Suntech's Shi Zhengrong built one of the world's biggest solar-power companies. Now, with economies slowing, he faces the challenge of a lifetime.
By Bill Powell
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in mid-January, Shi Zhengrong, casually dressed and smiling as if he didn't have a care in the world, walked into the stunning new building that is now the headquarters of Suntech Power Holdings, the company he founded and built from scratch just eight years ago.
Back then, in 2001, he had received $6 million in startup money from the government of Wuxi in China's Jiangsu province - the site of the multimillion-dollar headquarters. The local Communist Party officials who backed Shi have learned yet another lesson in the benefits of capitalism. By bankrolling this son of Jiangsu, the government quickly got its money back, with plenty of interest, when Suntech (STP) went public in late 2005, raising $400 million on the New York Stock Exchange. But beyond that, it created what could be the new epicenter of an industry about to catch fire.
Few could have known it at the time, but luring Shi back from Australia, where he had gone as a graduate student in 1988, was an event that changed the course of an industry's history - and not just any industry, but one that may be among the most critical of the 21st century: solar energy.
Not only did Shi create one of the world's fastest-growing companies - surging from nothing to more than $1.3 billion in revenue, profits of $171 million, and 4,300 employees in the blink of an eye - but by basing all of Suntech's manufacturing in China, he also started to shift the balance of power in the solar industry. It has never been the same since.
Like so many businessmen of his generation, Shi sprinted through the economic open-door policy begun by the late Deng Xiaoping in December 1978. By the time he was 32, he had already lived a life that his parents could not imagine. He had been among the first wave of bright young students to take advantage of the opening of China.
After becoming proficient in English, Shi - born in the smallest county in China, a small island in the Yangtze River, and the son of dirt-poor peasant farmers - was selected to pursue graduate studies abroad. He thought he was bound for the U.S. and tried to learn all he could about the country: "The culture, the geography - I even tried to learn an American accent," he says now.
But at the last minute, in May 1988, his academic advisor at the Shanghai Institute of Optics surprised him. All the slots for the U.S. had been filled; Shi would go to Australia instead, to the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and pursue a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Says Shi: "I didn't even know where Australia was."
That unanticipated twist changed everything for Shi. "Who knows what might have happened if I had gone to the U.S.? I might still be walking the street," he jokes. At the university he met Martin Green, a preeminent scientist in the field of solar energy. Green was impressed with Shi's candlepower and work ethic. He had completed his Ph.D. in just 2 1/2 years - the fastest in his field in the history of the university - and proved himself to be "one of the brighter graduate students I've had, without question," Green says.
The professor had developed the world's highest-efficiency silicon solar cells, and in 1995 he and a colleague formed a company, Pacific Solar. Green invited Shi to join the venture, and once he arrived, the team developed the technology that dramatically reduced the cost to produce solar energy by significantly reducing the amount of silicon needed in solar cells.
Opportunity in China
Curious and restless - the Australian startup was up and running after five years and "I needed a new goal" - Shi met some officials from Wuxi, a city 70 miles west of Shanghai. The Chinese government would give him $6 million if he would return and start a solar energy company. "The Wuxi investment committee said to me, 'We want sons like you to come back and be bosses here."'
Shi accepted. Like a handful of other Chinese entrepreneurs (such as Peng Xiaofeng of LDK Solar (LDK)), he understood that China offered the opportunity to drive down production costs of solar panels and modules. A decade ago the industry was dominated by Sharp, Siemens, and BP Solar - huge companies with relatively high-cost production bases. In those days, he recalls, people asked him skeptically, How can you possibly compete with BP Solar (BP) or Siemens (SI)? "I wouldn't say anything [in response]," he says, "but I was always thinking to myself, 'Well, why couldn't I?"'
No reason, it turned out. He believed he could sell solar panels at a cost of $3 per watt, well below the standard industry price then of $4.50 per watt or higher. It wasn't just China's cheap labor that had attracted him, but the relatively inexpensive land and material costs available as well. In 2003, just a year after Suntech started production at a factory Shi himself had designed, he sold panels at $2.80 per watt. "And we still had 20% profit margins," Shi says.
The rise wasn't always smooth, and Shi was required to have more than technical skills to make Suntech succeed. Sharp elbows helped too. When the company showed it could be profitable early on, board members appointed by the government suddenly became very interested. Shi and the government-appointed chairman clashed in late 2003 over how rapidly to expand the business and on the amount Shi was spending on the equipment needed to do so. "For some reason he didn't seem to trust me," says Shi.
Shi went to the other board members and persuaded them in 2004 to ease the chairman out. "That's when I realized that [having a] controlling position in the company was critical. I didn't want this kind of complexity again." So he "borrowed a lot of money," got a capital injection from Goldman Sachs, and bought out the rest of the state-sponsored shareholders in 2005 for $100 million. "From that point onward I felt free," he says.
