LIANG WENGEN, THE LIU BROTHERS AND CHINA'S PIONEERING BILLIONAIRES

LIANG WENGEN


Liang Wengen
Liang Wengen, a 55-year-old former weapons plant manager and chairman of Sany Heavy Industry Co., topped the Hurun Rich List 2010. A surge in Sany's share price doubled his fortune to $11 billion, said Rupert Hoogewerf, who studies China's wealthy and compiled the list. China has thrown trillions of dollars into new housing, railways and other infrastructure, driving a massive construction boom that has benefited manufacturers of machinery, cement and other building materials. Forbes estimated Liang’s net worth to be $9.3 billion, moving up from third place last year when he was worth $5.9 billion.

Sany, based in central China's Hunan province, makes construction, road, excavating, hoisting and port machinery, as well as wind turbines. Founded in 1989 by Liang and several associates as the Hunan Lianyuan Welding Material Factory, the company listed its shares on the Shanghai Stock Exchange in 2003. The company's share price has risen from a 52-week low of 8.19 yuan ($1.28) to its current 15.59 yuan ($2.44). Liang holds a 58 percent stake in Sany Group.

Forbes reported: “China’s thriving construction and equipment industry enables three other Sany executives to reach billionaire status, ranking among the top 100 of the rich list. They are Tang Xiuguo with wealth of $1.43 billion, Mao Zhongwu at $1.29 billion and Xiang Wenbo, $1.29 billion. Sany additionally has three members on this year’s list below the $1 billion threshold. The company’s total of seven members is the most any single company has ever had on a Forbes China Rich List.

“It's been a volatile period in capital markets globally and China hasn't been an exception. But Sany has rapid growth in profits and a rising stock price buttressing it, and that pulled Liang to the top," said Forbes Senior Editor and Shanghai Bureau Chief, Russell Flannery, who compiled the list. ‘sany’s rise reflects the growth in spending on infrastructure in China and the benefits that equipment suppliers have reaped.”

Liu Brothers, China’s First Billionaire Family

The 2001 Forbes magazine list was topped by Liu Yongxong and Liu Yonghao, two brothers from Sichuan who made a fortune in the animal feed business and have been described as China’s first billionaires. Their company, the Hope Group, had assets worth $1 billion in 2001. In 2009 Yonghao, was No. 4 on the list of China’s richest, with a net worth of $2.2 billion and holdings in real estate, feed and banking.

The Liu brothers’ story began in 1982, when the pawned everything they owned to raise $120 so they could start a business to buy and sell quail eggs. By the late 1980s they had the largest quail egg business in world (their quails produced 10 million eggs a day). On a sales trip to Shenzhen they saw a huge line of people waiting outside a pig feed lot and realized there was big money to be made in that. The Liu brothers’ also have holdings in real estate, banking and other sectors.

In the 1950s, the Liu family of southwest China’s Sichuan Province was so short of food, they sent one of their youngest sonsto be raised by another family. Today, however, they are one of China’s richest families. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, January 1, 2009]

Rising from public scorn during the Cultural Revolution, the four Liu brothers managed to turn a small quail-breeding farm into China’s largest private company, later splitting it into four. The difficulties we went through in the early years made us strong, says 60-year-old Liu Yongxing, a former factory worker who Forbes lists as the wealthiest person in China, with a fortune estimated at $3 billion. [Ibid]

The Lius are China’s first-generation billionaires, born into a world of Mao suits, food rations, price controls and Communist slogans. And the story of how they made their fortune is considered one of the guiding myths of China’s Communist party. [Ibid]

Their road to riches is documented in a small museum they built in their hometown, Gujia village in Sichuan, on the grounds of their first feed mill, where photographs show the brothers examining supplies and posing with Chinese and world leaders, like Jiang Zemin, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. They also built a memorial about 200 miles east of here in the hometown of their hero, Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader who is considered the architect of China’s economic reforms. [Ibid]

Liu Brothers Plot to Get Rich

Like many Chinese entrepreneurs, the Lius trace their fortunes back to December 1978, when Deng presided over the Third Plenary session of the Communist Party and first encouraged Chinese to get rich. Not long before the extraordinary Communist Party meeting in 1978, the four Liu brothers---Yongyan, Yongxing, Yuxin and Yonghao---say they were toiling on farms or in state-owned factories here in southwest China, scorned because of their counter-revolutionary family background: they were the descendants of wealthy landlords. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, January 1, 2009]

