China’s largest property listings website, Beike, announced that its founder and chairman, Zuo Hui, died Thursday after an unexpected worsening of illness. He was 50 years old.
Zuo, who started Beijing-based property agency Homelink (Lianjia in Chinese) in 2001 and spun off Beike as an internet offshoot in 2018, passed away after building a real estate advisory business that achieved a $2.12 billion initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange last year and gave him a net worth of $15.5 billion.
“We are very saddened by the passing of Mr Zuo and extend our deepest sympathies to Mr Zuo’s family,” Peng Yongdong, CEO and executive director of Beike parent firm KE Holdings, said in a statement released by the company. “Mr Zuo was our visionary founder and leader, and a leading figure in China’s housing transactions and services industry.”
According to Chinese media reports, Zuo was diagnosed with lung cancer in September 2013 and underwent treatment. Acquaintances said he didn’t smoke or drink.
Property Agency Tycoon
Despite his health challenges, Zuo continued to lead Homelink after the cancer diagnosis and presided over the NYSE listing of KE Holdings in August.
Helped along by his $14.8 billion stake in KE Holdings, Zuo ranked 128th in the latest Forbes list of the world’s richest people at the time of his death.
Originally from Weinan in Shaanxi province, Zuo launched Beike in April 2018, offering listings of new and second-hand homes for sale or rent in more than 500 cities across China. To separate itself from the pack of similar sites, Beike touted high-tech touches like virtual reality site visits.
Aided by Homelink’s network of offline agencies across China, in 2019 Zuo secured a funding round for the site that raised $800 million from investors led by internet giant Tencent. He later won the backing of Japan’s SoftBank.
Weathering the Pandemic
At the time of the IPO, Beike said the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 had put significant strain on operations and the accessibility of the real estate brokerage stores in Homelink’s network. But housing transactions quickly recovered in China during the second quarter, leading to a 39 percent year-on-year increase in revenue for the first half of 2020.
Zuo’s unexpected death this week came at a particularly fraught time for China’s tech titans. On the same day as Zuo’s passing, ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming announced that he would leave the CEO job by the end of the year, becoming the third Chinese tech billionaire to step down in the last two years (after Pinduoduo’s Colin Zheng and Alibaba’s Jack Ma).
KE Holdings said the board of directors would make arrangements for corporate governance and related matters and announce its plans within two weeks.