Heir to tycoon’s ailing empire waits anxiously in the wings
Victor Li Tzar-kuoi will take over as chairman when his father Li Ka-shing steps down on May 10. He faces a daunting challenge reviving CK Group’s fortunes
Tycoon Li Ka-shing has left big shoes to be filled when he steps down as head of Cheung Kong Group’s sprawling empire on May 10, but at least his successor has had plenty of time to get used to the idea.
Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, who is currently managing director of the firm’s two flagships CK Hutchison and CK Asset, knew 25 years ago that he would probably take over one day as group chairman. That was when younger brother Richard Li Tzar-kai opted to set up his own business, leaving Victor as the one remaining heir to the throne.
In 2012, Li the elder publicly named Victor as his successor at a press conference when he was asked about retirement. But it still took Li another six years to get around to handing over the reins to his son.
The 54 year-old Victor has worked for the family business since he graduated from Stanford University in the US with a masters degree in civil engineering in 1985. He made his name by creating CK Infrastructure, a global vehicle for investing in infrastructure projects such as power plants, bridges and carparks.
Matching Warren Buffett’s strategy of betting big on utilities, Victor built up CK Infrastructure’s balance sheets by investing in high-yield, stable businesses at low costs, thereby creating shareholder value that pushed the company’s market capitalization to more than HK$176 billion (US$22.4 billion).
Victor has a real challenge ahead if he is to demonstrate that CK Group can relive its golden days in the market
He was also behind the group’s biggest restructuring exercise in 2015, when Cheung Kong Holdings privatized Hutchison Whampoa.
This allowed Li to operate two separate flagships – CK Hutchison and CK Asset – instead of being locked into a vertical operating structure, thus creating added value for both companies.
CK Hutchison and CK Asset performed well for a year until the market rebelled against Li’s move to increase investment in Europe while cashing out on Hong Kong and Chinese property projects.
Known for being a savvy operator, Victor is a familiar face in Central. He has said that anything can be sold if the price is right; proving his boast, he was able to sell Central Plaza last year for HK$40 billion, a record for a Grade-A office building in the city.
But Victor also has a reckless streak, as he showed when he loaned money to the now-bankrupted Oasis Airlines at an eye-popping interest rate 10 years ago. His airline dream lived on, as Victor was able to create an aircraft leasing unit a few years ago as compensation for his failed attempt to bail out Air Canada in 2004.
Despite his high-profile antics, Victor is a private individual who has given only one interview, an exclusive with an investment weekly, in the past 20 years. A National People Congress member, he showed up in Beijing this month but hardly spoke to any reporters.
Whether the shoes will fit is still uncertain. Victor has a real challenge ahead if he is to demonstrate that CK Group can relive its golden days in the market, which is now predominantly ruled by mainland giants like Tencent, China Construction Bank and Ping An Insurance.