When I Worked With a Crazy-Rich Asian

Once, in Beijing, I had a job working directly with a crazy-rich Asian. I found the job by walking to an English training school for a short-term summer job. The English school sales rep liked that I spoke Mandarin and said that he had a client that would come over to meet with me. A 34 year-old man, named Mr. Zhou, and an assistant came to meet with me at the office. They asked me a few questions. Then, they told the sales rep that they wanted to hire me full-time. At this point, anyone else would have asked for the cheapest package to work with me, maybe USD $500-$1,000, and called it a day. The sales rep, who I barely knew for an hour, was able to get about USD $7,500 from Mr. Zhou to take me back to his office.

My finger is on the window of my office I worked from while working with Mr. Zhou

Starting Work

About 30 minutes later, an all-black Audi A8 with a driver came to pick me up and take me to the nicest building in the Beijing Central Business District. I went to Mr. Zhou’s office, where he sat in front of a $250,000 jade ornament in his apartment-sized corner office. We talked about how his real estate development company was expanding to the United States, and how, as the only foreigner in the company, I could also find a place helping with the expansion while teaching him English.  This was actually a perfect fit for me, so I agreed.

On the inside of the company, there was a special arrangement for Mr. Zhou

In Mr. Zhou’s company of several hundred, there were only 3 levels in the company: employees, managers and Mr. Zhou. If you were to only look at the employees of the company, there wasn’t very much special, because they didn’t have direct contact with Mr. Zhou, but the management level was very different. For example, every manager was born in the Chinese year of the dog, horse or tiger. Of the 12 Chinese animal years, Mr. Zhou was born in the year of the tiger, and tigers are friends with other tigers, horses and dogs. It wasn’t enough to have graduated from Peking or Tsinghua University, the top two universities in the country, managers also 100% needed to have a matching birth year. In our initial meeting, Mr. Zhou asked about my age, confirming my birth year animal was a proper match.

From the outside of the company, there was a very traditional, government and military feel

In very traditional Chinese style, Mr. Zhou and managers at this company were referred to by their last name followed by character “zong” 总. Mr. Zhou had connections with the Chinese military, this actually afforded him a police siren in his car, so that he could cut through Beijing’s globally-ranked traffic jams for personal business. But, every one of the drivers for the company vehicles was previously a member of the Chinese military. And, every manager of the company was issued a domestically-manufactured black Audi A6 with blacked-out windows, the exact same car as ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party. But, Mr. Zhou was driven in a larger foreign-manufactured black Audi A8 with blacked out windows.

A flock of government black Audi A6 sedans with tinted windows parked in Beijing, the same car issued to managers at Mr. Zhou’s company

Mr. Zhou had to Keep a low-profile when possible

Once, Mr. Zhou explained to me that he would really like to buy a private jet, but he couldn’t, because a bird that stands out above the rest would make himself a target, so he needed to keep a low profile, when possible. Mr. Zhou had an architectural model of his new house at the office. There were four stories to the house, but, in trying to keep a low-profile, two of the stories were underground, away from view. When I was asked to proofread Mr. Zhou’s biography for his eMBA class, I learned that Mr. Zhou, at age 34, had a net worth of USD $144,000,000.

Real Estate included pleasing Daoist gods

Next to that real estate development in the above picture was a Daoist Temple, Mr. Zhou actually bought the Daoist Temple. Just before the opening of the development, a Daoist monk came to the temple to bless the temple. The top management stood in rows, with the CFO and top project managers in the front, myself and other managers in the middle, and women in the back. The monk jumped around the statue in the middle of the temple, shined a ray of sunshine mirror all over the statue while chanting a Daoist hymn.

Alex Ahlstrom at a Daoist Temple Ceremony to Bless the Opening of a real estate development

Mr. Zhou developed the most expensive real estate in Beijing

In Beijing, the largest body of water that wasn’t in the Imperial Forbidden City was the Imperial Fishing Pond in Yuyuantan Park, home to the largest cherry blossom park in Beijing, with over 2,000 trees from 20 species. To the south of the lake was the State Guest House, that would house politicians like Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Zhou was granted rights to on the north side of the lake, which is better in China, due to facing the sun in the south. He had to build military housing on half the land to be able to build three relatively short buildings on the other half of the land that looked just over the cherry trees. While I was in Beijing, on a per square meter basis, this was the most expensive residential real estate in Beijing.

Mr. Zhou’s real estate development, next to the Imperial Fishing Pond, in Beijing

In the end, the U.S. real estate sector was falling too fast to expand from China to America. I was grateful for the experience, but decided to move to Shanghai. I don’t know if Mr. Zhou ever got the personal jet he wanted. But, in 2016, Mr. Zhou purchased a 64% share of the the Beijing Soccer Team, Guo’An, for USD $514 million, then renamed the club with his company name, “Sinobo Guo’An.”

Mr. Zhou is now the owner of the Beijing Sinobo Guo’An Football Club

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