China’s green maverick

Zhang Yue, air-conditioning magnate and one of the country’s best-known businesspeople, wants to put the planet before profits.

Zhang Yue was born in 1960 in Changsha, Hunan province, in southern China. In 1988 he founded Broad Air Conditioning with 30,000 yuan in capital. The private company, of which he is now president, sells a non-electric central air-conditioning system. Broad sells its units to 60 countries, and leads the industrial market in China, Europe and the United States.

In recent years, Broad has developed air-purifying central air-conditioning systems and stand-alone air-purifiers, and has undertaken energy-saving building refurbishments, turnkey central air-conditioning projects, energy-management services for central air-conditioning contracts and renewable fuel services.

Non-electric air-conditioning uses natural gas to heat lithium bromide until it becomes a gas, and then condense the gas back to liquid form, at which point it removes heat from the surrounding environment.

As far as the Chinese media is concerned, Zhang is a maverick. Now in middle-age, he has the long hair of a young artist. As a child he loved art and literature. His company sticks to eight principles: no polluting the environment, no stealing technology, no misleading consumers, no unfair competition, no complex borrowing arrangements, no tax avoidance, no bribery and no immoral practices.

In China’s immature commercial environment, Broad’s ideals, the distance it keeps from government and its commercial ethics, mean growth is bound to be difficult. But Zhang has stubbornly stuck to his own philosophy, focusing on morals, systems, happiness and stability. He admits that he is a perfectionist.

Today, he is applying his philosophy to environmental protection – both in his business operations and in his own personal life. Broad makes its products at facility called “Broad City” in Changsha, which has its own farm that feeds pigs and chickens leftovers from the canteen. Organic fertilisers are used in the fields and there is a fish pond. Zhang believes that only when employees are able to live in an environmentally friendly, energy saving environment that purifies the soul, will they be able to work and live well.

He has also made changes in his life. “My home is pretty big. I didn’t think about it at first, but it needs a lot of air conditioning and heating. So in winter I turn the thermostat down, and in summer I turn it back up. I might make the equipment, but I don’t enjoy it as much as I might like.”

Another interesting part of the story is his love of aeroplanes. Zhang loves to fly: in 1995, he attracted media attention when he bought his first Cessna jet for 70 million yuan, becoming the first Chinese entrepreneur to own his own plane – he later bought another six aircraft. He was also the first businessman to hold a helicopter pilot’s license.

But several years later, Zhang sold three of the planes. The others were leased out or put in hangars, and Zhang ordered that they could only be used for groups of six people or more. On one occasion, the microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus visited Hainan province for a conference, and had planned to visit Broad City. Yunus had hoped to save time by taking a Broad company jet, but Zhang’s rules would not allow it, and the visit was cancelled.

“One day I learned that a tree can absorb 18.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide every year,” says Zhang. “It would take eight trees 60 years to absorb the carbon emitted by my plane during a single return trip between Changsha and Beijing. I was shocked.” Zhang now takes commercial flights, even if means sacrificing something in terms of comfort. “The searches, the waiting, the delays, the hard seats,” he complains.

Besides being president of Broad, Zhang is also vice chair of the United Nations Environment Program Sustainable Buildings & Climate Initiative. Since last October, Broad has been making energy-saving upgrades to 28 office buildings, apartment blocks and hotels at Broad City, with a focus on insulation.

In June, Zhang arranged for the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, to receive a report when he visited Hunan. The document proposed an energy-efficient building programme to combat the financial crisis and address climate change. According to Zhang, the proposal was “entirely for the national interest, not for personal benefit. If anything I would lose out – the air-conditioning market would shrink significantly.”

Zhang often says the future of the planet is more important than his business. “I love air-conditioning,” says Zhang. “But I dream that one day humanity will stop using it. One of my major tasks now is to eliminate it – to eliminate my own business.”

He doesn’t say how he will do this, and many think it is inconceivable or utopian. His actions and ideas have made him a radical even among environmentalists. And his actions are not those that ordinary people can adopt: ordinary Chinese people do not make decisions regarding private jets, large houses or energy-efficient buildings.

However, many entrepreneurs are busy “green washing” their lifestyles and businesses, attracting media exposure for their activities, but not giving up their extravagant and carbon-intensive lifestyles. The majority of businesses still aim to grow at minimum cost; as long as they can get past government checks, they are happy to save money on things like waste-water treatment. This is what makes Zhang something of a beacon in the gloom.

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager at chinadialogue in Beijing.

Homepage image: An aerial view of part of Broad City