Blood money (Part 1 of 2)


With his investment in 3G technology bleeding red ink, Li Ka-shing makes sure he pays his lieutenants well to keep it afloat.

Is it better to work for a boss who's doing well or one who's in trouble? When it comes to Li Ka-shing, it is definitely the latter.

Li, who turned 80 in June, has often been described as the richest Chinese on Earth. This is debatable. Who knows how much money Asian tycoons actually own or borrow? What nobody can deny is that Li pays his people very well.

"I had a promising manager once and the next thing you know, Li Ka-shing hired him away at more than double the salary," the founder of a Singapore-based conglomerate once complained.

Li has a reputation of paying above market rate for talent. When it comes to top jobs, the money he dishes out is astronomical.

Recently the Hong Kong Chinese weekly magazine Eastweek conducted its annual survey of the salary of top employees in the territory. Not surprisingly, Canning Fok Kin-ning, Li's right-hand man, again took the top slot. What's surprising is that the second slot was also taken by a Li lieutenant, Dennis Lui. In all, four of Li's employees the other two being Susan Chow Woo Mo Fong and Justin Chiu Kwok-hung are featured in the top 100 list. (Many Chinese women include their husbands' surname with their own. Susan Chow was born Woo Mo Fong; Chow is her married name.)

In 2007, Canning Fok, a rotund 56-year-old accountant, took home HK$148 million (US$18.9 million). On average he was paid US$50,000 a day; Sundays, Chinese New Year and Christmas included. His compensation is larger than the profits of many listed companies in Hong Kong. In 2006, he received "only" HK$130 million.

In contrast, Li's compensation for Dennis Lui is positively miserly: HK$61.4 million, less than half of what was given to Fok. But while Fok saw a 13% jump in his package, Lui's more than doubled. In 2006, he received HK$29.2 million.

Ten spots down, Susan Chow was given total compensation of HK$40.1 million, up 14% from the HK$34.9 million in 2006. Though she ranked only 12 in total and third among females, Chow has little to complain about: Stephen Green, chairman of HSBC group, was paid HK$46.3 million.

Compared with his three colleagues, Justin Chiu had not done so well. His package is said to be between HK$20 million and HK$30 million, which places him much lower down the totem pole.

Chiu runs the property side of Cheung Kong, the company founded by Li more than half a century ago. He is known among Hong Kongers as the “King of Condo Sales”, owing to his penchant for introducing buzz to otherwise unexciting property launches by dressing up in outlandish costumes, from Arab sheikh to Renaissance nobleman. Last year had been a good year for Hong Kong properties and hence a good year for Cheung Kong, one of its leading developers. As Li pays for performance, it is natural to expect Chiu's package to exceed those of others in the Li stable.

Yet he fared much worse than Fok, Lui and Chow, all working in the sister company Hutchinson Whampoa Ltd. Fok is the managing director of Hutchinson and Chow, the deputy managing director; Lui runs the subsidiary Hutchinson Telecom International.

Justin Chiu is a proud man, and normally would take offence if there were doubts over his ability. But it is unlikely he would complain about the difference in compensation between himself and the Hutchinson trio. Chiu is also a realist and an insider of the Li circle. He knows it is a tough job selling condominiums in Hong Kong, even in good times. But that job would be considered easy when compared with what Fok, Chow and Lui have been doing the last half a dozen of years keeping Hutchinson afloat (and apparently healthy) despite growing red ink from an ill-fated 3G investment that has been threatening to pull down the company.

When the 3G (third-generation) phone saga is over that is, when it is finally laid to rest by 3.5G or 4G phones, or other newfangled telecom inventions such as wireless broadband that the likes of Intel are pushing reams of scholarly papers will have been written about Li Ka-shing's foray into this highly risky and expensive industry, and the lessons to be learnt from it. Much of them will focus on the turning point two to three years ago, when Li had the chance to declare the venture a loss and step away from it. At that point Hutchinson had lost at least US$10 billion on bidding for licences to provide 3G services in Europe and Australia and building infrastructure for the services. Had Li cut his losses there and then, it would have been painful. But the diverse portfolio he had painstakingly built up in Hutchinson global container ports, Husky Oil of Canada, retail, property were more than sufficient to cushion the loss, and Hutchinson would have been able to move on without the albatross of 3G around its neck.

But Li decided to carry on, claiming he firmly believed in the future of 3G. This was despite contrary evidence showing that 3G phone services were rapidly being replaced by something faster and newer. Perhaps what really firmed up Li's resolve was the knowledge that his infallible reputation — he was, and still is, called "Superman" by Hong Kong's adoring public, who think they would not lose money buying shares in his companies — would take a huge beating if he gave up on 3G. In his 70s and already a rich man beyond belief, reputation would matter as much, if not more, to Li than mere money.

> TO Bleeding the millions of HK tycoon Li Ka-shing (Part 2 of 2)



First Published: 
August 2008


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