The new owner of the Plough at Cadsden has a problem. “I knew it,” he says, theatrically shaking his hands in the air. “They all want fish and chips.” He says the words “fish” and “chips” with comic emphasis, smiles, and with a courteous “excuse me” to anyone in earshot, scampers down the stairs from the bar to the pub’s small kitchens.
His fish and chip demanding guests have booked the entire pub for the afternoon to hold a Christmas party. Nothing unusual for December 21st in a picture-perfect village pub in the leafy, affluent English county of Buckinghamshire. What is unusual, however, is that all the pub’s guests this afternoon are Chinese. As is the new owner.
Also unusual is the fact that this new owner, Peter Zhang, the 31-year-old Managing Director of SinoFortone Group, is new to the pub business. But that isn’t going to stop him building 100 replicas of the Plough in cities across China within three years. It’s also unusual that Zhang has burst into the limelight with little in the way of a business pedigree. As recently as 2012, he was a research fellow at York University’s school of management. But that hasn’t slowed him down: he now runs a company that has, since it was established in July 2015, been involved in a string of multibillion pound infrastructure and energy projects in the UK and, he says, across the globe.
But really, on face value, it’s all unusual. It’s unusual that today’s guests — who are actually the leading lights of London’s Chinese business community — all want fish and chips. Also that this baby-faced young man from Tianjin in the far north of China has bought this little country pub. And it’s more than a bit odd that his business, the largely unheard of SinoFortone, is the key financial and strategic driver behind such an impressive list of projects.
President Xi stood at the bar that Zhang now owns and famously drank a pint of India Pale Ale and ate fish and chips with the then UK prime minister David Cameron. The Plough — often described as “the most famous pub in England” because of its proximity to the UK prime minister’s country house of Chequers — turned into a Chinese tourist attraction overnight. But Xi’s UK visit brought much more than tourists. After a quick tour of the country’s industrial, technological and commercial highlights, Xi gave the green light to a program that has seen a multibillion pound torrent of Chinese investment into the UK. And Peter Zhang stood ready to grasp the opportunities.
“We we already here, already looking at opportunities,” says Zhang. “So when the President of China visited and talked about the HS2 [High Speed Rail] project … we thought ‘the door is now open.’ We were lucky and we signed two big projects during his visit, the 2 billion pound [US$2.5 billion] biomass power station in Wales and the 3.2 billion pound theme park, The Paramount, in Kent outside London.”
Zhang is talking at a corner table in the pub, right underneath a picture of Xi and Cameron enjoying those now famous pints. He really does look too young to be talking about multibillion pound projects but spend any time with him and it’s hard not to be a bit impressed.
He is affable, quick to use humor — and assured with it. When answering questions about SinoFortone’s history, or lack of evident track record, or its ties to the Chinese state, his replies are considered and confident — if somewhat cautious, opaque and not always completely factually accurate. Still, it’s hard not to be absorbed into the weird but wonderful-sounding world of SinoFortone. The Plough’s previous English owners clearly felt the same, and said they turned down numerous Chinese rivals, including Tsingtao Brewery Co. They chose Peter Zhang not just because of his price but because of his personality and conviction.
Zhang waves off questions about reports in the UK press that SinoFortone attempted a buyout of Liverpool Football Club for US$1 billion — “It was just a rumor,” he says. He also bounces away the controversy over SinoFortone’s memorandum of understanding with the Scottish government to explore energy and construction projects worth around 10 billion pounds. “Things moved very slowly from their side,” he says by way of explanation and then, as if on cue, one of his staff comes to the table. To talk dumplings.
When the Christmas party guests arrive, they do so in a tourist coach and an assortment of Maseratis and Range Rovers. Zhang’s team has arranged, alongside the fish and chips and other standard pub menu items — a starter course of classic Chinese Jiaozi dumplings. The Chinese chef who has come from London can’t find space to work in the tiny kitchens. Zhang and the pub’s new Chinese manageress — “We will keep all the existing staff, she is here just to help with the Chinese visitors” he says — discuss the crisis in a rapid-fire mix of English and Putonghua before Zhang apologizes and leaves the table. “I am so sorry,” he says with typical courtesy. “I have to sort out this dumpling issue.” Further discussions on multibillion pound deals and SinoFortone’s burgeoning empire will have to wait. The landlord must make sure the dumplings get cooked.
The party itself is a jolly affair. Some guests come dressed as Santa. Zhang makes a speech, as does the town mayor, Matthew Walsh, who has come wearing his official mayoral chain of office. That he has brought some official pomp and gravitas to this festive occasion is clearly appreciated by the visiting Chinese.
As the party progresses, so does the alcohol consumption. Alongside the fish and chips the guests want to try the same Greene King IPA that Xi drank. Sixty pints of the stuff are duly poured and once each guest has a glass in hand, Zhang makes sure his bar staff understand the protocol. “They get one each and then they pay, okay?” he says into the barman’s ear. So maybe he really does know about business.