During the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, their father was condemned to a re-education camp. Their mother was officially denounced. But in 1978, three of Liu brothers won admission to local colleges, and soon they began plotting to make it rich. [Ibid]

At the time, the quiet one, Yongyan, 33, was studying engineering. Yongxing, 30, was good at fixing radios; and the extrovert, Yonghao, 27, was teaching at a technical school. They had each inherited their father’s interest in science and technology. Yuxin, who had been sent away from home as a child, was a 28-year-old farmer in Gujia village. But he also teamed up with his brothers to plot a new course. [Ibid]

Lui Brothers Make a Killing with Quail Farms

The Lius first venture, an electronics company, failed almost immediately, they say, largely because a Communist Party official deemed it too capitalistic. Individuals at the time could not own factories or operate in the electronics business. Chinese were encouraged to become socialist entrepreneurs not capitalists, which was still a bad word. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, January 1, 2009]

Not many Chinese, though, knew the difference. Soon after, the brothers pooled $125 and began raising quails in Gujia. At the time, Gujia was one of the region’s most impoverished villages, located 17 miles northeast of Chengdu, the provincial capital. It had no electricity or running water and its houses were small huts constructed with mud and grass. But conditions were good enough to raise quail. If you raise quail, you don’t need much feed, says Liu Yongxing,explaining their choice. Quails are small. And we didn’t have much land or money. Suddenly other villagers began raising quail too, and customers in bigger towns lined up to buy quail eggs. Gujia became the quail-breeding capital of China. And the Liu brothers thrived. [Ibid]

Before long they were among the first in the region to be honored by local Party officials as 10,000 RMB men, model socialist entrepreneurs who accumulated Chinese currency or renminbi. If you did business during the Cultural Revolution, you were the evil capitalist and you would be paraded through the street and people would throw garbage at your head, said Gao Peineng, 53, the former village chief of Gujia and a longtime friend of the Liu brothers. But in 1982, the government began honoring what they called the advanced wealth maker. They would ride you in a truck with red flowers and a gold medal. [Ibid]

Liu Yongxing says there were hard times too, like the time they shipped thousands of quail eggs to a buyer, only to have his check bounce, practically bankrupting the family. [Ibid]

Lui Brothers Expand Their Business

With agriculture designated as one of the first areas open to market reform, the Liu brothers quickly branched out into the animal feed business. At a time when many farmers simply fed their animals garbage or scraps, the brothers copied the new feed production techniques of the Charoen Pokphand Group of Thailand, one of China’s first big foreign investors. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, January 1, 2009]

The Lius then convinced farmers that buying their feed would make animals grow much faster. They grabbed market share by pricing their feed much lower than Charoen Pokphand. With meat consumption in China soaring, demand for feed skyrocketed. Between 1978 and 1990, grain output in China rose by more than 30 percent. [Ibid]

The Liu brothers are very smart and grasped the opportunity early, says Wan Zhaojun, dean of the Sichuan Animal Husbandry Institute. Living standards were improving dramatically; meat consumption was going up. This was the golden time for the feed business and they were right there. [Ibid]

Their success was validated by the Communist Party in 1994, when Song Jian, a government science official, visited their feed mill and declared that the future of China’s economic reforms will rely on these socialist entrepreneurs. The visit was an early sign that government officials were the ultimate arbiters of success, and while the Liu brothers give credit today to the market reforms, they acknowledge in their speeches and their museums that the Party also played a role in their success. By 1984, almost all the Sichuan government officials came to our farms, says Liu Yongxing. “It was like a big advertisement for us.” [Ibid]

Lui Brothers Become Billionaires

In the late 1980s the Lui’s company adopted a new name: the Hope Group. After rapidly expanding in Sichuan, home to the world’s biggest pig population, they built feed mills all over the country. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, January 1, 2009]

By 1992, the Hope Group was so large the Liu brothers decided to split it into four companies, along geographical lines---East Hope, West Hope, New Hope and Continental Hope, allowing each brother to pursue his own interest, and diversifying the family holdings. [Ibid]

