Staring out the window of the freshly refurbished office space at the Grand Millennium Plaza in Hong Kong’s central business district, Mao Daqing quickly wraps up a call on the phone in Mandarin. The CEO of China’s largest co-working company swiftly switches to speaking English for his sit-down with Forbes.

It’s no surprise that the founder of Ucommune scaled the company into a unicorn in under two years. Formally an executive at the helm of one the country’s most profitable property developers, Mao led Vanke to set record breaking sales after spending over a decade in real estate investments.

Jockeying for market share

The architect by training has recently completed a C-round of fundraising that values his firm at $1.7 billion. Mao is now speaking with around 15 international investors to raise another $200 million to expand his business into 40 cities in the mainland, and to corner the Southeast Asia market.

“The next wave of development, we’re targeting major cities along the Belt and Road,” reveals the former property executive. With his sight in line with China’s regional outreach initiative, he rapidly names off cities including Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Macau. Sounding quite bullish, he says they’ll establish presence in these places by way of both organic growth, and by buying their way through acquisitions.

The shared space race has been red hot for some time now, but the operator landscape has been fragmented. M&A is necessary in the sector to get ahead, says Colliers’ Jonathan Wright. “Certain markets have nuances that can be hard to navigate so local knowledge and networks can be critical to success.” The Beijing-based company invested in Jakarta-based ReWork last year, and acquired rival Workingdom, WeDo, Woo Space and New Space within months of each other on its home turf this year.

International property consultancy JLL expects the consolidation in the region to continue in the near term, citing WeWork’s deal to buy Singapore’s Spacemob, EV Hive’s merger with Clapham Collective, and CapitaLand’s joint venture tie-up with Collective Works among the many operator expansions.

The Chinese co-working giant also has a couple of locations in New York, two low-rise buildings on Market Street in San Francisco slated to open, and sites under development in Los Angeles, Mao tell FORBES.

A marathon, not a sprint 

Mao, 49, has a competitive streak in him. An avid runner, the athletic CEO just completed his 79th marathon in Chile, and is preparing for his next one scaling the Great Wall. He applies this endurance ethos to inspire his employees and the numerous entrepreneurs among his tenants. The sportsman has been known to compare running a startup to the process of competing in a marathon. Mao values focus, perseverance and tenacity.

The Chairman goes on to explain how the company differentiates itself amongst its competition. It’s in the midst of developing an integrated intelligence platform to connect its 120,000 members within Ucommune’s network. Fresh investment will be allocated to building on-site facial recognition systems for security, implementing blockchain and other smart connected office solutions.

The Chinese shared office service recently rebranded to Ucommune from URWork after a legal trademark battle over what U.S. rival WeWork called a “deceptively similar” name. Mao brushes off the dispute: “This is understanding change. Not name change.” He pivots to say that when he started the company three years ago, they couldn’t have foreseen where the company would go. “We changed ourselves to community organizer from work space provider.” The online platform that he compares to Facebook’s Marketplace page has become a key part of the company.

New battleground

Part of that shift includes opening up shop in emerging areas of China as the largest metro hubs become overcrowded. The nimble business man tells FORBES that there are cost advantages in “70-some active cities across the country where land price is very hot, and prices are going up fast.”

Lower tier cities such as Fosun and Dongguan are undergoing a manufacturing renaissance. Yangzhou is home to booming startups Ofo and Mobike–both of which occupy space with Ucommune. Hainan was granted the green light by the government to set up a free trade port, while Kunming is the gateway to Southeast Asia. And places like Tai Yuan, the capital of Shanxi Province and Xiang Yang of Hu Bei Province are fast growing with ever-proliferating internet companies.

Much like today’s household tech giants that sprung out of garages in Silicon Valley, a handful of high potential Chinese startups that rent from Ucommune come to mind for Mao. KuaiShou is one of China’s most popular live streaming apps that tallies 400 million accounts with 60 million daily active users. The video publishing platform bagged $1 billion in funding from investors led by Tencent and Sequoia Capital China, and is readying for an IPO as early as this year.

Other notable names include Intel-backed Horizon Robots, and knowledge service provider Luoji Siwei valued at $82 million–examples of just a few of the hundreds of startups launching their careers under Ucommune’s roof.

Road to IPO

Some of the flagship locations are state-of-the-art built over 300,000 square feet and housing hundreds of SMEs, others are no frills office cubicles of various size. New centers achieve 90-95% occupancy rate generally within six months of opening, Mao boasts. “Eighty percent of our sites are already profitable, the whole company will take another year.”

Opening up about the company’s financial future, the CEO says an IPO is in sight. “We might just need one or two more rounds [of funding]… maybe end of this year, beginning of next year.” With roughly 25% ownership of the company, he weighs a potential listing in either Hong Kong or Shanghai. “Mainland China is an important choice because there are good policies for so called science and technology service unicorn companies,” he considers.

Championing Women 

For a country that’s fallen behind on gender equality, the shrewd business man is a rare bright spot striving for change. His company recently invested $1.5 million in a female professionals platform to support Chinese women, but his advocacy and compassion traces way back.

Mao, who spent much of his childhood in Sichuan, was one of the first volunteers onsite the 2008 earthquake. His philanthropic deed only recently came to light after a young girl shared her story. The then 11-year-old was rescued from a collapsed school building after 70 hours under the rubble. In the process, the ballet dancer lost her limb.

After hearing of her misfortune, Mao personally took on all her medical expenses and continued on to sponsor her education and her family’s relocation. Today the 21-year-old has become a well-known performer and author, and even danced at Beijing’s Paralympic Games.

“I am deeply convinced that by empowering hardworking, ambitious and driven working women, great things will happen.”