• STO Express Chairman Chen Dejun

STO Express Chairman Chen Dejun (Photo : Getty Images)

Tonglu County in Zhejiang Province, a rural area with a population of only 400,000 people, is now more popularly known as the birthplace of the founders of four successful delivery and logistics companies or kuaidi, in the country.

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The business success of the four natives had made them billionaires as their companies have listed on Chinese and foreign stock exchanges, the Financial Times said.

Zhejiang Province, located along the coastline, started to benefit from export-oriented light manufacturing in the 1990s. The province is also known for its strong entrepreneurial spirit and close business communities.

The city of Wenzhou became the leading producer of cigarette lighters and spectacle in the world in the early 2000s, while Ningbo was identified for its "limit-up kamikazes" with their bold speculation in the stock market. Hangzhou, the provincial capital, is regarded as the home of Alibaba and other big Internet companies.

But in the early 1990s, Tonglu, a remote place located in the mountain, is only accessible by foot. Its villagers were known for their endurance and hard labor or the willingness to "eat bitter," a Chinese phrase for toughness and endurance.

"The people of Tonglu were adept at traveling on foot. Because transport wasn't developed, you had to rely on your own two legs to gain contact with the outside world," Sun Kan, author of the 2014 book "China's Kuaidi Tonglu Gang," said.

"The first cohort of kuaidi people drove tricycles or used other simple transport methods. City people couldn't have endured this kind of job."

At age 20, Nie Tengfei, the godfather of the Tonglu Gang, established the STO Express in 1993, after moving to Hangzhou then Shanghai. STO was staffed by friends and relatives during its early days, when it delivered biscuits, cakes and alcohol.

Breakthrough years

STO's breakthrough came when it started delivering business documents. It delivered customs declaration forms for exports from Zhejiang manufacturing hubs to the customs office in Shanghai. STO has an overnight service that beat China Post's three-day delivery service.

After Nie's death in a car accident in 1998, other people from Tonglu followed in his footsteps. His brother, Nie Tengyun, set up Yunda Holding in 1998. In 2000, Yu Weijiao, wife of a former STO worker, founded STO Express. Another STO employee and Tonglu native Lai Meisong established ZTO Express in 2002.

"The change in the village is like heaven and earth," Feng Genfu, chairman of the Tonglu-Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, said. "The ones who left home and became bosses, they've all built big houses. When they come home from Spring Festival, it's an endless line of fancy cars."

When the Alibaba-led e-commerce boom came in the mid-2000s, many courier companies in China benefitted from the growth. Last year, logistics companies delivered about 31 billion parcels across China, an increase of 51 percent from the 2015 record.

The four logistics companies have listed in the exchanges. ZTO made its initial public offering in New York in October, while the three others listed in Shanghai or Shenzhen. The three bought low listed companies to avoid the long wait for IPO approval on the mainland bourses.