Robin Li passed Wang Jianlin as the richest man in China today by just $64 million, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index.
The founder of China’s largest Internet search engine Baidu Inc., has become the wealthiest individual in the world’s second-biggest economy, 14 days after he took the No. 2 spot. Li’s net worth has climbed by $4.8 billion, or 65 percent, to $12.231 billion so far this year as Baidu shares rallied. Wang, chairman of closely-held Dalian Wanda Group, has seen his fortune rise by $2.9 billion to $12.167 billion in 2013. Four of China’s top billionaires are worth about $12 billion.
Quick expansion in smartphones and tablets plus a predominant position in the desktop search market have boosted Baidu shares 69 percent in the past six months, according to Lucy Zhang, an analyst at Internet consulting group IResearch.
“Baidu’s development on mobile has surprised the market and its search app’s traffic volume has been growing very fast,” Zhang said in a phone interview from Beijing, where Baidu’s headquarters is based.
Wang may reclaim the first spot after he sells shares in AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., the U.S. movie chain he bought for $2.6 billion in 2012. AMC this week said it plans to raise as much as $368 million in an initial public offering that would value the company at up to $1.9 billion.
Wang founded Dalian Wanda, the nation’s largest commercial property developer and movie theater operator. Wang’s wealth shrank to $12.2 billion from $14.2 billion in August when he overtook Zong Qinghou, chairman of Hangzhou Wahaha Group as the country’s richest man.
Zong of Wahaha, the largest Chinese beverage maker, trails Li and Wang with a net worth of $12.0 billion. Ma Huateng, founder and chairman of Tencent Holdings, China’s largest Internet company by market value, is the country’s fourth-richest individual with a wealth of $11.5 billion, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Baidu had an 81 percent share of search-engine queries in China in the three months ended June, followed by Qihoo 360 Technology Co. with 10.1 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Baidu’s market share for desktop search has been stable as threats to its dominance faded after Qihoo failed to acquire Sohu.com Inc.’s search engine Sogou, Zhang said.
Baidu, whose name is derived from a Chinese poem from the Song dynasty, was co-founded by Li on January 1, 2000 in Beijing’s Zhongguancun, China’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. The company, which has grown from fewer than 10 employess to more than 17,000 today, sold shares on the Nasdaq in 2005.
The bulk of Li’s wealth comes from his 20.8 percent stake in Baidu. The shares are owned by Li and his wife Melissa Dongmin Ma through Handsome Rewards Ltd., a British Virgin Islands-based holding company. The 45-year-old billionaire also owns 1 percent of 360buy Jingdong Mall, a closely held Chinese online retailer that had revenue of $3.9 billion in 2012.
Li patented his link analysis search-engine algorithm in 1997 at about the same time that Google Inc.’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page developed theirs. Brin and Page are worth more than $29 billion today.
Li, who also goes by his Chinese name Li Yanhong, said in October that his company would continue to invest aggressively in mobile search. Its search app installments rose 50 percent to 330 million users by the end of September vs. three months ago.
“We probably invested a lot more than any of the competitors in the mobile-search front,” Li said on an earnings call. “This year and next year will be very, very crucial for the eventual success of the overall mobile strategy.”
The Internet company agreed in August to pay $160 million for 59 percent of location-based e-commerce service Nuomi Holdings Inc. and said in July it would buy app store 91 Wireless Websoft Ltd. for $1.9 billion.
It bought Santa Clara, California-based TrustGo Mobile Inc. for its security and personal-privacy protection technology earlier this year, Li said in a televised interview with “Bloomberg West,” without disclosing details.
Baidu is also exploring opportunities on Internet finance. In October, it offered “Baifa”, a money-market fund managed by China Asset Management Co. The product has attracted more than 1 billion yuan ($164 million) of investment from more than 120,000 customers on its debut, according to Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo.
More than half of Wang’s wealth comes from the property arm of closely held Wanda Group. Its valuation is derived using the average price-to-earnings multiple of four publicly traded peers: China Vanke, China Overseas Land & Investment, Longfor Properties and Evergrande Real Estate Group.
Wang’s fortune dipped after at least 10 Chinese cities have tightened their property policies in the past month as local governments face pressure to meet annual home-price targets, according to Centaline Property Agency Ltd., the nation’s biggest real estate brokerage.
Three of China’s four major cities -- Shenzhen, Shanghai and Guangzhou -- raised minimum down-payment requirements for second-home mortgages to 70 percent from 60 percent.
The Bloomberg Billionaires Index is a daily ranking of the world’s richest people. Each Bloomberg Billionaire profile contains a detailed analysis of how that person’s fortune is tallied. The index measures the world’s wealthy based on changes in markets, the economy and Bloomberg reporting. Each net worth figure is updated every business day at 5:30 p.m. in New York.