Yongxing moved to Shanghai and invested in aluminum, power plants and finance.Yonghao, who runs New Hope was listed in October at No. 4 on the list of China’s richest, with a net worth of $2.2 billion and holdings in real estate, feed and banking. Chen Yuxin (his adopted family’s name) runs West Hope, with the original feed operation in Sichuan and a five-star hotel and retail properties in Chengdu. And Yongyan has a feed and electronics business. The Lius’ only sister, Liu Yonghong, handles all the accounting for the family. Even with billions of dollars, family members and friends say the Liu brothers are frugal and modest. Liu Yongxing flies economy class (even though he’s the richest man in China) and Chen Yuxin doesn’t have a personal assistant. [Ibid]

They insist, like many Chinese entrepreneurs, that they do not show off or indulge in extravagant luxuries. It’s ridiculous to show off your wealth, says Liu Yongxing, sitting in his Shanghai office wearing casual clothes and sipping tea. [Ibid]

The next generation of the family consists of four daughters and one son, Shawn Liu, the only child of Liu Yongxing. Educated in the United States, at the University of Southern California, and married to a woman from Texas, Shawn, 33, is preparing to take over from his father. Two of the founders’ daughters work with their fathers, helping manage the companies, while another two live in the United States and have no role in the company. [Ibid]

My goal is somehow to bring the company out to have an international presence, says Shawn. If not international, at least southeast Asia. We are now looking at opportunities. [Ibid]

Huang Guangyu

left Huang Guangyu, the founder and chairman of Gome Electrical Appliances, was named by Forbes as the richest man in China in 2006 with a net worth of $2.3 billion when he was only 37. Known in China as the “price butcher,” he had an estimated worth of $1.7 billion in 2005. In 2007 he was only the 10th richest man even though his net worth increased by 50 percent from the previous year to $3.6 billion. In 2008, the Chinese press crowned him the nation’s richest man, with an estimated net worth of $6.3 billion. Forbes magazine’s list of the wealthy placed his assets at a more modest $2.7 billion.

In 2008, Huang Guangyo (also spelled Wong Kwongyu) was listed by Forbes in 2008 as China’s second richest person with a net worth of $2.7 billion. Other sources have estimated his wealth to be $6.3 billion. He and his wife, Du Juan, who is the company’s executive director, hold a 39.8 percent stake in Gome’s Listed unit.

Huang’s personal story had epitomized the can-do spirit and canny business acumen that have been trademarks of China’s swift rise to economic prominence. The younger of two brothers in a farming family in Guangdong Province, he was said in Chinese news reports to have spent part of his childhood trolling through trash bins for usable goods and began his business career selling plastic bottles and newspapers with his brother. When he was 16, armed with just a 9th grade education and $500 in seed money, he set up a roadside stall in Beijing to sell radios and gadgets that he purchased from factories near his home town in southern China. Huang came from Guangdong, an area rife with pirated goods, and went to Inner Mongolia, where almost everything was in short supply, Wu Alun, who wrote a 2005 book about Huang told the New York Times. That was where his first business ideas were formed: Take things from where they are plentiful to where they’re scarce. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May, 18, 2010]

Later Huang set up an appliance distribution firm with $4,400 (4,000 renminbi they had earned as traveling salesmen in Inner Mongolia and a 30,000-renminbi loan). and founded GOME in 1987. Beating out rivals with cheap prices, he expanded quickly and was able to grow fast in the 1990s with relatively little competition. Huang became fabulously wealthy by floating his company on the Hong Kong stock market in 2004, then investing in real estate and stock in mainland China.

As of the mid 2000s, Huang’s Hong Kong-listed Gome (pronounced Gwo-may) Electrical Appliance Holdings ran 420 stores and employed about 300,000 people. To head off competition from Wal-Mart and Best Buy and others it launched an aggressive expansion campaign in which it opened hundreds of new stores, mostly through the acquisition of smaller retailers. Gome Electrical Appliance was the top retailer in China in 2006 with sales of around $10 billion. At its peak, Gome was China’s largest retail appliance chain, with 1,350 stores in more than 200 cities.

See Retail, Business, Economics

Trouble for Huang Guangyo

Things began to go wrong for Huang when he sought in 2006 to take over the troubled company that runs Zhongguancun, northern Beijing’s computer technology district, This move he attracted the attention of investigators.

