Baldness 'cure' enriches Chinese entrepreneur


January 06, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Zhao Zhangguang has great hair, a thick, wavy mane that rises three inches above his forehead. It's a wonderful advertisement, and he knows it.

Mr. Zhao, 50, is one of China's most prominent private entrepreneurs. His main business is hair -- or, more accurately, the lack of it.

The apparent success of his line of "101 Formula" hair-growth lotions is evidence that, if you claim a cure for baldness, the world will beat a path to your door -- no matter where you are.

Mr. Zhao says his potions prompt hair growth after a few months of daily use. He claims he's helped several million bald people all over the world, with a 90-percent success rate and no side effects.

In his Beijing office, a large display of before-and-after photos offers a form of proof.

Whether Mr. Zhao's products really work, they've brought him renown here, a seat on China's national legislature and what appears to be a sizable financial empire. He says his firm now has 2,800 employees and 4 factories, turning out hair products, cosmetics and acne treatments.

Just the "101" line, he says, has raked in $50 million in sales since 1987. He's got an eight-story home with an elevator. He's thinking about getting into real estate and forming China's first private oil company.

Horatio Alger has nothing on him.

"I was just an ordinary peasant," Mr. Zhao says. "As society develops, people change and develop along with it. In a few years here, there will be many more people here like me."

Mr. Zhao first experimented with baldness cures in the 1970s as a "barefoot doctor," one of the barely trained medics tending to the masses during China's era of extreme collectivism.

Women in his village were suffering from hair loss. Using a knowledge of herbs acquired from his father, he hit on the right mixture to cure baldness on his 101st experiment -- hence his product's brand name.

"101" lotions are sold in about 40 countries, including many in Europe, Mr. Zhao says. But they haven't been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or by Japanese authorities.

Nonetheless Japanese tour groups stop by his office, and he operates -- legally, he says -- a steady mail-order business for U.S. clients.

Three bottles a month -- at as much as $55 a bottle including express mail (compared with about $14 in China) -- quickly adds up. But Mr. Zhao says he gets a hundred letters a month from Americans.

He also has cultivated some powerful Chinese patrons, particularly Premier Li Peng, whose picture is prominently displayed in the entrepreneur's office. Mr. Li, a regular client, "is crazy about his hair," Mr. Zhao says.

Further "protection," as he puts it, comes from his much-publicized donations to charities, particularly for the disabled.

But Mr. Zhao's strongest asset remains his lotions. They work, he says, by stimulating blood supply to the scalp. Among the identified ingredients are angelica, ginseng, ginger and alcohol.

Baldness is mostly hereditary, he believes, but he says that lack of sleep and intellectual work also can cause it. Thinking too much makes for thin hair, he claims.

Mr. Zhao himself appears to lead a fairly stressful life, constantly traveling to his factories. He's so busy he fields a reporter's questions while examining his employees' expense accounts, among them his brother-in-law's. "Relatives are relatives," he quips, going over each receipt. "But expenses are expenses."

Like Mr. Zhao, many of his company's officers come from the area around Wenzhou, a town in eastern China's Zhejiang Province famed for its shrewd, aggressive capitalists. They speak a particularly difficult Mandarin dialect that few other Chinese can understand.

The headaches of running his firm used to be bad for his hair, Mr. Zhao says. But now his locks are so thick that some people think he is wearing a wig, he boasts, offering a free tug to prove he isn't.

Mr. Zhao's pompadour gets a lot of attention. He's not at all shy about concluding an interview while one of his many minions shampoos his hair and whips it into shape with a comb and hair dryer.

"My hair is better now than before," he says, looking very pleased with himself and his success. "I sleep very good at night these days."

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