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Hong Kong's Cheung Kong Grows into Global Business Power

  • Andrea Niem

Led by one of Hong Kong's most forceful personalities, the Cheung Kong group dominates key industries in the city, including real estate, telecommunications and the busy ports. It is one of many Asian companies that have become forces in global business and now face the challenges that international expansion brings.

Li Ka-shing has the Midas touch. He sees opportunities and turns them into profit. It is a knack that helped make the chairman of the Cheung Kong group one of the world's richest men.

Professor Venkat Subramanian of the University of Hong Kong explains the key to Mr. Li's success.

"He tries to take positions in businesses that he can dominate or have a monopoly [in] … Not many people have this knack of identifying opportunities up front…. He's a big risk-taker," said Professor Subramanian. "He's quite a good risk-taker in that sense."

When he began in Hong Kong in the 1950s as a poor immigrant from mainland China, Mr. Li's first business was making plastic flowers.

In the 1960s, he plowed his profits into the property market, which would later become Hong Kong's economic linchpin. The market was depressed at that time by the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in China, but it later boomed, and Mr. Li made a huge profit.

In a key expansion in 1979, he bought a controlling stake in Hutchison Whampoa, a diversified group and one of the original British trading houses from the late 1800s. With this purchase, Cheung Kong secured stakes in supermarkets, construction, and ports in Hong Kong and overseas.

Now the group's companies make up 10 percent of the value of the entire Hong Kong stock market. It has businesses in 42 countries, and last year, the group had assets of more than $22 billion.

Cheung Kong is one of the most successful companies to move from Asia's smaller and developing economies onto the world market. Increased global trade in large part helped many of these companies compete head-on with older Western and Japanese giants.

In recent years, Hutchison has branched into the telecommunications business. It was one of the first to push third-generation, or 3-G, mobile phone technology, which can run video and access the Internet. The company paid heavily for 3-G licenses in Hong Kong and nine other countries, and in 2002 began marketing the phones under the name "3".

Professor Subramanian says it is a gamble that will not pay off for several years.

"They definitely would like to have this 3-G thing pay off. And it's not going to happen in the near future, but take a few years, so that's very critical for Cheung Kong in the global sense," he said.

At the moment, European rivals such as Vodafone are offering data services with less-advanced, 2 and 2.5-G phone technology, and are outperforming Hutchison.

The fact that they already have the customers, says Julian Watson, a telecommunications analyst at World Market Research Center in London, will give Hutchison's rivals an advantage when Europe does shift toward 3-G.

"If you assume that launching 3-G services will boost data services as a whole, it indicates that Vodafone and other 2 and 2.5-G operators will be in a much stronger position to generate further revenues from data services."

Hutchison fought its way into the European market by cutting prices on voice calls, and in a year saw subscriber numbers surge to more than one million in the United Kingdom, from about 150,000.

Francis Cheung, head of telecom research at CLSA, a brokerage and investment bank in Hong Kong, sees more competition ahead from rivals that are just now entering the 3-G fray.

"These other operators are pricing 3-G … higher than Hutch. But over time, when Hutch gains more and more market share, these new operators will be more aggressive against Hutch," he predicted.

But the Cheung Kong Group has always been able to ride out troubles in the past. That, says Professor Subramanian, is because it spreads its risk. For instance, it is one of the world's largest port operators.

"They have an international profile and quite a few business operations outside of Hong Kong and Asia-Pacific region. So they were able to manage it by depending on other businesses outside," said Mr. Subramanian.

Kathleen Slaughter, of the Hong Kong office of the Richard Ivey School of Business in Asia, sees this strategy continuing for the long term.

"They [Cheung Kong Group] seize opportunities, stay connected to their environment, and they're ready. It's always been about growth. There's a tremendous will to win," she said.

Indeed, the company's own statements make it clear it continues to look for ways to expand. While Cheung Kong officials would not comment directly, the company's 2003 annual report says that the group is "well poised to seize new opportunities and forge new growth for years to come."

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