Apr 2 2014, 10:29pm CDT | by Forbes
New York’s symbolic One World Trade Center tower is nearing completion, and its owner-agency is contending with various thrill-seekers trying to breach security to get to the top. But one welcome visitor is Feng Lun, head of China’s Vantone Holdings. The residential-commercial developer was the first to lease space in the replacement skyscraper after the Sept. 11 attacks, and today it is building out floors 64 to 69 for what will be remarkable views at next year’s opening.
In some part of that 191,000-square-foot space Vantone is planning a members-only China Center, combining elements of a business and a social lounge. The idea is to connect Chinese companies with those in the world’s commercial capital who want to transact with them. (Nobody is saying how big the club will be, beyond 500 or so joiners, but it has partnered with Singapore’s TungLok Group to have celebrated chef Susur Lee lead its restaurant.)
Vantone itself has an unusual history. Feng joined the Communist Party at age 20 in 1979 and spent more than a decade working in various state capacities. “I hadn’t given any thought to going into business myself,” he says.
Yet in 1993, with national enthusiasm about Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms running high, the young Communist took the plunge with some friends into real estate as Vantone. Among his cofounders who eventually left were those who made a name for themselves: familiar billionaire Pan Shiyi and Yi Xiaodi, chairman of developer Sunshine 100 China Holdings, which went public in Hong Kong this year. An early Vantone executive was Zhang Suyang, now a China partner in venture capital at International Data Group. Beijing’s Vantone, meantime, has amassed $2 billion in assets, including a listed business in China and a project in Taiwan.
With the China Center and its comforts, including a tea lounge, as a gateway, Feng hopes to bring more Chinese interests together with the Western parties. These would include businesses already present among the large diaspora in the New York metro area, as well as provincial-level representatives from the homeland.
Although the One World Trade Center project has dragged on for years, Feng’s timing looks good. Chinese investment into the U.S. last year doubled to $14 billion. He views the China Center as an experiment that he may reproduce in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere.
Feng himself started investing in the U.S. in the 1990s when he was buying real estate and putting money into tech investments. That gave him experience dealing with U.S. regulations. “I don’t feel like I’m a stranger in the U.S.,” he says.
Feng started to talk to businesspeople, scholars and officials involved in the World Trade rebuilding as early as 2003 and says he recognized that the path would be slow. “This real estate is the most complicated and challenging in the world,” Feng says, owing to design and psychological issues. Yet, even as others were balking, he put Vantone down for that first lease in 2009, pledging nearly $100 million all in.
“Real estate is a business that requires time to be successful at,” Feng says. Even if his China Center will be beyond the reach of most of the thousands of global tourists who visit the Sept. 11 site in any given week, One World Trade is “a place that a lot of Chinese want to come and look at.”
Feng Lun’s Vantone is first in the door.
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