SHENZHEN, China – For decades, Huawei’s founder stayed out of sight as it grew to become the biggest maker of network gear for phone carriers and passed Apple as the No. 2 smartphone brand.
Now, Ren Zhengfei is shedding that anonymity as China’s first global tech brand mobilizes to fight back against U.S. sanctions and warnings Huawei Technologies Ltd. is a security risk.
The entrepreneur at the center of the Trump administration’s battle with Beijing over technology is a survivor of competition that drove Western rivals out of the market, brushes with financial disaster and job stress so severe he contemplated suicide.
The 75-year-old former army engineer who worked his way out of childhood poverty sees American pressure as just the latest of the tests that have hardened him and his company.
“For three decades, Huawei has been suffering and no joy,” Ren said in an interview. “The pain of each episode is different.”
This episode has a personal dimension: Ren’s daughter, Huawei’s chief financial officer, is under arrest in Canada on U.S. charges she helped to violate sanctions against Iran.
The escalating clash with Washington has transformed Ren from an admired but rarely seen businessman worth an estimated $3 billion into one of China’s most prominent figures.
He belongs to the generation of entrepreneurs who founded communist-era China’s first private companies in the 1980s. They navigated a shifting, state-dominated landscape, overcoming shortages of money and technology to create industries expanding abroad.
Ren launched Huawei in 1987 after his military post was eliminated.
Huawei is a star in industries the ruling Communist Party is promoting but a target for complaints those plans are based on stealing or pressuring foreign companies to hand over business secrets.
Despite his success, Ren talks like a struggling rookie, worrying aloud that employees might get too comfortable. Ren writes letters urging employees to “prepare for the worst,” said Nicole Peng of Canalys, an industry research firm.
As for “whether his character can help the company to survive,” Peng said, “I’m sure it will. It will survive. Like he said, they are prepared for it. They know there is always difficulty.”
Born in 1944, Ren was raised by a school teacher who he said fed seven children on a monthly wage of 40 yuan ($6).
When Ren was a teenager, the ruling party embarked on the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous campaign to become an industrial power overnight. At least 30 million people died in the 1959-61 famine that followed.
Ren’s mother declared no one would die and divided each meal into nine portions, one for each family member, said Tian Tao, co-author of “The Huawei Story.”
“His mother’s ‘meal system’ had a big impact on him,” Tian said.