Richard Qiangdong Liu is the founder of JD.com, formerly Jingdong and 360buy Ltd. He has been the company’s chairman and chief executive officer since its inception in 2004.
Liu was born and raised in Chang’an, a small village outside the city of Suqian in the Jiangsu province of China. The village lacked modern conveniences such as running water and electricity, and although Liu’s parents were descended from wealthy Chinese merchants who transported goods along the Yangtze river in the early 1900’s, by the time he was born their families had lost everything and they were working as rice farmers.
While his parents were working Liu would be left in the charge of his maternal grandmother, who taught him how to make the most of what you have been given. He would help her cook meals using whatever they could afford, usually simple dishes using sweet potato or corn. However, on very special occasions he would accompany his grandmother to the nearest farmer’s co-op where she would bribe the meat vendor with peanuts to purchase the fattiest cut of pork he had available. That way, when the meat was cooked there would be a large amount of residual fat that could be used to cook other items throughout the year. Even as a child Liu showed he had a mind for innovation, when he suggested they also use hot water to separate the remaining fat from the pan and save the mixtures to be put in soup.
Although his scope was limited by his poor background, Liu always had high ambitions. Seeing the many racks of pork that would always hang from the house of the village head, he dreamed of one day becoming the village head himself — not because he wanted to have all of the pork to himself, but so he could share it and make sure everybody in his village was well-fed. Liu spent much of his childhood feeding his curiosity, and as his knowledge grew so did his aspirations. When he was in primary school he led a group of his classmates to a nearby town where they gathered in a new government building and saw electricity working for the first time in the form of a lightbulb. In middle school, instead of spending a school holiday relaxing Liu Qiangdong used his small savings to travel to the nearby city of Nanjing where he walked in wonder around the block of the first skyscraper he had ever seen. Realizing just how small his world was, he dreamed of traveling the world and seeing places such as Beijing, Paris, and New York.
When it came time for Liu to attend university, he only applied to colleges in large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and thanks to his excellent marks on his college entrance exams he earned a spot at the prestigious Renmin University. In addition to aiming high, Liu had a knack for rallying people behind him, and although his family alone was not able to afford the cost of the train ticket to Beijing the people of his village all contributed to his trip. Those who could not afford to spare any money stocked him with eggs to eat for the ride, and Liu was able to subsist on them not only on the train to Beijing, but for a week after once he arrived at the university.
Richard Liu pursued a degree in sociology at Renmin University, and also began to teach himself computer programming on top of his classes, studying, and a job at a small business handwriting copies of letters and documents. This turned out to be a highly lucrative endeavor for him, as computer pro
gramming was a skill in high demand at the time with very few able to do it. During his time in university, Liu was able to save up enough money to purchase his own personal computer and cell phone — both quite expensive at the time — and even had a new house built for his parents.
Although Liu Qiangdong has gone on to build one of the largest and most successful e-commerce companies in the world, he also has had his own experience with failure and how to learn from it. Using some of his savings from computer programming he opened up a restaurant near the entrance to his university, but his lack of management experience combined with his naivete caused him to put too much trust in his employees, who quickly took advantage of him. They not only forged reimbursement receipts, but even directly stole money from the cash register, and the restaurant was out of business in less than a year. However, the taste Liu had for running his own business is what inspired him to start JD a few years later, and after graduating from Renmin University in 1996 he enrolled a completed an EMBA program at the China Europe International Business School so that he could further his studies in tandem with his entrepreneurial ventures. To gain management experience, he began working at the herbal supplement giant Japan Life, where he rose through the ranks and eventually became a Director of Computers and Service.
In June of 1998, Liu pursued his next entrepreneurial endeavor, starting Jingdong at a tiny stall in Zhongguancun as a storefront engaged in the distribution of magneto-optical products. Unlike many of the booths around him in the tech bazaar who often sold counterfeit goods at negotiable prices, he refused to haggle the prices he set, but in exchange guaranteed products that were not only authentic but also reliable. Thanks to his commitment to this business model, the company saw rapid growth in its first few years. In just five short years it grew first to a full-size retail store, and then to 12 chain stores across Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenyang, earning annual revenues of around $9 million USD.
