As Li Ka-shing's Retirement Nears, Spotlight Shifts to SonBy
Newspaper reports patriarch set to retire by summer of 2018
Victor Li would run businesses spanning 50-plus countries
Victor Li’s moment may have finally arrived.
The son of billionaire Li Ka-shing is poised to inherit an empire spanning across more than 50 countries in businesses ranging from telecommunications to retail and ports.
The elder Li plans to step down as chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd. by the time he turns 90 next year, according to the Wall Street Journal, a move that would be in line with comments he made a year ago when he said he might retire "today if I wanted to, in the next five minutes or whenever.”
The patriarch, who spoke in a rare Bloomberg Television interview last year, said at the time that those worried about succession should note that his son had been working alongside him for 30 years and been taking care of his businesses full-time for the past few. Victor was named as heir to the Li business five years ago.
While the elder Li said on Wednesday he hadn’t decided when he’ll retire, his son will assume control of a far-flung group of business, making him one of the most influential business executives in Asia.
Victor will also be filling the shoes of a man who’s known as "Superman" in Hong Kong business circles for his deal-making and managerial acumen.
Victor, 52, is currently deputy chairman at CK Hutchison and Cheung Kong Property Holdings Ltd. He’s also chairman at group units CK Infrastructure Holdings Ltd. and CK Life Sciences Int’l Holdings Inc. Other titles include co-chairman of Canada’s Husky Energy Inc.
He joined Cheung Kong in 1985 in his 20s and steadily rose through the ranks, taking on various positions at his father’s empire throughout the years, alongside his younger brother Richard, who later branched off on his own.
In 1996, Victor made headlines when he was kidnapped. The kidnapper later fled to mainland China, only to be apprehended and executed there.
The media-shy Victor, who studied at Stanford University, was particularly instrumental in spearheading CKI, which he has led since its listing two decades ago with the help of his uncle Kam Hing Lam. Victor was named heir to Li Ka-shing’s empire in 2012 and has since been assuming more responsibilities.
As to his father, the retirement of Hong Kong’s richest man would mark the end of an era. Throughout his storied career, the elder Li has amassed a $32.6 billion fortune that ranks second in Asia after that of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Jack Ma, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. More broadly, Li is wealthier than the likes of former Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer or billionaire investor George Soros.
"On the whole it would be a bit of a shock," said Richard Harris, Hong Kong-based chief executive officer of Port Shelter Investment Management. "Not only is he a local entrepreneur who built things up in terms of Hong Kong, but he really got it in terms of turning his empire into a global empire rather than just a big company based in Hong Kong."
In an illustration of how closely the elder Li is tracked in Hong Kong, throngs of TV cameras were lined up at the lobby of his headquarters building within an hour of the Wall Street Journal report on Tuesday, aiming to catch a glimpse and sound bite from the famed tycoon. Journalists also staked out Li in front of his home and office the following morning.
"I will make an announcement when I have decided," Li told reporters on Wednesday at lobby of the Cheung Kong Centre, where his office is. He also reiterated his plans to take up a role as a senior adviser after he steps down.
A refugee to Hong Kong who swept factory floors as a teenager in the 1940s, Li rose to head a global business empire that built skyscrapers, provided mobile-phone services and controlled ports across the globe. He made his first fortune through a plastic-flower manufacturer that later became Asia’s biggest maker of the ornaments.
After some well-timed property investments cemented his wealth, he began expanding his empire into retail, energy, telecommunications, media and biotechnology. By 2016, he employed 270,000 people in more than 50 countries.
Despite his success, Li also symbolized the wealth inequality in a city known for having the most unaffordable private housing in the world and where business is dominated by a handful of families. In an interview last year, he called for higher corporate taxes to help tackle wealth inequality.
“I could retire today if I wanted to, in the next five minutes or whenever,” Li said in the interview with Bloomberg Television. “We’ll carry on what we do now.”
Li was born July 29, 1928, in Chiu Chow, a city in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, which adjoins Hong Kong. In 1940, his family fled to Hong Kong to escape Japanese invaders, though Hong Kong was occupied the following year.
— With assistance by Angie Lau, Kana Nishizawa, Daniela Wei, and Cathy Chan