Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing, gestures during a press conference in Hong Kong on March 16, 2018. (AFP photo)
HONG KONG: Li Ka-shing, the richest man in this special administrative region of China, has finally stepped down from his business empire at the age of 89, as one of the world’s most storied tycoons brings his career to a close almost 70 years after founding his first company.
Mr Li spent decades making his name in Hong Kong and around the world at the helm of a prosperous conglomerate that covered sectors from container ports to telecommunications, with his business moves setting market trends.
Nicknamed “Superman” for his business acumen, Mr Li’s companies are part of the fabric of Hong Kong life, providing everything from internet services to supermarket chains.
His decisions have the potential to affect property and utility prices for the city’s seven million residents as investors hang on his every word.
Mr Li was born in 1928 in the mainland Chinese city of Chaozhou.
He and his family fled to neighbouring Hong Kong during the Sino-Japanese War — Mr Li recalled bombs being dropped on his hometown when he was in primary school in an interview with Forbes magazine in 2012.
He first started his own business in 1950 manufacturing plastic flowers, calling the company Cheung Kong after China’s Yangtze River.
But after diversifying into property he saw large profits in the 1960s and in the following decades his businesses reached into many sectors of Hong Kong.
His firm has a longstanding interest in overseas markets, making investments in the Canadian property and energy sectors in the 1980s.
He has been offloading major property investments in China after investing heavily there in the 1990s, in a move seen as part of a quest for stability for his vast empire and a sign of diminishing confidence as China’s formerly stratospheric growth rates cool.
He has also sought to trim his Hong Kong assets and his CK Asset Holdings sold its stake in the Center skyscraper — one of the jewels in the crown of his property portfolio in the city — in November for a record HK$40.2 billion ($5.2 billion). Analysts said the deal showed CK Asset’s move to diversify out of real estate as it expands into infrastructure and energy.
Mr Li’s firms have operations in Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Portugal, and according to Forbes his companies employ 310,000 people in more than 50 countries.
But his diversification away from the mainland irked Chinese critics.
“He is worthy of the nickname ‘Superman,’ but he may not be suitable as a bellwether for the future,” The Global Times, a newspaper close to China’s ruling communist party, said in 2015.
“Li’s investment is a drop in the ocean compared to the huge size of the Chinese economy,” it said.
Forbes 2018 ranking of leading billionaires put Mr Li as 23 in the world — three places behind Alibaba founder Jack Ma and six behind Tencent’s Pony Ma — with a net worth of $34.9 billion.
Three years ago, Mr Li announced a sweeping re-arrangement of his vast business empire which was expected to pave the way for him to hand over the reins to his eldest son Victor.
The re-structure combined assets from multiple sectors under two new listed companies.
After the announcement of the revamp, when asked if he was preparing to pass the baton to his son, a lively Li said he would have to retire someday.
“The tracks have been laid down, everyone has a goal, it’s a good thing for the company’s foundation,” he said.