From toymaker to Asia’s richest man

Li’s empire includes the property firm Cheung Kong Holdings and conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa

Billionaire Li Ka-shing: keen to diversify out of Hong Kong.  Photograph: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

Billionaire Li Ka-shing: keen to diversify out of Hong Kong. Photograph: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

Tue, Aug 12, 2014, 01:15

Last week it was reported that Asia’s richest man, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, was looking to buy the Dublin-based Awas Aviation Capital. Li is a legend in Hong Kong, like a founding father in other cultures, and the Awas bid was a reminder of just how much money there is in Hong Kong – and how much of it is he conrols.

Li has made noises of late that opportunities in Hong Kong are becoming limited and he is keen to diversify out of the city state. His companies are cash-rich after he raised nearly €7 billion by selling stakes in various units. This is one Hong Kong entrepreneur about whom Irish people need to know.

Li’s empire includes the property firm Cheung Kong Holdings and conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, with global assets also including telecoms, utilities, ports and retail.

Cheung Kong Holdings is the vehicle he is using to buy into Awas, one of the world’s biggest aircraft leasing companies, which focuses on buying used jets, mainly from other leasing companies. Its current portfolio comprises more than 300 aircraft, which it leases to more than 100 airlines in 50 countries.

Worth about €22 billion personally by some estimates, Li is the quintessential Hong Kong entrepreneur. Born in 1928, he fled to Hong Kong from Guangdong province during the second World War, and his father died of tuberculosis during the Japanese invasion when he was 14.

Made in Hong Kong

In his early life he was a dishwasher, a watch-strap factory worker and a salesman; and then a plastic flower and toy manufacturer. Many of the plastic toys a generation of Irish people grew up with were probably made in Hong Kong at that time. This was the era of Hong Kong’s ascent, when the phrase “Made in Hong Kong” was starting to become a byword for cheap, mass production, the period when the laissez-faire policy of the territory’s financial secretary, John James Cowperthwaite, was starting to bear fruit.

Cowperthwaite famously refused to collect economic statistics, in order to avoid officials meddling in the economy.

“I still believe that, in the long run, the aggregate of the decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is likely to do less harm than the centralised decisions of a government; and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster,” is one of Cowperthwaite’s celebrated quotes.

In July, Cheung Kong reported a profit for the first six months this year grew by 59 per cent to HK$21.35 billion (€2 billion).

He is a major philanthropist in Asia, having set up two universities, including the Cheong Kong Graduate School of Business and the University of Shantou.

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