In 2006 and 2007, Huang was investigated and cleared on charges stemming from a shady real estate and loan deal made in the 1990s. The primary allegations was that Huang took a $167 million loan from the Bank of China Beijing branch without going through normal procedures and never paid it back. There were worries that Huang would be sent prison and his business empire would collapse. When it was announced that he had been cleared and the investigation was over, Gome stock soared 14.6 percent.

In November 2008, Huang Guanyo was detained on suspicion of market manipulation, and other crimes in connection with share trading violations involving a company controlled by his brother. Huang disappeared and was detained a week before there was any news of his whereabouts. Trade of Hong-Kong-listed shares of his company were suspended. In August 2009, a Hong Kong court ordered the freeze of $214 million of assets.

In 2008 the Chinese Securities Regulatory Commission accused Huang of manipulating the price of stock in a company, Beijing Centergate Technologies, so that profits from share sales could be used to restructure the company. Investigators later charged that Huang had paid about $680,000 in bribes to five top tax and police officials for help in tax disputes. Huang’s rise, Wu said, may also have epitomized the corporate style in modern China, where seeking political favor and protection are sometimes viewed more as sharp business tactics than as acts of wrongdoing. The chances of being investigated, other analysts routinely say, often depend on whether one has fallen from political favor. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May, 18, 2010]

Huang Guangyo’s Arrest and Imprisonment

In June 2010, Huang Guangyu was found guilty of insider trading and illegal business dealings. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined $88 million and had another $29 million worth of property confiscated.

In November 2008, Beijing public security officers detained Huang on suspicion of economic crimes. In the ensuing 17months, investigators accused him of bribing five senior tax and police officials, illegally converting 800 million renminbi, or $117 million, into foreign currency and insider trading involving the stock of a company in the city of Shenzhen that was said to have netted him about $45 million. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May, 18, 2010]

Perhaps a dozen prominent people were reported in the Chinese press to have been caught up in the investigation, including Xu Zongheng, a onetime mayor of Shenzhen; the former police chief and the former top anticorruption official in southeastern China’s Guangdong Province; the deputy public security chief in Shanghai; and a major investor in Neptune Group, a cruise line and casino operator based in Hong Kong. [Ibid]

The state-run Xinhua news service, the only news agency allowed to witness the trial, reported that Huang’swife, Du Juan, was also convicted of insider trading and was sentenced to three years in prison and fined about $29 million.Two of the firms Huang once ran, Gome Electrical Appliances Holdings and Beijing Pengrun Real Estate Development, were fined $730,000 and $176,000 for paying bribes. [Ibid]

Gome After Huang’s Arrest

Gome issued a statement saying it respected the court’s judgment and adding that the amount won’t materially affect the company’s business operations or financial position. Since its peak, Gome has closed hundreds of stores, and now has fewer than 700, but it remains profitable. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May, 18, 2010]

Huang resigned as chairman of Gome two months after his detention. The company stated that no corporate funds were embezzled or used to pay bribes. Trading in Gome’s shares was suspended for some seven months after Huang’s detention but resumed about a year ago. [Ibid]

GOME has since been trying to separate itself from Huang, changing its logo, appointing a new chairman and selling a nearly 25 percent stake to U.S. private equity firm, Bain Capita, l for $418 million in June 2010. Two months later, Gome named three Bain executives to its board in a stated attempt to improve corporate governance, but the three were later ousted from the board. [Ibid]

Yan Jiehe

right Yan Jiehe was listed as the second richest man in China in 2006. A former teacher, he owns the China Pacific Construction Group, a company based in Baotou in Inner Mongolia. He had a net worth estimated at $1.6 billion in 2006 when he was 45.

China Pacific is the largest private employer in China, employing over 100,000 people. It won $50 billion in contracts between the time it was launched in 2001 and 2006 using little-money-down financing schemes and bringing development to remote and undeveloped areas.

Yan owes his success to his strategy of offering cheap financing which allows him to make deals directly with local officials, avoiding competition, and factoring in healthy profit margins. It is not known how long his run luck will last. In January 2006, Beijing banned the kind of financing schemes he offered on the grounds that they create wasteful projects and generate a real estate bubble vulnerable to collapse.