Although the chain of electronics stores was the start of Liu’s retail business, it wasn’t until 2003 that JD began to take the shape as we know it today. In that year, many businesses including Liu’s were forced to shutter as the country grappled with an epidemic of SARS. Rather than see this as a hindrance, Liu Qiangdong used it as an opportunity to grow his business in a new way and began posting his products for sale to online bulletin boards. Even when he was able to re-open his storefronts, he saw the success that e-commerce was gaining at the time and kept one employee selling the products online. He officially launched an online version of the business in January 2004, and after a year running his business both in-store and online, he made the decision to become solely an e-commerce company.
Without Richard Liu’s steadfast dedication to ensuring his company’s success, it would not have become the behemoth it is today. He wrote the code for the original website himself, and chose to sleep in the office rather than spend the extra money on rent each month. In the office he would handle all of the website’s customer service inquiries, and even hand-delivered all of the orders for a time. These instances of going beyond were not only a necessary step to thoughtfully growing his business, but also a highly useful way for him to learn as much as possible about his customer base in a time before big data and marketing could do so for him.
In 2007, Liu Qiangdong began to build a national logistics system to cater to the astronomical rise in JD’s popularity throughout the country. He realized early on that there was not a Chinese logistics firm that could deliver to every part of the country, so people living in the most rural areas had to travel to their nearest town to buy appliances and other goods, leading to much higher prices in small towns than in big cities. After seeing an opportunity in the market, Liu insisted that JD build its own national logistics system to avoid losing or damaging items during delivery, creating innovations for the country and transforming retail and e-commerce for its one billion users. By the end of 2014, JD had launched 3,210 delivery and pickup stations in 1,862 Chinese counties, almost two-thirds of all counties in the country. In 2014, Amazon switched from using third-party logistics firms to making the “last mile” deliveries itself, following the model in the United States that JD established in the Chinese market.
Unlike other dominant Chinese e-commerce brands, JD.com made a distinct practice of sourcing goods directly from suppliers and reselling to its shoppers rather than providing the platform to sell directly but leaving the handling of goods to outside delivery companies. This enveloping practice allows JD to verify the authenticity of goods being sold, increasing consumer trust in China’s wary e-commerce industry. This focus on honesty and reliability has been the driver for JD’s staggering growth in China’s vast market. As a result, Richard Liu’s retail method and model are credited for the country’s boom in e-commerce.
JD.com has grown to become the country’s largest online direct sales company in terms of transaction volume. In 2014, JD.com had a market share of 54.3 percent and was listed on NASDAQ on May 22, 2014. On the day of JD’s public offering, stock prices for it rose 15%. Under Richard Liu’s leadership, JD.com listed in 2014 and by 2016 was the first Chinese internet company to make the Fortune 500 Companies list. JD.com is recognized as the third-largest internet company globally and the largest retailer in China by revenue.
Liu’s foresight and endeavors in cutting-edge innovations in logistics, artificial intelligence, the “internet of things,” and robotics have reached millions of families in China and around the world while solidifying JD’s stake as an industry leader. In 2020, to mark the company’s 17th year in business, the company announced an update to both their strategic positioning and mission statement. As “a supply chain based technology and service enterprise” JD.com opens its doors to expanding beyond e-commerce and highlights the value of their logistical network and developing technology. This, in tandem with their new mission statement “powered by technology for a more productive and sustainable world” highlights the shift in JD.com from a young start-up to an international powerhouse.
In December 2011, Richard Liu received the prestigious “2011 China Economic Person of the Year” award from CCTV – the country’s largest national television network. Liu’s other awards include recognition for achievements in the e-commerce industry in China, such as the “2011 Chinese Business Leader’’ and Fortune China’s “2012 Chinese Businessman.” He has also been named a Variety500 Honoree in 2017. As a frequent speaker at world-class forums like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Richard Liu is well regarded on the international stage for delivering insights on future innovation trends and the retail sector. According to Fortune, which has ranked Liu as number 48 in its list of the world’s greatest leaders, Liu “has few of the trappings of a celebrity CEO,” and little corporate ego. Despite running a mega-billion-dollar global corporation, Liu Qiangdong still spends one day each year as a JD.com delivery person.