Horse powers

Hanging with the equestrian crowd.

Finding the right buttons to push in China can be a tedious process of trial and error. Just ask Victor Apps. An executive vice-president at Manulife Financial Corp. (TSE: MFC) and head of its Asian operations (excluding Japan) based in Hong Kong, he's spent much of the last decade meeting officials of the Chinese government bureaucracy while pursuing licences to sell life insurance to a potential market of 1.3 billion people. Navigating the corridors of China's mysterious state machinery can be a daunting task: it's not always obvious which officials hold influence, or how to win their cooperation. Some “wear Armani suits, talk beautiful English, and discuss Nietzsche if you want them to–real men of the world,” says Apps, 54, who's been with Manulife since he joined as a computer programmer in 1970. Apps even encountered a civil affairs minister who had served as translator when the father of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Tse-tung, met fellow dictator Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union in 1949. But some “repeat the party line ad nauseam,” he notes. One that Apps and Manulife president Dominic D'Alessandro met with in Chengdu unceremoniously hawked out the window in the middle of a meeting–a cultural difference Apps hasn't quite gotten used to. “He was an official somebody thought we should meet,” he says. “It didn't help much.”

Until recently, the closest thing to insurance you could find in China was a Communist Party membership card. Under the Communist system, the thinking has traditionally been that insurance was unnecessary, given that the state took care of people from cradle to grave. But like a lot of things familiar to Westerners–from experimentations with democracy to cell phones–the concept is finally catching on. In operation since 1996, Manulife's Shanghai joint venture employs 3,200 agents selling insurance to approximately 100,000 customers in the city of almost 17 million. The outpost just about breaks even, but contributes only a fraction of Manulife's total revenues and zero profits–hardly worth raving about. That's not its significance, though: more importantly, it's one of the first entries into a market about to be flooded by global competitors.

Last December, China joined the World Trade Organization, a group of 144 nations that administers international trade negotiations and agreements and settles disputes. Negotiations leading up to its admission took 15 years. Member states are obliged to abide by the WTO's agreements, most of which aim to integrate countries further into the global economy and provide a stable environment for trade and investment. To gain membership, China accepted commitments beyond those typically required of other WTO members. In exchange for access to new export markets and increased foreign direct investment, it has agreed to lower or remove protective tariffs, foreign ownership restrictions, state-controlled prices and other trade barriers in many sectors, including agriculture, information technology and telecommunications, energy, pharmaceuticals–and, to Manulife's good fortune, insurance. That means there are unprecedented opportunities for foreign firms to introduce medical, agricultural, travel, health, and other insurance products to the Chinese

If racing horses is the sport of kings, then members of the Rich 100 who own thoroughbreds certainly aspire to royalty. Breeding, training and racing purebreds can also be a lucrative business. But for most of Canada's wealthiest horse owners–a group that includes car parts magnate Frank Stronach, diamond hunter Charles Fipke, oilman Clay Riddell and pharmaceutical executive Eugene Melnyk–it's all about the passion of seeing their steed in action. And winning, of course.

Stronach is well-known for his love of horses; in addition to owning racetracks through Magna Entertainment, he raises and breeds horses at his Adena Springs Farm in Kentucky. One of his most recent winners is Ghostzapper, who is gaining a reputation as one of the fastest thoroughbreds in decades. The four-year-old won the Breeder's Cup Classic in October at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, finishing one and a quarter miles in a track-record time of 1:59. As for Fipke, who discovered what is now the Ekati diamond mines in the Northwest Territories, he got into the equine business with a desire to breed the classic race horse. In 1994, he purchased Ball Chairman, a descendant of the legendary Secretariat, to start a breeding program, and one recent result is Perfect Soul, who has been doing well in such races as the Atto Mile at Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack.

Melnyk says his love of horse racing comes down to “the thrill of it all.” The payoff for him is seeing all the planning, breeding and training he's invested in a horse result in a champion. But he's careful to not put all his bets on one or two expensive mounts. “If you're going to play this game, you have to do it on a size and scale that gives you enough chances to actually win.” From the time he was a teenager, Melnyk went regularly to the races with his uncle in Toronto, and he has owned horses since the 1980s. But he became serious about the sport in 1996, when he bought four thoroughbreds, including Archer's Bay, who went on to win the Queen's Plate in 1998. More recently, his six-year-old, Speightstown, won the six-furlong Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Melnyk, who lives in Barbados and names his steeds after towns and landmarks on the Caribbean island, raises and trains his horses in Florida, where he has owned the prestigious Winding Oaks Farm stable since 2001. “It's the best place to raise a horse,” he says. “When it's winter and freezing up in Kentucky, or in Canada, they're rolling around in the grass in Florida.”