Meet the secretive billionaire who toppled Apple in China

Duan Yongping is convinced Tim Cook didn’t have a clue who he was when they first met a couple years ago. 

Duan Yongping, reclusive Chinese billionaire who founded Oppo and Vivo.

The Apple boss probably does now. Mr Duan is the reclusive billionaire who founded Oppo and Vivo, the twin smartphone brands that dealt the world’s largest company a stinging defeat in China last year. Once derided as cheap iPhone knockoffs, they leapfrogged the rankings and shoved Apple out of the top three in 2016 — when iPhone shipments fell in China for the first time.

They managed to do it because the American smartphone giant didn’t adapt to local competition, the entrepreneur told Bloomberg in what he said was his first interview in 10 years. Oppo and Vivo employed tactics Apple was reluctant to match, such as cheaper devices with high-end features, for fear of jeopardising its winning formula elsewhere, Mr Duan said. “Apple couldn’t beat us in China because even they have flaws,” the 56-year-old electronics mogul said. “They’re maybe too stubborn sometimes. They made a lot of great things, like their operating system, but we surpass them in other areas.” That’s not to say Duan doesn’t appreciate the iPhone maker’s global clout. In fact, the billionaire’s obsession with his US rival is legion: He’s long been a big-time investor in Apple and an unabashed fan of its chief executive officer.

“I’ve met Tim Cook on several occasions. He might not know me but we’ve chatted a little,” Mr Duan said. “I like him a lot.” Oppo’s gains against Apple may now earn an even broader following for the billionaire dubbed China’s Warren Buffett by local media for his investment acumen.

Born in Jiangxi, a birthplace of Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution, Mr Duan began his career at a state-run vacuum tube plant before making his name with homegrown electronics. His first product was the Subor gaming console with dual-cartridge slots — a direct shot at Nintendo’s classic Entertainment System.

It was the first iPhone in 2007 that paved the way for Oppo and Vivo. While they share a common founder in Mr Duan, the sister brands are fierce competitors, trotting out duelling marketing campaigns in markets from India to Southeast Asia. Their salesmanship philosophy plays well in emerging markets. “Smartphones are an unprecedented opportunity. We forecast at least for the next 10 or 20 years, there’s no replacement. But we don’t know,” Mr Duan said.

Mr Cook said last weekend that Apple doesn’t have a specific goal for market share. “The competition is more fierce in China — not only in this industry, but in many industries,” Mr Cook told the China Development Forum in Beijing.

Bloomberg

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