Tencent splurges with $220 million worth of shares in surprise birthday giveaway

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd is giving its employees more than HK$1.7 billion ($220 million) worth of company shares to help celebrate its 18th anniversary.

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Asia’s most valuable listed company will give every employee 300 company shares to mark its foundation on November 11, 1998, it said on its official WeChat account on Friday afternoon.

The giveaway accompanies an online shopping frenzy in China on Friday with sales celebrating Singles Day led by Tencent rival Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

With Tencent stock at HK$200 apiece - making it the most valuable company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange - the giveaway is worth HK$60,000 ($7,735) to each of the firm’s 31,557 employees.

Tencent founder and chairman Pony Ma has been giving away virtual “red envelopes” with amounts ranging from 188 yuan to 1,888 yuan on WeChat on Friday. Tencent prepared 30 million yuan worth of gift money for its current and former employees and contractors to thank them for their contribution and mark its “coming-of-age”, according to the WeChat post.

“(Alibaba founder) Jack Ma’s employees are busy sweating over-time, Pony Ma’s employees are busy counting cash” - a popular joke circulated among Tencent employees and on Chinese internet.

Alibaba on Friday smashed its own sales record 15 hours into the 24-hour discount shopping event that is now the world’s largest shopping bonanza.

Alibaba is expected to rake in more than $20 billion in sales by the end of the day after overtaking last year’s total of $14.3 billion on Friday evening.

The date of Tencent’s foundation coincides with that of the festival also known as “Double 11” that has become a key barometer of Chinese consumer sentiment. Alibaba first launched the event in 2009 to encourage consumers without a partner to treat themselves.

The shares will be given to Tencent employees in three equal batches in three years starting from next week, according to an internal email seen by Reuters.

($1 = 7.7571 Hong Kong dollars)

Reporting by Sijia Jiang; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Ruth Pitchford