Asia's richest man cleverly sidesteps possibility of family feud

HONG KONG Sat May 26, 2012 3:42am EDT

Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing attends a news conference announcing the annual results of his company Hutchison Whampoa Ltd, in Hong Kong March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing attends a news conference announcing the annual results of his company Hutchison Whampoa Ltd, in Hong Kong March 29, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Octogenarian Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing mapped out a succession plan for one of Asia's biggest family empires, ensuring a smoother transition for the Cheung Kong (0013.HK) group than that of real estate rival Sun Hung Kai Properties (0016.HK).

Li told investors that while he had no plans to retire, elder son Victor would eventually take over at Cheung Kong Holdings and Hutchison Whampoa (0001.HK), the real estate to telecoms empire founded by Asia's richest man.

The 83-year-old, whose personal wealth of $25.5 billion ranked him ninth on the 2012 Forbes Billionaires List, also said he would bankroll younger son Richard's acquisitions, helping him to expand a business centered on Hong Kong's fixed line carrier PCCW Ltd (0008.HK).

"Victor will assume the stakes I hold in the listed firms, including the 40 percent stake in Cheung Kong and the 35 percent stake in Canada-listed Husky Energy (HSE.TO)," Li told reporters. "He will be responsible for Cheung Kong's group business in the future."

The current market value of Li's 40 percent stake in Cheung Kong and his 35 percent stake in Canada-listed Husky Energy is around HK$140 billion ($18 billion).

Some of Asia's largest listed companies are family run, and succession plans are tightly held secrets, often only revealed through wills at the death of their founders, leading to bitter internal feuds.

"It is a very good move as it is clear-cut who is having what, avoiding potential struggle for shareholding, and it is good for the long-term stability of the group," said Conita Hung, head of equity research of Delta Asia Financial.

Sun Hung Kai Properties, Asia's largest real estate developer, and India's Reliance group of companies have both been embroiled in bitter family disputes over leadership.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

Li, in establishing the future roles of 47-year-old Victor, the managing director of Cheung Kong and deputy chairman of Hutchison, and Richard, chairman of PCCW Limited, emphasized that the two will avoid direct competition.

Richard Li has no executive role in either Cheung Kong or Hutchison and has long pursued his own business interests.

"Richard already has the business he likes and has a couple of sizeable companies. He will have my full support," Li said, adding that his financial support may be "a number of times" his son's current assets.

Richard also controls Pacific Century Premium Developments Ltd (0432.HK) and Pacific Century Regional Developments Ltd (PCEN.SI).

"Li's succession plan is a little surprising to us as it is a bit earlier than we expected," said Linus Yip, chief strategist at First Shanghai Securities.

"But it is a positive move for the group as a whole and can benefit its long-term development as it removes a time bomb," Yip said. "The succession is set to be smooth and no major impact is expected on the management."

Sun Hung Kai's Kwok brothers, Raymond and Thomas, took control of the city's largest property developer in 2008, leading to a continuing feud with their elder brother, Walter.

The family of Macau casino billionaire Stanley Ho, who has three surviving wives and 16 children, battled publicly over his assets, before a truce was declared.

($1 = HK$7.76)

(Reporting by Stephen Aldred and Donny Kwok; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie)