"His army experience left a deep impression. He's very decisive," said Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of computer giant Lenovo Group and Wang's long-time friend.
Wang started out buying construction quotas from one of Dalian's three state-owned property developers and taking on jobs nobody else wanted: redeveloping slum housing. The local government, led by now-disgraced former mayor Bo Xilai, supported Dalian Wanda at the time.
The firm added a bathroom to each flat, a privilege then enjoyed only by senior officials, allowing Dalian Wanda to sell the apartments at premium prices. When he saw a peak in residential housing sales at the end of the 1990s, Wang shifted his focus to commercial property.
He also took control of Dalian's football team in 1994, at a time when Bo elevated the sport as an important calling card for the city. Wang renamed the club Dalian Wanda and over the next six years it won four national league championships.
"That gave him brand recognition, which no other developer had," said Amit of Wharton School. "Everybody knew what that name stood for."
Last year brought a moment that symbolized Wang's shrewdness in business dealings. At a glitzy event outside of Qingdao, in eastern China, Wang celebrated the groundbreaking for an $8.1 billion film studio and tourism development alongside guests like Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta.
On that same afternoon, 350 kilometers to the west at a courthouse in Jinan, Bo was convicted of corruption and abuse of power, sealing the fate of another local industrialist, Xu Ming, who admitted to forking out millions to Bo's family.
The Dalian Wanda brand caught the attention of Wal-Mart in 2000, when it was looking to partner with local property firms with "a vision of development that serves customers", said Joe Hatfield, who led the world's biggest retailer's China business for 12 years.
Wal-Mart's participation in Dalian Wanda's commercial expansion created a virtuous circle.
Once Australia's Macquarie Bank started to co-invest with Dalian Wanda, Wang abandoned his earlier tactic of selling off property. He started a leasing arm, launched his own cinema chain and began building hotels to increase traffic at his commercial properties.
Wal-Mart emphasized the importance of professionalized management, developing training sessions for Dalian Wanda executives, Hatfield said.
The success of the early commercial properties also gave Wang more leverage in negotiations with local governments. At meetings with local officials, Wang persuasively argued their interests were aligned.
"He was a tough negotiator," Hatfield said.