The numbers stack up for Three
Hutchison Whampoa has bet big on the Irish market since its entry in 2005
Canning Fok, group managing director of Hutchison Whampoa Limited, at the company’s HQ on Clarendon Row, Dublin. PHOTOGRAPH: BRENDA FITZSIMONS
Li Ka-Shing, the richest man in Asia, is nicknamed after the caped crusader in his native land. His sprawling empire is mostly wrapped up in the conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, which owns a blizzard of companies including Three mobile. Fok runs the lot: he minds all of Superman’s money.
Fok, Hutchison’s global managing director, was in town yesterday to check on the progress of Three’s €850 million purchase of O2 Ireland, which is being scrutinised by competition authorities in Brussels. It could be early next year before they give their answer.
In the meantime, Three is ploughing ahead with its preparations for the marriage.
Fok is a business superstar back in Hong Kong, but he almost moved to Ireland when he finished college.
“I wanted to be a chartered accountant, so I wrote to firms all over the world asking to be an articled clerk.”
Only one firm replied, a chartered accountants’ practice in Dublin. Fok can’t remember its name.
“I had never set foot here, but I told them I loved the green island. They said ‘why do you want to come to Ireland? We won’t pay you and you’ll only get an allowance.’ I said ‘I didn’t care’, I was enthusiastic.”
He didn’t get the job, and eventually fell in with Li. He looks all the better for it.
Three, whose Irish boss is Waterford man Robert Finnegan, has bet big on the market here since its entry in 2005. Subscriber numbers have grown quickly in recent years, breaching the 500,000 mark during the summer, giving it 10 per cent of the market.
But it has been a costly journey. In the first six months of this year its earnings moved into positive territory for the first time. But it has accumulated losses of €500 million and invested a similar sum in infrastructure.
Throw in another €200 million outlay on 4G and the potential €850 million for O2, and Hutch’s Irish gamble tops €2 billion. Not to mention the €2.2 billion it bid in a failed attempt to snatch Eircom from examinership.
“We want to be successful, we want to make a statement here,” said Fok. “Look at the churn of customers in Ireland, it is only 0.8 per cent. So our base is small, but our customers are happy. A lot of people say that we can’t make it. But we’re still alive and kicking.”