In Hong Kong, 72-year-old Li Ka-shing is called Superman. The soft-spoken, mild-mannered Li is one of the few Asian tycoons who has managed to move successfully outside a protected home market. His conglomerate, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (HUWHY), is the world's largest independent port operator, with facilities everywhere from China to Panama to Britain. Control of Canada's Husky Energy Inc. has given Li a big boost from rising oil prices. And his decision to sell his stake in the British telecom company Orange PLC in late 1999 sparked a rush into European telecoms. By the time the dealmaking was complete in February, Li and other Hutchison shareholders had netted a $22 billion profit.
Despite his foothold in such modern businesses, Li heads an old-fashioned conglomerate that mixes East with West. The company's modest dining room at Hutchison House in Hong Kong's central business district is decorated with English landscape paintings, reminders that Hutchison was British-owned until Li snatched it up two decades ago. Although the table is still set with English silver, the menu is Chinese. Indeed, Li runs the group like a Chinese paterfamilias, with eldest son Victor on the board. His other son, Richard, head of Pacific Century CyberWorks (PCW), stepped down recently.
Li, a refugee from China who started out selling plastic flowers in the 1950s, isn't hung up on telecoms, either. He is a cold-blooded asset swapper. After a hard-won battle for a German telecom license, Li backed out of the deal in August, saying it was too costly. Since then, telecom stocks around the world have tumbled. Li's ability to sniff out good deals and walk away from bad ones has made Hutchison one of Hong Kong's largest companies. And although he operates in a privileged environment at home, Li has proven that he can do well in the wider world, too.