Yan is the youngest of nine children born in 1960 to a pair of schoolteachers who lived in a comfortable brick house in Jiangsu Province near the home of the late Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. During the Cultural Revolution his parents were persecuted and his family was forced to move to a poor village, where they survived on rice husks normally fed to pigs. Yan worked as school teacher in the early 1980s and left that position for a $10-a-month job in a local cement factory. Within three months he was earning $500 a month as a manager.

Yan moved into the construction material business by taking over a bankrupt collective. In 1992, he won a $1 million road building contract in Nanjing. The next year he won a contact to build part of the road between Shanghai and Nanjing. In 1995, he founded Jiangsu Pacific Engineering, a construction company that specializes in projects for Jiangsu Province. He became a very wealthy man employing the model he used Jiangsu in other provinces and taking over state-owned companies by bundling successful operations with bankrupt factories and getting local officials to go along by relieving them of having to provide pensions for laid off workers.

Shi Zhengrong

left 20080225-product-shot3 suntech.jpg
Suntech products
Shi Zhengrong was listed as the seventh richest man in China on the Forbes list in 2006, with a fortune estimated at $1.43 billion. What is most surprising about his success is his business. His company, Suntech Power Holdings, makes silicon photovoltaic solar cells. It was valued at $9 billion in 2007, up 300 percent from its public stock offering in December 2005.

Shi founded Suntech in Wuxwi near Shanghai in 1992 after earning a Ph.D. in engineering in Australia. By coming up with and developing, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, “first word technology at developing world prices,” he quickly forged Suntech into one of the top four solar cell manufacturers in the world along with Sharp and Kyocera in Japan and BP.

Shi told the New York Times he owes his success to Chinese provincial government subsidies and his reliance on low-tech labor rather than high tech machines to make his cells. Suntech cells produce energy at about $4 per watt, The goal is to reach $2 per watt by 2015. Roughly 90 percent of the company’s business is abroad but as prices come down Shi is ready to expand quickly in China.

Xu Ringmao

Xu Ringmao is a billionaire who got rich through his ambitious and flamboyant real estate projects. A former textile factory worker, he is known for keeping a low profile and making a killing by buying up and developing the right properties in the right places at the right times. He was ranked No. 9 on the 2005 Forbes list with $1 billion assets.

As head of the Shimao Group Xu controls more land than any developer in the United States and is best known for extravagant luxury real estate projects such as the Shimao International Plaza in Shanghai. In 2005, Shimao was overseeing $9 billion in projects and was expected to complete building 13.5 million square meters of building space by 2010.

Xu bought prime land in Shanghai in the late 1990s when others were fleeing the market, fearful of a collapse. He obtained some prime land in the Pudong area of Shanghai, and built some high-rises there with apartments that sell for $4 million a piece. In many cases he finances Phase I of his projects with down payments, and starts Phase II and Phase III when Phase I is occupied and the money that is owed him is paid. In some cases it is not totally clear how he managed to secure the rights to prime chunks of land in China’s largest cities at relatively low prices and get permission to build hotels, commercial buildings and residential property on them.

Little is known about Xu, especially how he made his early fortune and set up his contacts with influential Chinese officials. The oldest of eight children born to a machinist and a doctor, he grew up in Shishi, an entrepreneurial city in Fujian Province. After graduating from high school during the Cultural Revolution he was sent to the countryside to work as a laborer and a barefoot doctor. In the 1970s he went to Hong Kong and worked in a textile factory, and there, he told friends, he made a fortune trading stocks. In the 1980s he invested in textile mills and obtained the rights to an industrial property and tore down the factories and built hotels in their place. His early projects were in Fujian. Later he moved on to bigger and better things in Australia and then Shanghai and Beijing.

Li Qingfu

Li Qingfu is a showy businessman who made hundreds of millions by the time he was 40 in printing and garment manufacturing and built a company headquarters southeast of Shanghai that looks like the U.S. Capital, except that the dome is not toped by the Statue of Freedom but rather a likeness of himself. He drives a purple Lamborghini that cost $500,000. [Source: Craig Smith, New York Times, May 17, 2002]

As a youth Li was a devout Communist. In the early 1980s he was fired from his job in an electric fan workshop for “advocating capitalism.” In 1983 he took advantage of Deng reforms that allowed individuals to take over state-owned enterprises if they paid the government a set fee and employed all the workers.

