Business

Li Ka-shing: the man who wants to add O2 to Three

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Image caption Li Ka-shing fortunes turned in 1979 when he bought Hutchison Whampoa from HSBC

Li Ka-shing's appetite for big deals doesn't appear to be waning. At 86, he's primed to spend £10bn ($15bn) on buying O2, Britain's second largest mobile provider, from Spain's Telefonica.

He'll add O2 to his other mobile operator, Three.

But then again Mr Li has never been shy about making big bets at crucial times. He sold Orange in 2001 just as others were spending billions on 3G licences and he disposed of his Indian mobile venture just before the global financial crisis.

Now he's been selling off much of his property portfolio in China amid fears of a massive asset bubble there.

That Mr Li is cashing out in China is significant because that was where he started his property empire. Today Forbes magazine says he is worth $31bn.

Turning point

Born in 1928 in the Guangdong province in mainland China, he moved to Hong Kong in his early twenties and turned a plastics company into a real estate venture called Cheung Kong Holdings that bought, sold and developed land.

A key turning point for Mr Li was the 1979 purchase from HSBC of a mid-sized conglomerate called Hutchison Whampoa, which owned some key Hong Kong docks.

That interest in infrastructure has spread all over the world to the point where Mr Li (through Hutchison Whampoa and Cheung Kong) now owns key ports, electricity networks, retailers, mobile phone operators and high-profile real estate.

In Britain alone he controls the pharmacy chain Superdrug, UK Power Networks, Britain's largest container port in Felixstowe, as well as Three - and possibly O2 soon.

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Image caption Felixstowe port is owned by Li Ka-shing

He also likes to keep it in the family. His two sons, Richard and Victor Li, are Canadian citizens and between them control vast swathes of their ageing father's business interests - making the Li family not too dissimilar to the Murdochs or the Mittals.

Low profile

Mr Li senior has managed to avoid too many public scraps with governments. However, his fears for the future of Hong Kong prompted him to move much of the control of his empire offshore before Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997. He has also had questions asked about his tax affairs by the authorities in Australia.

But for one of the world's richest men, he has a very low profile in the West. However, that does not mean that governments do not court him. Mr Li is an honorary knight in Britain and a Legion d'honneur in France. In his native Hong Kong he is simply known as "Superman" for his business prowess.

In private he wears ordinary suits and cheap watches and lives in a two-storey house in Hong Kong with his son Victor and his family.

His philosophy is also Confucius-like in its simplicity: "If you keep a good reputation, work hard, be nice to people, keep your promises, your business will be much easier." He appears to have heeded his own advice.

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