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China pork leader: U.S. king of pork

07/11/2013 @ 6:28am

Nine years ago, frustrated in his effort to expand across China, rising pork tycoon Wan Long met with a provincial official.

"Are you having any problems?" asked Henan province Party Secretary Li Keqiang.

"There's this," Mr. Wan began, then hesitated.

"I'm here to fix your problems," Mr. Li said, according to the official Xinhua news agency. "Speak, Old Wan," using a Chinese expression of respect.

Mr. Wan explained that his meat-processing company had expanded in Sichuan and other provinces. But in its home province of Henan, he said, he had been blocked by municipal governments trying to protect local slaughterhouses.

Mr. Li told the head of the provincial economic planning agency to make sure local authorities didn't erect barriers, according to official media.

Mr. Li is now China's premier.

And Mr. Wan, the chairman of Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., is poised to become a leader in the global food industry. The 72-year-old is leading a $4.7 billion effort to acquire Smithfield Foods Inc. -- a deal that would create the world's No. 1 pork producer and mark the biggest purchase ever of a U.S. company by Chinese buyers.

Smithfield Chief Executive Larry Pope told a Senate panel Wednesday that the takeover would help expand the U.S. pork industry and said Smithfield would continue to uphold high food-safety standards. A group of senators has requested that agriculture and food regulators be allowed to participate in a review of the deal by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., a interagency panel led by the Treasury Department.

A review of Mr. Wan's history paints a portrait of a savvy operator and deal maker who has turned to powerful Chinese political leaders and well-funded Western investors to realize his ambitions. They have helped him build his company from a single slaughterhouse to China's biggest pork processor, engineer a management buyout and rebuild the company after a scandal over tainted meat.

People familiar with his background say Mr. Wan -- who holds a seat on the National People's Congress, China's legislature -- comes from modest roots. They describe a homebody who still runs the company from the same city where he grew up. The executive, who didn't finish high school, walks daily for 30 minutes after each meal, often on a track around the office with an assistant in tow so he can keep working.

A spokesman for Shuanghui said Mr. Wan wasn't available for an interview. The spokesman said, though, that Shuanghui doesn't have political pull beyond that of any other Chinese agricultural company and the government isn't involved in the Smithfield bid.

Mr. Wan, a native of Luohe, in Henan province, joined the Chinese army in the early 1960s where he helped build and repaired train tracks.

He left the army in 1968 and after returning to Luohe, got an office job working for the local abattoir. In 1984, employees of the slaughterhouse elected him as its manager, the people familiar with his background say.

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