From factory apprentice to 'Superman'

Tycoon Li Ka Shing waving goodbye after announcing his retirement as chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings last Friday.
Tycoon Li Ka Shing waving goodbye after announcing his retirement as chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings last Friday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Tycoon Li Ka Shing's business acumen has made him HK's most wealthy man and world's 23rd richest

HONG KONG • Mr Li Ka Shing's rise from penniless immigrant in 1940 to billionaire tycoon is the consummate success story in Hong Kong, a city which progressed alongside him from trading outpost to become one of the world's biggest financial centres.

A factory apprentice at 13, Mr Li, who announced his retirement last Friday, was called "Superman" in the ultra-capitalist hub for his work ethic and business success.

Mr Li has used his business acumen, as well as a habit of personally investing alongside his companies, to amass a fortune estimated by Forbes at US$35.3 billion (S$46.3 billion), making him the richest man in Hong Kong, and the world's 23rd richest man.

"I've been working for a long time, too long," a relaxed and sprightly Mr Li said on Friday, after announcing that he would step down on May 10.

BUILDING AN EMPIRE

While Hong Kong's adoration of the billionaire and his rags-to-riches story has waned somewhat in recent years, he is still stepping aside from one of Asia's most outward-looking empires, spanning more than 50 countries and 323,000 employees at last count.

Through a career spanning the 78 years since his family fled war-torn China for Hong Kong, Mr Li built fortunes first in plastics and property before joining the first wave of top-tier Chinese tycoons in the city with the 1979 purchase of Hutchison Whampoa, a venerable British "hong" or trading house.

Along the way, he led raids on his rivals, built strong - later controversial - ties with mainland leaders, was rapped on the knuckles for insider dealing in Hong Kong and turned his sights to overseas expansion in a way that few of his local competitors ever did.

EVER PRACTICAL

Suppose this watch is a hundred thousand dollars. I need to be careful... But this is a few hundred US dollars, I can play golf, I go swimming, get any exercise, I don't need to be careful.

MR LI KA SHING, on his US$500 Citizen watch.

Also unlike his rivals, including fellow hongs Swire Pacific and Jardine Matheson, he proved adept at something else: selling assets.

"Li Ka Shing's real genius, to me, is not necessarily in the assets he acquired, but his ability to sell them at the right time," said Mr Jonathan Galligan, head of Asia gaming and conglomerates research at CLSA, the brokerage.

"Look at anything he sold and, plus or minus a year, it's hard to say he didn't pick the top - that's a tremendous skill."

One of Mr Li's best-known deals in this respect was the 1999 sale of its UK telecoms unit, Orange, to Germany's Mannesmann at the height of a market boom.

After Vodafone bought Mannesmann, the subsequent forced disposal of Orange to France Telecom produced a second windfall for the Li empire, which netted US$21 billion in profits from the two deals.

Today, the assets still held by Mr Li through his flagship CK Hutchison Holdings, include the biggest container port operator in the world, Canadian oil giant Husky, one of Europe's leading telecoms operators as well as a collection of British businesses that saw him awarded a knighthood by the Queen in 2000.

Even after stepping down, Mr Li, who turns 90 in July, will remain a senior adviser for his sprawling business empire.

Shrouded in myth and filled with apocryphal anecdotes and tales of family misfortune, Mr Li's name has become synonymous with against-the-odds success by dint of hard work.

He himself has regularly emphasised the hard work as well as his own drive to educate himself after becoming an apprentice in a watch strap factory at the age of 13, shortly before his father died.

 
 

By 19, he had become general manager of the factory, overseeing up to 300 workers and office staff, and at 21, he founded Cheung Kong Plastics - the foundation of his empire. That factory, with 1,000 sq ft of space, operated around-the-clock, made a profit from its first year of operation and the young Mr Li slept in a storage room in one of the many stories about his discipline and personal thrift.

He once said that each time he entered a new industry, he would buy books about it to educate himself.

When he started his plastics company, he bought a copy of an American trade magazine, Modern Plastics, each month.

"There was so much information in it," he said in a recent Bloomberg Television interview.

In an interview with Bloomberg in 2016, he was seen sporting the solar-powered US$500 Citizen Eco-Drive watch, stating that it was cheap, practical and robust.

"Suppose this watch is a hundred thousand dollars. I need to be careful," Mr Li pointed out.

"But this is a few hundred US dollars, I can play golf, I go swimming, get any exercise, I don't need to be careful."

He also revealed that he kept the watch set 30 minutes early, "because even if I forget an appointment, anywhere in Hong Kong, I can be there in half an hour".

HANDOVER

Mr Li, whose wife died nearly three decades ago, will hand over the keys to his empire to his elder son Victor Li, a Stanford University-educated engineer who, unlike younger son Richard, keeps a low public profile.

When the elder son was kidnapped on his way home from the office in May 1996, Mr Li reportedly secured the son's release by paying a ransom of HK$1 billion.

But despite the fables of Mr Li's thrift and his philanthropy, many Hong Kongers resent the pervasive role the Li family plays in the local economy. They also blame the oligopolistic dominance of tycoons such as Mr Li for various social ills including a gaping wealth gap, extensive harbour reclamation, heritage demolition and extortionate property prices.

Economists have joked privately that Mr Li's businesses give him better first-hand knowledge of the health of the Hong Kong economy than any amount of government information ever could.

Over the past few years, Mr Li's close ties with Beijing's Communist Party leadership have come under scrutiny. He also came under rare attack by some Chinese state media outlets, which accused him of abandoning China by selling off some assets there.

Mr Li, however, has denied turning his back on China and says he is confident in the country and its President, Mr Xi Jinping.

When asked last Friday for his views on China's recent constitutional changes, including the one lifting the two-term limit on the presidency, Mr Li replied: "If I had the right to vote, I would surely vote for Chairman Xi."

A subtle but noticeable change over the years is that President Xi has not held one-on-one meetings with Mr Li as his predecessors did, wrote South China Morning Post columnist Tammy Tan.

But when the Chinese President was in town last July for the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule, he seemed to reserve the longest handshake for Mr Li during a group meeting with representatives from all sectors.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2018, with the headline 'From factory apprentice to 'Superman''. Print Edition | Subscribe