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Who is Terry Gou? iPhone billionaire to run for president of Taiwan

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Foxconn billionaire founder Terry Gou's surprise announcement Wednesday that he plans to run for president of Taiwan after being urged to do so by a sea goddess has raised to fever pitch the debate about the island's fragile relations with China and the US.

[TAIPEI] Foxconn billionaire founder Terry Gou's surprise announcement Wednesday that he plans to run for president of Taiwan after being urged to do so by a sea goddess has raised to fever pitch the debate about the island's fragile relations with China and the US.

But who is Terry Gou?

While the 68-year-old is a star in his own country, he's hardly a household name abroad. Yet his factories employ more than a million people in China and hundreds of thousands more around the world from the US to the Czech Republic and Brazil. Foxconn Technology Group assembles phones and gadgets found in almost every household in the developed world, including most of Apple Inc's iPhones and scores of devices for other brands. If you own a Sony PlayStation 4 or an Amazon Kindle, chances are it came from one of Mr Gou's plants.

On Thursday, his bid for the presidency fuelled a speculative frenzy in several of the companies that make up the Foxconn empire.

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It's a business that presents both strengths and drawbacks as Mr Gou seeks to challenge Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a China critic whose party supports formal independence. While he's admired as one of Taiwan's most successful entrepreneurs - a strong leader who can negotiate with both China and the US - his vast investments on the mainland could raise questions about Beijing's potential influence over the democratically run island.

Mr Gou (pronounced Gwor) started his US$41 billion empire with a US$7,500 loan from his mother in 1974 at the age of 23, during Taiwan's export-driven boom. The former shipping clerk used the loan to buy plastic moulding machines that made knobs to change channels on black-and-white televisions for American and European brands.

US Tour

To drum up more business, he went on an 11-month tour of the US in the early 80s, dropping in on companies unannounced, like a door-to-door salesman. In Raleigh, North Carolina, he booked himself into a motel close to an IBM facility. After three days of hanging around, he got an appointment and came away with an order for connectors.

Mr Gou's ability to pair American demand for gadgets with cheap Asian labour went into overdrive with the opening up of China. While many Taiwanese manufacturers hesitated to move production across the Taiwan Strait, Mr Gou set up his first mainland plant in Shenzhen in 1988, the year Beijing promised not to nationalise Taiwanese investments.

The business boomed. As one plant followed another, Mr Gou became one of the largest private employers in the country. His factories, filled with young migrant workers from China's interior, were like mini cities, with housing, canteens, health clinics and recreation. Initially based in the thriving region near Hong Kong, Mr Gou's plants began to spread across the country, including to Shanxi province in the north, where his family had come from.

But the behind-the scenes maker of iPhones and iPods was about to come under the international spotlight. In 2010, more than a dozen Foxconn workers committed suicide, calling into question the company's constant drive for lower costs and maximum efficiency.

Mr Gou was slow to realise the significance of the deaths. "The first one, second one, and third one, I did not see this as a serious problem. We had around 800,000 employees," he told Bloomberg News in 2010. "At the moment, I'm feeling guilty. But at that moment, I didn't think I should be taking full responsibility."

Generous, severe

The eldest of his father's three sons, Mr Gou is known for acts of both severity and generosity. He once forced a senior executive to remain standing for 10 minutes for an unsatisfactory answer at a meeting of several hundred people, according to another former executive present at the meeting. He is known for holding meetings that can last hours and close aides are expected to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

On the other hand, he has paid executives and staff large bonuses out of his own pocket, using dividends from his company shares held in trust.

Today, Mr Gou is no longer in the shadows. When US President Donald Trump called for more investment in US manufacturing, Mr Gou was one of the first to heed the call, agreeing to build a 13,000-worker facility in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, in exchange for more than US$4.5 billion in government incentives.

Hailed by Mr Trump as "one of the great deals ever", the Wisconsin project has since come under criticism for low-paying jobs, sudden dismissals and a chaotic environment with ever-changing goals. Foxconn says the plant is on track to begin producing LCDs next year.

Now the spotlight is full on Mr Gou.

The man whose father fought with the Kuomintang - or Nationalist Party - army in the civil war against Mao Zedong's Communists and fled along with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 is now seeking the KMT's nomination for the presidential election in January. The KMT, which shares Beijing's belief that both sides belong to "one China", has since become Taiwan's strongest advocate for closer ties.

"I will participate in the KMT primary," Mr Gou told reporters today in Taipei, describing his core values as "peace, stability, economy and future".

His resources could help him stand out among a field of potential KMT challengers that includes former New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu and former legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng. Han Kuo-yu and Ko Wen-je, the outspoken mayors of Kaohsiung and Taipei, respectively, haven't ruled out a run.

"For KMT supporters, no other candidate is better than Gou as Gou is on good terms with both Chinese and American leaders," said Wu Yu-Shan, distinguished research fellow at Academia Sinica's Institute of Political Science in Taipei.

Helping his image is the fact that he is not only admired as a businessman, but is one of Taiwan's biggest philanthropists. Mr Gou has devoted his considerable wealth to finding a cure for cancer and opened a new cancer hospital in Taipei last year. His first wife died of breast cancer in 2005 and his brother Tony died after a battle with leukemia in 2007.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Gou claimed the Chinese sea goddess Mazu had encouraged him to "come forward" to support peace across the Taiwan Strait.

"Mazu told me I should be inspired by her to do good things for people who are suffering, to give young people hope, to support cross-strait peace," Mr Gou said, adding that the goddess had recently spoken to him in a dream.

His religious belief extends to his factories, which all have statues of Tudi Gong, the Chinese god of land.

The question remains as to how Mr Gou can square decades of making money in China and his billions of dollars of investments there, with his ambition to run an island that still has a precarious relationship with Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested earlier this year that the two sides Taiwan enter into "in-depth democratic consultations" and work toward unification, the clearest signal yet that he wants to settle the 70-year dispute.

Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, pointed to the pressure Beijing has exerted on international companies such as Delta Air Lines Inc and clothing brands such as Inditex SA-owned Zara to adhere to its claims over Taiwan. He said Mr Gou would struggle to shake off questions about his business interests in China.

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also," said Mr Wang, citing a Bible verse. "While chairman Gou wants to become Taiwan's head of state, his wealth is in Xi Jinping's hands. I think the 23 million people of Taiwan will be concerned by that."

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