Climate change by then had become a global cause celèbre, and governments around the world began boosting subsidies for renewable energy. Suntech's stock hit an all-time high of $85 in late 2007. Its biggest markets for the solar panels and modules it makes are in Europe; Germany is the largest.
Shi believes the U.S. market for solar under President Obama will take off starting in 2010, when subsidies for solar energy are likely to increase as part of a stimulus plan to revive the overall economy. But the year until then, Shi himself acknowledges, will be unlike anything Suntech has confronted to date.
The deepening global economic crisis has changed the dynamics of Shi's industry abruptly. Rapid growth is now yesterday's story; significant overcapacity is today's. The global financial crisis has hurt the ability of solar customers in Europe and elsewhere to get project financing - the critical component in building more solar capacity. Only recently, Shi says, has there been a sign of thawing in the financial markets that might let some planned projects go forward in Europe.
The global slump has also crushed the prices of natural gas and coal, which compete with solar to generate electricity. As a result, Suntech's stock - like all those in the sector - has also been crushed. It closed on Jan. 21 at just $9.31 per share, wiping out some $4 billion of Shi's net worth.
Dealing with overcapacity
The rapid success of Chinese solar companies such as Suntech has spawned lots of imitators. And that's why the market is now plagued by overcapacity. A new report from research company iSuppli says 11.1 gigawatts of panels will be produced in 2009, up 62% from 7.7 gigawatts in 2008. However, iSuppli says just 4.2 gigawatts are expected to be installed in 2009, up from 3.8 gigawatts in 2008.
Shi has responded by significantly scaling back planned capacity increases in 2009. Suntech had originally hoped to raise production from its current one gigawatt to 1.4 gigawatts by the end of 2009, and two gigawatts by the end of next year. Now, Shi says, expansion plans are on hold until the financial crisis passes and the market improves.
That's part of the reason that Suntech fired 800 employees at the end of 2008 - the first layoffs in the company's short lifetime. Shi believes that the scale Suntech has already achieved will enable the company to withstand what will be an industrywide shakeout - with smaller producers of cells and panels falling by the wayside.
This is, obviously, the greatest turbulence Shi has felt in what has been a charmed career as a CEO. Yet, he says, the most important thing the company can do is focus on what it did before the crisis began wreaking havoc on the global economy. And that is to relentlessly pursue what is the Holy Grail for the solar industry, what insiders call "grid parity."
What is grid parity? It means getting the cost of producing solar energy down to the point where there is no difference between it and competing fossil fuels like natural gas or coal. For Suntech that means about 14 cents per kilowatt-hour. Currently, Suntech's cost is about 35 cents, yet Shi says that by 2012 his production line will reach his target.
How, exactly? For one thing, the scale that the solar industry has reached gives it new pricing power over suppliers. Explains Shi: "We were a parasitic industry relative to the semiconductor industry, which was the main user of silicon." Now that's no longer true: The solar industry uses more silicon than the chipmakers. Also, the world economic slump has driven silicon prices down sharply.
But far more important, analysts say, is increasing conversion efficiency - the amount of electricity derived from the silicon used. The rule of thumb is that every 1% increase in efficiency results in a 6% cost reduction. And in the past year, Suntech has cut costs by about 20%. In time, he says confidently, "solar will be cheaper than coal or gas."
Not all industry analysts are as sanguine. "Obviously the efficiency gains get harder the more efficient you get," says Pavel Molchanov, an alternative-energy analyst at Raymond James & Co. "Shi has made impressive gains so far, but grid parity by 2012 is pretty ambitious - though plausible."
Shi is undeterred. Despite the current slump, he sees both politics and economics going his way. He believes that by 2010 there will be demand from "utility-sized projects in the U.S. - gigawatt-sized projects" - which will again drive scale-induced production cost savings for Suntech. This is, in part, because he believes President Obama's desire to stimulate demand for clean energy is very real. If anything, he says, the economic crisis may eventually drive more spending on alternative-energy projects than there otherwise might have been in the U.S. and in Europe.
Shi acknowledges that for now his industry is not propelled by economics alone. Climate change is a scientific consensus, he says, and governments the world over recognize the need to move to what Shi calls the "post-carbon future." But even if they didn't, he insists that the day beckons when his industry will grow, thanks to hardheaded private-sector economic decisions, not government subsidies. By the end of 2012, he predicts, the need for subsidies will begin to evaporate. "I've always been a goal-driven person," he says, "and by then - by around 2012 - we'll have achieved grid parity. That's what this company will achieve."
Coming from someone else, that prediction might sound overly optimistic, to put it mildly. Coming from a guy who went from zero to more than $1 billion in revenue in just over half a decade, however, it sounds pretty close to rational. Remember, people said that Shi Zhengrong couldn't compete against giants like Sharp and BP Solar. Is it wise to doubt him now?