"INTER, YOU ARE HUGE RESPONSIBILITY" - Steven Zhang: "This club means a lot to Suning. We are working closely with Alibaba to reach €1B in revenues"
It all started on December 26 1990 when a store that sells air conditioners opened in Nanjing. Now, Suning has become a giant worth €70B in revenues a year, just behind Huawei on the list of 500 largest private companies in China. There are 600 million Chinese members on Suning Group’s platforms whose online site reaches 265 million page views on any given day of the week.
In their portfolio, there’s also an Italian club called Inter whose president is Steven Zhang, 27-year-old son of founder Jindong, who is living live between Milan and Nanjing. “I live in an apartment in the center of the city, but I practically spend my life in an office,” he says. Passion for design, but also for Italian food: “It may seem obvious that in many aspects, it resembles Chinese cuisine and so it helped me not to feel homesick at the beginning. As a student I always said to myself: a Chinese soul but with global mentality.”
You are the youngest president in the history of Inter. How do you feel when people say that to you?
“Yes, it’s true that they often tell me that but I don’t think too much about it. Age should not be a disadvantage, quite the contrary. It means having more energy, more time to learn, to improve and to change. Something that is lacking in football industry. Looking at other sectors or what is happening in China or the United States, people who are my age manage companies that are worth billions. People like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, and also my father who started at my age. Who knows, maybe one of the reasons why the football industry is not growing as fast as it should is because it lacks young people.”
From online commerce to media, Suning today is a conglomerate with eight business sectors. What plans do you have for Italy and international expansion? In a grand scheme of things, Inter are just a very small part of Suning’s business.
“Yes, it’s true but at the same time, Inter are a huge responsibility. It’s a football club but it’s also a soul and a brand to which people devote much energy to. After these two-three years of work, we can now have a solid organization, a club, a strong team also on the pitch. We have a good coach, good players and the club now has twice as many people working here, something that could not have been imagined until recently.”
To Suning, what do Inter represent?
“A lot. In the sports and entertainment area, for example, it’s a great asset. In China, we are the largest online television platform for football and we broadcast all major European leagues. Having Inter in Europe allows us to get to know many companies, many clubs, to have more confidence in what we do. We also know about the Europa League and Champions League through UEFA. To the business world, Inter allow those who sell Italian and European products to know more about Suning. Inter become a fundamental link and bridge for us.”
What expansion plans do you have, especially for Italy? Many in Europe fear the Chinese activism. Who would you respond?
“The heart of our business is consumer sales and it will always revolve around the consumers. Chinese consumers are now economically able to pay more attention to their personal life and look for quality products. This is one of the reasons why we are here in Italy. Lifestyle, fashion, attention to detail, things that are made in Italy in general, are all top class products in the world. We want to build a bridge and open these channels for the consumers. A great opportunity for us but also for Italian companies because in the end cultures are different and it is difficult for them to understand what needs to be done to operate in China.”
What about the fear of your activism?
“It’s an unmotivated fear. The economy is increasingly connected, globalization cannot be stopped. If we work well together, our mutual economic conditions can only be improved and that should not frighten us.”
Trade tensions are growing in the world, do they reflect on you as well?
“The consumer industry is obviously very sensitive because it directly reflects on the global economy but in China, we are growing and doing so very quickly. Especially on online activities. In each of the last three years, total sales growth has been over 110%, something that could not even be imagined in other countries. That’s why I keep saying that for many European companies coming to Asia and China, it can be a great opportunity.”
We always hear that revenues in the business of football is the only thing matters if you want to achieve results. Is it always true?
“I believe in the philosophy of financial fair play and I think it’s the right direction for sports industry and also for clubs like ours. But in the end, winning team is not always the one with the greatest revenues. And this is the fun part of sport. It is also true, however, that in the end clubs with the greatest revenues have more possibilities and more flexibility to make the decisions when they need to change or improve. One of the most direct aspects is of course selling and buying the players.”
Inter have revenues of €350M, how do you feel the gap with top clubs who are approaching one billion?
“The gap was even bigger three years ago. Bridging it will be a long process but the target of a club like Inter must also be exceeding one billion mark. This is possible thanks to stadium, sponsorships, TV rights in Italy and Europe. This is why we have started building an excellent team of executives and with strong investments, something unthinkable until recently.”
You are currently engaged with Milan trying to build a new stadium. But in Europe, all biggest clubs have their own stadium. Don’t you think Inter deserve one as well?
“Historically, Milan and Inter have shared the stadium and economically speaking it has been a great choice in terms of cost and overall usage. This works financially for the fans and from the perspective of our brand. That’s why we do not part ways with them but we will work together for the new project.”
Even in the future?
“Of course, we need better conditions for the stadium and if we don’t agree, we’ll think of new possibilities. But at the moment, we want to be together.”
Have you ever thought about listing on the stock exchange?
“No, we have never thought about it because we don’t need it right now.”
In the past, there were rumors about a possible entry of Alibaba as a partner. Was it true?
“I have never refused any type of collaboration, having a good partner can give more opportunities for Inter and to achieve our goals, such as reaching a billion in revenues. It is possible to have many partners but not necessarily as shareholders. For example, Inter are working in many ways with Alibaba.”
Are you aware that Jack Ma is an Inter fan?
“I don’t know, I never asked him but he likes football. He saw some World Cup matches and Champions League together with my father.”
Racist episodes in Italian football, your thought?
“To be honest I was very disappointed with what I saw. Violence, discrimination, racism should not exist anywhere in the world. We are in 2019, people are more educated, more informed thanks to the internet, we are not in the stone age and we do not live in isolated caves. The idea of sport creates positive energy for people, any discriminations should be banned in a stadium or in any part of the world.”
You helped bringing the 2026 Olympics to Milan. Why?
“When I was a student, I said to myself: a Chinese soul but a global mind. I felt the responsibility of helping a big city like Milan to show its international appeal and potential that it has in the world of sport. And then in the end, Inter are a Milanese club and I work there too. It will be a great opportunity for everyone. And then I like that after Beijing 2022, Milan 2026 comes after.”
Do you play football?
“No, not even a little. When I was a student I used to play tennis and kayak.”
We cannot talk and avoid the Icardi issue.
“Icardi is a great player, a good person and has helped this club with many goals in the past. We are sure that we will find a good solution for him.”
Seeing how you need strikers, no second thought then?
Would you sign up today to get to the last matchday of the season fighting for the Scudetto and to get out of the Champions League group stage?
“The goal for Inter is always to win all the matches. I am not sure of doing it in the end but I would not sign an agreement like this.”