The textile factory that Li took over employed 40 workers. The first year he devoted production to polyester clothes, which were very popular in the 1980s among Chinese tired of wearing Mao suits. The first year he paid all his salaries, plus a $240 fee to the government and netted $7,000. “There was a lot of pressure,” he told the New York Times. “If I didn’t do well the officials would give me trouble, but if I did well they would also give me trouble.”

To advance further Li said he spent much of his time petitioning the government and entertaining officials. “In China, you have to have relations with the government. We still need lots of approvals.” By the late 1980s he had expanded and was earning about $50,000 a year. His big break came in the early 1990s when he formed a joint venture with a Japanese partner and began making uniforms for Japanese companies. Later he expanded into printing and by the early 2000s owned a whole group of companies, including China’s largest printer for airline tickets. He is bit cageyabout how turned this into a fortune worth hundreds of millions.

Guan Jinsheng

In six years Guan Jinsheng, a former French literature student and a son of a Jiangxi province farmer, transformed a trading company with no employees in an industrial warehouse into "the closet thing in China to Merrill Lynch," a securities firm with 1,500 employees and $800 million in assets. [Source: Steven Mufson, Washington Post]

Guan made his first killing by buying up government bonds from poor people in the countryside and reselling them in the cities. The bonds offered poor interest rates and commune and factory workers were often forced to "buy" them as part of their salaries when the government was trying to raise money. The poor people, who were glad to get rid of the bonds in return for cash, sold the bonds to Guan and his employees for about 50 percent their face value. The bonds were then carried to Shanghai in large sacks and sold to clients at 75 percent their face value, with Guan and his clients each making a profit of about 20 percent. [Source: Steven Mufson, Washington Post]

Zhang Yue

On his estate the tycoon Zhang Yue has built a 130-foot-high, gold-covered pyramid, a Versailles-style palace and raised 43 life-size bronze statues of inspiration of leaders such as the Wright Brothers, Gandhi, Rachel Carson and Jack Welch. His estate is on the outskirts of Broadtown, where his company---Broad---produces air conditioners, and his employees enjoy recreational facilities with an indoor swimming pool, top-of-line snooker and pool tables and a bowling alley. Broadtown is near Changsha in Hunan Province.

Zhang has assets of around $500 million and is generally ranked between 25 and 50 on lists of the richest people in China. Broad Air Conditioning has annual sales of around $300 million and no debts and has been studied at Harvard Business School for its success filling a niche. Broad air conditioners don’t compress freon like other air conditioners but rather produce cool air using a special liquid called lithium bromide that produces vapors that cool when they condense. Zhang got his start developing safer factory boilers that collapsed rather exploded when they became dangerously overheated.

Employees who work for Broad live in company dormitories, follow strict rules and vow to pay taxes and not take bribes. There is no litter or cigarettes butts. Gardeners sweep the lawns. Many buildings are covered by solar panels and have polished wood floors made from recycled pallets. Many employees can sing or play an instrument and periodically perform in concerts attended by other workers. Many have accused the Broad company of being like a cult.

New recruits are organized into units and are required to go through boot-camp-like training. Each workday begins with employees in uniforms doing physical training at 6:00am. Workers generally earn about $150 a month and put in long hours, often working until midnight with only two days off a month.

Rich People in the Early 2000s

According to Forbes magazine, the richest man in China in 2002 was Larry Yung, chairman of CITIC Pacific Ltd., the Hong Kong unit of the state-owned China International Trust & Investment Corp., China’s largest investment firm.

The 2000 Forbes magazine list was topped by Edward Tian, chairman of China Netcom, an Internet enterprise. It also included William Ding, a 29-year-old founder of Netease, another Internet company, who was worth $668 million. Fang Xiaowen, the richest woman on the list, made a fortune breeding pigeons as sources of food before expanding into peacocks, ostriches and emus. The oldest person on the list was 84-year-old Rong Yiren, a former head of CITIC Pacific. His family hds an estimated worth of $1.9 billion at that time. Before the Communists came to power in 1949, the Rongs were the wealthiest family in China.

