By Paul Carsten
BEIJING (Reuters) - Cheng Wei, 34, was once assistant to the head of a foot massage firm. Last week, his company Didi Chuxing bagged Uber's China business in a deal valuing his ride-hailing start-up at $35 billion - a second success in as many years in a grueling battle with a rival.
Investors and Didi staff say Cheng has a cool head, a keen strategic eye and a lack of ego - all pivotal in taking on and beating Uber in a two-year, multi-billion-dollar scrap for China's competitive ride-hailing market.
But his leadership style is also cut-throat and tinged with nationalism, say some of those who know him. He often references China's history and military in his speeches.
He will be closely watched now as he looks to turn his vast, money-losing ride-hailing company into a meaningful business. Chinese media have reported that Didi users and drivers fear the company's virtual monopoly will mean pricier rides and lower wages.
"He's probably one of the fastest growing CEOs I've seen. If not the best then definitely one of the top three, and I back a lot of people," said Hans Tung, managing partner at GGV Capital, which has funded Beijing-based Didi.
Cheng, who favors rectangle-framed glasses and polo shirts, also has an astute eye for talent - such as hiring foreign-educated rainmaker and ex-Goldman Sachs banker Jean Liu - and managed Didi's relationship with major investors Alibaba and Tencent, who are bitter internet rivals, say those who have worked with him.
"From the outside, you'd say this guy is really lucky, but on the flip side, he knows who the right people to know are and who to have good relationships with, and how to get them to work with him," said a person who has worked with and advised Cheng for years. "It's a very unique personality trait."
OFF ON THE WRONG FOOT
Cheng was born in 1983 in a small town in the southeastern province of Jiangxi.
When the time came to sit China's demanding university entrance exams, he was ill but did enough to get into Beijing University of Chemical Technology, said Allen Zhu, managing director of GSR Ventures and an early investor in Didi.
A graduate in Administration, Cheng took a job at a healthcare company, but found it wasn't quite what he had expected. "He was an assistant to a chairman at a foot massage company," said Zhu. "He thought it wasn't interesting, and after about a year he applied to join Alibaba as a sales person."
In six years, Cheng rose to being a sales manager for the north of China, before moving to the e-commerce group's online payment arm, Alipay, where he was deputy general manager.
In 2012, he founded Beijing Orange Technology Co and launched Didi Dache - meaning "Beep Beep Call a Taxi" - the initial incarnation of his ride-hailing service.
The following year, Didi had its first run-in with Uber, but as a potential suitor rather than a rival.
Uber co-founder and chairman Garrett Camp was in China at the time Didi was having a second round of fundraising, recalled GGV's Tung, who was then at Qiming Venture Partners and introduced the two parties.
"I encouraged Uber to invest in Didi because China's not an easy market to crack, but it was too early for Uber," he said.
Instead, Tencent funded Didi in mid-2013, helping spark a grinding war against Alibaba-backed rival Kuaidi Dache. Both threw hundreds of millions of dollars into subsidizing rides for passengers and giving drivers bonuses to gain market share.
Early last year, that war ended with a merger of the two companies into Didi Kuaidi, which later became Didi Chuxing.
"It's tough competition," said the adviser to Cheng of the ride-hailing sector. "But that's one of the extraordinary things about him; when it's time to do a deal, he's very practical."
The reprieve, though, was short-lived.
Uber rapidly gained traction in China after its local unit received a cash injection in late 2014 from Baidu Inc, the third of China's three internet heavyweights.
Eventually, Didi won out after it also gained backing from Apple Inc.
For Cheng, who will sit on Uber's board, winning was about more than his company seeing off a rival.
"He kept saying that Chinese internet companies on Chinese soil have not lost to a foreign company, and Didi won't be the first to do so," said a former employee who didn't want to be named for fear of jeopardizing business relationships.
Cheng pepped up employees with patriotic songs, such as Tu Honggang's "Jingzhong Baoguo", about someone protecting China during a time of war.
GGV's Tung says Cheng is "jianghu', which translates as having a 'wild toughness' or someone who has a 'rule of the jungle' mentality. "That passion is very macho in a Chinese sense. People will think: 'This is a guy I can stick with because he's going to take care of us and lead, and we'll kick ass and make history'," he said.
"It's not about algorithms and data and the best model. It's a lot more human touch."
(Reporting by Paul Carsten and Beijing Newsroom, and Elzio Barreto in Hong Kong; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)