As Li Ka-shing prepares to turn 88 in July, he takes a moment to reflect on the $80 billion empire he’s built and how it will survive without him.
“I could retire today if I wanted to, in the next five minutes or whenever,” Li said in a rare interview with Bloomberg Television, emphasizing that his son, Victor, 51, has been working alongside him for 30 years and taking care of his businesses full-time for the past few, even without a firm date for taking up his father’s mantle as chairman. “We’ll carry on what we do now.”
Known in Hong Kong as “Superman” because of his business prowess, Li has built one of Asia’s most influential conglomerates employing about 300,000 people in 52 countries—and one of its biggest personal fortunes, valued by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index at about $27 billion. He developed solid, if stolid, companies that reach into everything from homes, supermarkets, drug stores and mobile phones, to office buildings and even the energy that powers them.
“Li Ka-shing is one of those rare businessmen whose commercial instincts come close to genius,” Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “He has also managed to build a serious global company which will carry on his business legacy, though nothing can replace his entrepreneurial instincts.”
Even as his investments get battered by the fallout of the U.K. referendum—a turmoil he predicted—Li remains an icon of modern Asian capitalism and an inspiration to many hoping to seize opportunity and work hard to make it prosper. His 14 listed companies, including CK Hutchison Holdings, Cheung Kong Property Holdings Ltd., Hutchison Port Holdings and Canada-based Husky Energy, had a combined revenue of $80 billion in 2015.
“His persistence in having a disciplined and diligent life is what distinguishes him from his peers,” said Christine Chow, an associate director at Hermes Investment Management in London and an adjunct professor of finance at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “He has convinced us that we, too, can create miracles if we put our effort in what we want, and that we should have global ambitions.”
Li also symbolizes the wealth inequality in a city known for having the most unaffordable private housing in the world and where business is dominated by a handful of families. In the interview, he called for higher corporate taxes to help tackle wealth inequality.
“Tax companies an extra 1 or 2 percent, then a lot of the poor would benefit,” he said.
Li has also supported the founding of a second empire for his other son, Richard, 49, who built PCCW Ltd. into Hong Kong’s cable television, Internet and landline-telephone market leader, along with its telecoms subsidiary HKT Trust & HKT Ltd., and Pacific Century Premium Developments, which built Hong Kong’s Cyberport. They have a combined market value of $16.2 billion.
Li was also one of the first in the region to pledge a large portion—a third—of his wealth to philanthropic endeavors, a move he said he hopes others among the growing ranks of Asian billionaires will follow. Since the 1980s, he has donated HK$20 billion ($2.6 billion) to various causes through the foundation: building hospitals; funding universities including one in Shantou near his hometown in Guangdong province; and constructing a Buddhist monastery in Hong Kong whose towering 250-foot (76-meter) statue of the goddess Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) can be seen for miles.