Hong Kong and Macau’s Billionaire Patriarchs

Hong Kong tycoons typically made their fortunes in the early post-war years, when Hong Kong was a desolate rock, Macau was in decline and Singapore was a swamp. They built empires while keeping tight personal control, often using bewildering interlinked corporate structures. [Source: The Economist, February 3, 2011]

Many patriarchs built their fortunes with risky bets: movies, the first casino, manufacturing. But many have shifted into merely collecting rents from property and related businesses (ports, hotels, retail) or from government concessions (electricity, telecommunications, gas, casino licences).

The simplicity of the underlying businesses may account for the ferocity of the family battles---it is not hard to make money if you own a casino near mainland China these days. However, in areas that are genuinely competitive, such as banking, Hong Kong’s family firms have been largely elbowed aside by multinationals.

Patriarchs add value in two ways that do not appear on balance-sheets, says Mr Fan. Their reputation ensures that banks will lend money to their companies. And their relationships with government are often lucrative. Alas, these strengths are hard to bequeath to one’s children. Which is why some Asian empires will struggle to outlive their founders.

Within a few years, dozens of publicly listed (but family-controlled) Asian companies will change hands. If history is any guide, the process will hurt, says Joseph Fan, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. A study he jointly conducted of 250 companies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore controlled by Chinese families found that successions tended to coincide with tremendous destruction of value.

Fights over of the Fortunes of Hong Kong and Macau Patriarchs

Asian billionaire families have experienced some widely publicized falling outs. Casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun feuded with his sister, Winnie, over his stake in the company that controls 16 of Macau's 23 casinos. In Hong Kong, Li Ka-shing and his son, Richard Li, clashed over the ownership of PCCW. [Source: William Pesek, Bloomberg, December 19, 2006]

As Hong Kong and Macau’s billionaire patriarchs reach the end of their lives, nasty fights are breaking out over who will control their fortunes. The Economist reported; “At Sun Hung Kai, Hong Kong’s largest property owner, the succession seemed settled in 1990 with the death of the founder and management passing to his three sons. But turmoil erupted in 2008 when the founder’s then 79-year-old widow, Kwong Siu-hing, emerged as the true power, pushing out her eldest son, Walter, who had been chief executive. On Sun Hung Kai’s board sits Lee Shau-kee, 82, who runs another property company, Henderson Land, with its own succession issues. [Source: The Economist, February 3, 2011]

Any talk in Hong Kong about succession soon touches upon Li Ka-shing, 82, the territory’s richest resident, whose empire encompasses utilities and property. Much of his wealth has been pledged to charity, but no one knows who will run his firms when Mr Li dies. When he was abruptly hospitalised in 2006, shares in his listed companies immediately sank.

There are exceptions. Sir Run Run Shaw, a 103-year-old media mogul, appears to be retiring in peace. On January 26th he announced that he would sell his controlling stake in TVB, Hong Kong’s largest television network, for more than $1 billion. It was the last public link to an empire that once included the largest private film studio in the world. Mr Shaw retired from active management on his 100th birthday, in favour of a much younger manager, his then 77-year-old second wife, Mona Fong.

Fights Over Stanley Ho’s Fortune

Stanley Ho is the gambling king of Macau: the founder of an empire that includes casinos, ferries, an airline, hotels and commercial property. He is also 89 years old, in poor health and less lucid than he once was. His four families are fighting like harpies over his assets, which are held within an array of complex structures. [Source: The Economist, February 3, 2011]

It is messy: Mr had four concurrent “wives” in a territory that does not recognise polygamy. Three are still alive, plus at least 16 children. Mr Ho apparently had a stroke in 2009, prompting his relatives to start struggling for control.

Their feud has become a YouTube sensation. Every few days, a wheelchair-bound Mr Ho issues a statement that contradicts his previous one: either accusing his relatives of robbery or exonerating them. Throngs of Hong Kongers have joined the journalists outside the family’s many opulent residences, straining for the latest whispers. Two photographers have had their feet run over by limousines.

The Ho saga has prompted fresh scrutiny of other firms that will soon face succession tussles. A major investor in two of Mr Ho’s Macau companies (one controlling casinos, the other ferries) is Cheng Yu-tung, 85, who runs his own swelling conglomerate, New World Development, with unresolved succession issues.

Image Sources: 1) Bentley, Beifan http://www.beifan.com/; 2) Elite, University of Washington; 3) Yang Huiyan and her family, China Daily; 4) Others, Hurun.com and Forbes

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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