The CEO of a Chinese firm that gives fits to its competitors and the U.S. government is a former soldier who fashions himself after Chairman Mao. Like China's former leader, Ren Zhengfei is known for spouting folk witticisms, purging associates and challenging U.S. power. The firm he co-founded, telecom-equipment maker Huawei Technologies, supplied Baghdad with an "illicit" communications system in 2000, according to the CIA, and has been accused by Cisco of stealing designs for routers. Yet Ren, 61, has proved his entrepreneurial skill, building Huawei into a low-cost alternative to big-name firms like Cisco and Ericsson. Last year Huawei signed more than $2 billion in foreign contracts, a figure Ren hopes to double this year.
Ren founded Huawei in 1988, and it became a top builder of the Chinese army's communication networks. Huawei today makes third-generation mobile-phone networks, routers, switcheswhatever moves data. The company has spent liberally on a sprawling campus in southern China, and its cut-rate prices mean profit margins are thin. Because its ledgers are secret, analysts can only wonder if Huawei is headed for a financial crisis.