Becoming the Asian Superman: Li’s Business Takes Off

Li’s plastics manufacturing company was officially founded in 1950 and began by making plastic combs and soapboxes. He had borrowed the startup capital he needed from family, friends, and the contacts he had acquired while working as a salesman in the years before, but it still was not a lot. “The first year, as I didn’t have much capital, I did everything myself,” Li recalls, “which kept my overhead low.” From learning about everything from accounting to how to fix the gears of his equipment, Li says he “started from the bottom up.”

Taking after his father, Li had become an avid reader of business news and publications. He kept up with current events and industry trends religiously. He began to notice the growing wealth of the West and set out to manufacture high quality plastic flowers at cheap prices. He traveled throughout Europe to learn more about the different techniques for mixing colours with plastics to create life-like flowers. Upon return from his trip, Li restructured his shop and hired all the best technicians he could find. After one foreign buyer placed a particularly large order, Li’s business began to take off.

In just a few short years, Li had grown to become the largest supplier of plastic flowers in all of Asia. But, in 1958, when Li was unable to renew the lease for his company, he was driven to purchase and develop a site on his own. It was an unintentional step in a new and tremendously profitable direction for Li.

Li began buying properties throughout the 1960s. He became known as a diligent developer, always doing his homework before closing a deal. After all, “buying land is not like buying antiques,” says Li. “It is not the only deal available.” It was during the Cultural Revolution that Li would experience his biggest growth. After a series of riots in 1967, many people fled Hong Kong. Property prices dropped to rock bottom. While others scrambled to sell what they had left, Li thought the crisis was just temporary, and started buying land at bargain prices.

In 1971, Li officially founded Cheung Kong Industries, named after the longest river in China. Much like the Yangtze River is fed by numerous smaller tributaries, it was Li’s belief that success was only possible with the help of others. After eights years of substantial growth, Li bought what is today his flagship company, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., from HSBC. With that purchase, Li had inserted himself into many different industries, including investments in container port facilities in Hong Kong, China, Rotterdam, Panama, Bahamas, and more. In fact, Li is in control of 12 percent of the world’s container port capacity.

Hutchison Whampoa’s interests are vast, from electricity to real estate to retailing. One of its major subsidiaries is A.S. Watson Group, a leading retailer with over 6,800 stores worldwide. The conglomerate also concerns itself with asset trading, building up new businesses only to sell them off. In one particularly impressive venture, Hutchison Telecommunications sold a controlling stake of 67 percent in Hutchison Essar, a Mobile operator in India, to Vodafone for $11.1 billion. Hutchison had invested only $2 billion in it earlier.

Today, Hutchison Whampoa is one of the largest conglomerates in Hong Kong, with operations that span over fifty countries and more than 220,000 staff worldwide. Li has also personally invested in a number of other successful ventures, including the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and Husky Energy in Alberta, Canada. Although he has no plans to step down from his positions as Chairman at either Hutchison Whampoa or Cheung Kong Holdings, Li now spends much of his time devoted to philanthropy and has given away more than $1 billion to this end.

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