“WE ARE NOT manufacturers of water. We are porters of nature.” So goes a famous quip by Zhong Shanshan, the 66-year-old founder and boss of Nongfu Spring, China’s most popular brand of bottled water. On September 8th the Hangzhou-based bottler listed on Hong Kong’s bourse to spectacular fanfare. Demand for shares from retail investors outstripped supply by 1,148 times (see chart). The share price shot up by 60% over the first three days of trading. Its market capitalisation reached $53bn. Mr Zhong, who still owns 84% of Nongfu Spring, is now China’s third-richest person, narrowly trailing two tech moguls: Jack Ma of Alibaba and (unrelated) Pony Ma of Tencent.
Rising disposable incomes and public anxiety about the safety of tap water, which is unfit to drink in most of China, have fuelled demand among Chinese for the bottled variety. Consumption per person of bottled water rose from 41 litres in 2014 to 59 litres in 2019, according to data from Mintel, a market-research firm. Americans, by comparison, guzzled an average of 141 litres last year. That suggests Chinese bottlers still have plenty of room for growth, not least because tap water in America is (typically) potable.
Nongfu Spring is the runaway industry leader. It accounted for 29% of the volume sold in China in 2019. Foreign brands such as FIJI Water,...
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