HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, held his last meeting with shareholders on Thursday and handed to his eldest son the keys to his $35.3 billion empire, bringing to a close a rags-to-riches story that made him an icon in the financial hub.
Li, who started out as a factory apprentice at 12, is stepping aside from a conglomerate that employs 323,000 employees and has assets in more than 50 countries spanning property, power, telecoms and oil.
At the AGMs for his flagship firm CK Hutchison Holdings (0001.HK) and property arm CK Asset Holdings (1113.HK), the 89-year-old Li engaged with shareholders in his usual idiosyncratic manner, before handing off formally to Victor Li.
“I will still go to the office tomorrow,” Li told reporters after the AGMs that lasted several hours, explaining he would continue to work on his charitable foundation.
Li appeared in high spirits, smiling, cracking jokes and waving to reporters. He expressed confidence in his eldest son, who stood in silence behind him with a stoic expression.
“Victor has followed me for more than 30 years. He should be able to do a good job.”
Li will continue to exert some influence as a senior adviser for the empire that includes Britain’s largest container port in Felixstowe and Canada’s Husky Oil [HYOLTD.UL].
Victor Li, who has been a group co-managing director for several years, is seen as a steady hand unlikely to change course - which, according to analysts, could weigh on the firm.
“Most of their businesses are in ports, energy, and retail, and these are all mature industries, even telecommunications,” said CEO of GEO Securities Limited, Francis Lun. “If they don’t invest in new sectors, they will slowly decline.”
CK Hutchison shares have dipped around 6 percent since Li announced he would step down, versus a 2 percent drop in the overall Hang Seng Index .HSI, while CK Asset has shed 1.3 percent over the period.
Victor Li joined his family’s corporate umbrella in 1985.
Educated at Stanford in civil engineering, he is notably less extroverted than his father and a stickler for numbers, say some who are familiar with both men.
Victor, a low-key family man with an interest in wind-surfing, has also had to surmount some traumatic episodes.
In 1996, he was kidnapped by a notorious gangster before he was freed for a large ransom. He is now rarely seen about town without a security detail.
Analysts expect Victor to avoid big gambles as he takes the helm, buttressed by veteran executives including Canning Fok and Frank Sixt, though they too may be approaching retirement.
“Effectively Victor gets it all (the assets), and it’s pretty big stuff. He’ll have to have very good guys around him,” said Simon Murray, a former right hand man of the elder Li.
“I’m not sure where his core competence lies ... well we’ll see. He’s very much a details guy, maybe too much of a details guy and his biggest challenge will be relationships with people.
“If you’re looking for Victor’s humility you may have to look quite hard, his father had an abundance of that.”
The adoration Li senior enjoys was evident in the turnout at the AGMs. Among the attendees was wheelchair-bound Yung.
Giving only her last name, the 86-year-old shareholder said she had attended just to hear what Li senior had to say since “today is the last time”.
Additional reporting by Anne-Marie Roantree, Jennifer Hughes, Kane Wu, Alexis Tam; Editing by Himani Sarkar