With a career spanning close to seven decades, Hong Kong’s most successful entrepreneur Li Ka Shing has finally handed over the corporate reins to eldest son Victor.
A few months before his 90th birthday this March, Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka Shing, stepped down as managing director of his businesses, CK Asset Holdings and CK Hutchison Holdings, leaving his eldest son to take over the family empire while he remains in place as a senior advisor.
Employing more than 300,000 companies in 50 countries, Li’s range of business interests is extensive: CK Hutchison Holdings covers finance, infrastructure, energy, retail, telecommunications and port services while spin off company CK Asset Holdings is dedicated to real estate, with properties in Mainland China, Singapore and the UK in addition to Hong Kong.
Nicknamed “superman” for his ability to turn any business into a success, Li is also a noted philanthropist, having pledged a third of his wealth to philanthropic endeavours via his charity the Li Ka Shing Foundation, which focuses its spending on healthcare, education and the environment.
With his Seiko watches and no-frills wardrobe, Li has eschewed the trappings of the billionaire lifestyle, and his philanthropy and frugality have garnered comparisons to Warren Buffet, as has his sound business acumen. “Li Ka Shing is one of those rare businessmen whose commercial instincts come close to genius,” Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, wrote in 2016. “He has also managed to build a serious global company that will carry on his business legacy, though nothing can replace his entrepreneurial instincts.”
Li’s net worth of US$37.7 billion makes him the most minted man in Hong Kong and the 23rd wealthiest person in the world according to the Forbes 2018 rich list, just behind former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and ahead of Hui Ka Yan, CEO of Hong Kong real estate developer China Evergrande Group.
A classic rags to riches story, Li’s family fled Japanese aggression in Guangdong and crossed the border into Hong Kong in 1940. After his father passed away, Li was forced to leave school and worked long hours in a plastic trading company before founding Cheung Kong Industries aged 21 in 1950 with US$6,500 in savings and loans from relatives. From these modest beginnings, Li became the largest seller of plastic flowers in Asia thanks to the quality of his products.
Following the 1967 riots, Li snapped up properties from locals fleeing the city and set up real estate company Cheung Kong. He continued to diversify his assets, acquiring investment holding company Hutchison Whampoa and Hong Kong Electric in 1979 and 1985 respectively. As with his property purchases in the late 1960s, Li sensed an opportunity when the stock market was in the doldrums in the early 1980s and set about expanding the company’s port operations. “I remember using only one to two hundred million dollars to get four berths at Container Terminal 6. Later Terminal 7 cost me over four billion. My decision was to press ahead with expansion in the worst of times. That really was the cornerstone of Hong Kong International Terminals,” he recalls. Li’s shipping container business Hutchison Ports is currently the world’s largest, with a presence in 52 ports in 26 countries globally.
Li’s empire continued to expand in the 1990s and Hutchinson Whampoa shook on its biggest deal ever in 1999, selling its controlling stake in UK mobile phone operator Orange to German firm Mannesmann AG for nearly US$14.6 billion. In 2007, he invested US$60 million in Facebook, followed by another U$60 million in 2008, while from 2010, Li concentrated on buying assets in Europe, including the utility firm Electricite de France. Last year he was still shaking on big deals, selling the Century Link Complex in Shanghai for US$2.95 billion – the second largest transaction for a single building. Li’s sale of the 57-storey mixed use space the Center in Hong Kong in 2016 for US$5.5 billion remains the the world’s most expensive real estate transaction.
Li’s eldest son Victor has acted as co-managing director for several years in preparation for his father stepping down. On the day or his retirement, he proclaimed, “Victor has followed me for more than 30 years and he should do well. I believe Victor can do the job.”
When Victor and Li’s other son Richard were still students, he brought them to company meetings. “My purpose was not to teach them to do business. It was to let them know doing business was not that simple and that it took a lot of work, meetings and the help of many people to get a job done,” he says.
Those early invitations to the firm certainly paid off for his eldest son, a Stanford University-educated engineer. The 53-year old’s first significant achievement was overseeing the development of the 1986 Vancouver Expo site into Canada’s largest mixed-use commercial and residential complex before the family fortunes took a tragic turn and he was kidnapped, his father securing his release with a HK$1 billion ransom. Just weeks after suffering this ordeal, Victor went ahead with an initial public offering of the company he chaired, CK Infrastructure Holdings, a spin-off of the group’s China infrastructure business. Since his father retired, one of his most significant purchases was a London office tower for US$1.3 billion, demonstrating a commitment to continued growth overseas.
While Li may be Asia’s most successful business man ever, his blueprint for business blazing the trial for many other entrepreneurs, he’s remained disarmingly modest. “I may not be very talented but I can say that I’m like a small tree that’s grown in storms and among rocks. To uproot a little plant that’s grown among the rocks takes quite a bit of effort.