Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is the Property editor of the NZ Herald

Rise and fall of a very modern businessman

Meet Mainzeal's man at the top, the enigmatic migrant made good - until now

Richard Yan, head of Richina Pacific which owns Mainzeal, was not speaking this week. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Richard Yan, head of Richina Pacific which owns Mainzeal, was not speaking this week. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Richard Ci Lang Yan is the reclusive, somewhat mysterious businessman, who this week pulled the pin on one of the country's biggest builders.

He was not speaking this week, yet his influence on construction and NZ-China trade and relations has been extensive for two decades.

The fallout from Mainzeal Property and Construction's receivership appears to be spreading but this New Zealand citizen has always expressed a strong affinity to the country which he made his home 22 years ago.

Every year, he and a group of close associates take a table at the University of Auckland's glittering summertime Distinguished Alumni Awards when six high achievers get prizes before about 600 banquet guests, seated inside a white silk marquee on the lawn of Old Government House on the Waterloo Quadrant/Princes St corner.

At the inaugural awards in 1996, the immaculately groomed Mr Yan stepped proudly up, ironically taking his place alongside Hugh Fletcher, a descendant of the Fletcher Building family empire.

The university said it was proud to honour Mr Yan because he held the distinction of being the first student at the time to earn two degrees in just three years - some feat considering English is not his first language.

His alumni citation indicated he was the first Chinese school student to get a Rotary Scholarship to study English here. With a New Zealand Bursary and a Singapore Lee Foundation Scholarship under his belt, the boy who grew up during China's Cultural Revolution transformed himself into a highly formal businessman.

While the havoc created by Mainzeal's fall spreads, even his harshest critics acknowledge his foresight: he left China well ahead of many others and built a substantial and successful business which at its height boasted that it employed about 5000 people. By 2008, Mainzeal was constructing buildings worth $400 million annually.

NBR reported how he was raised in a single-room flat in the northern city of Tianjin.

"His family appears to have managed to keep a foot on either side of the fence. His great-great-grandfather was minister of education in the Kuomintang regime overthrown by Mao's communists in 1949 but his grandfather was a friend of the late premier Zhou Enlai. He arrived in Auckland with only the most essential trappings of Western civilisation - a watch, some clothes and a Playboy-brand belt," NBR reported in 2000.

He left Beijing in 1981 then knuckled down to graduate from Auckland with a conjoint BA and BCom. He moved to Australia to work for Westpac, which sent him on a scholarship to Harvard Business School and from there, he worked for Bankers Trust in New York and Hong Kong.

In 1992 he founded Richina (short for Rich China) Capital Partners, a venture which bought technology for use in China through joint ventures with multi-nationals. Another Richina arm owns Mainzeal and Mr Yan played a prominent part in business relations with China, leading New Zealand Trade & Enterprise's China Strategy and was a New Zealand Asia Institute policy board member.

He was no stranger to political figures and ex-PM Dame Jenny Shipley's top chair at Richina boardroom table was also no surprise, given her links including as director of the powerful China Construction Bank.

The university noted how he "enabled New Zealand and international companies to establish business links with China.

"In 1998, Time magazine described [him] as one of the rising stars among China's new breed of mainland business people," the uni said in 1996.

But when Richina Pacific was listed on the NZX, carrying with it Mainzeal, Mr Yan drew criticism for having an unusual spread of business interests here and in China (an aquarium and tanning business were lumped in with the Kiwi builder), poor shareholder returns, lack of good corporate governance and inadequate corporate disclosure.

Last decade, Richina left the sharemarket, meaning the business and its boss virtually disappeared from public light.

Mainzeal built some of the country's most prominent structures including Vector Arena, the Supreme Court building in Wellington, Wellington's ASB Sports Centre and The Rock at the airport, as well as more recently the much-admired Andrew Patterson-designed Geyser office block in Parnell. Leaky buildings, tight margins, problems getting supply from China and lack of work have all been blamed for Mainzeal's fall.

For many years, Mr Yan worked from a large office at Mainzeal's headquarters at 385 Queen St. The firm only left there recently for 200 Victoria St West, naming the glass-clad block near the Victoria Park Markets Mainzeal House.

Some were this week questioning how Mr Yan could simply ask for Mainzeal to be put into receivership and walk away but PwC receivers are expected to be working closely with him and chief executive Peter Gomm, gathering documents, identifying creditors and debtors, auditing about 40 now-frozen building sites, investigating transactions, examining corporate structures and all financial, contractual arrangements.

Mr Yan's next moves will be watched closely.

Richard Ci Lang Yan

* Mainzeal Property and Construction director

* Left Beijing and migrated here in 1981

* Distinguished academic career

* Owns 3rd biggest builder behind Fletcher and Hawkins

* Forged extensive China-NZ business links

* Time called him "a rising star"

* Dogged by leaky building legacy

* Lives in $2.3m Epsom house

- NZ Herald

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