Hong Kong's life after the tycoons

2010-07-25 13:23

Hong Kong - Hong Kong's billionaire tycoons enjoy a status close to royalty in Asia's wealth-obsessed financial hub.

The city's richest man Li Ka-shing has the fame of a movie star, while the court case involving the will of eccentric pig-tailed billionaire Nina Wang last year enthralled Hong Kong with its brew of sex, money and power.

But Wang's death in 2007 and the hospitalisation last year of casino tycoon Stanley Ho were a stark reminder that some of Hong Kong's 40 richest tycoons - synonymous with its post-war economic success - are in their twilight years.

They will leave behind eye-popping fortunes worth more than $130bn and vast business empires that control everything from supermarkets and property development to ports and telecoms.

"Hong Kong in this respect is very special," said Henry Hirzel, managing director of wealth management for Asia-Pacific at Swiss bank UBS. "The question is can this mega-wealth be kept together?"

That will depend on whether Hong Kong's super-rich families descend into squabbles and bitter lawsuits once their entrepreneurial patriarchs die, analysts said.

To avoid huge fights over their fortunes, many ageing tycoons create trusts leaving properties and other assets to specific family members.

"But that doesn't guarantee relatives won't go to court after their death," said Jonathan Mok, a partner at blue-chip firm Mayer Brown JSM.

There is also no guarantee that the tycoons' offspring will have the interest or ability to run the business - less than 20% of first-generation companies survive by the third-generation, Hirzel said.

"This is a region of family businesses," he said. "Some families do (succession planning) very well and others don't... Most people leave their succession to chance."

Stanley Ho, who controlled Macau's gaming sector for four decades until it opened to foreign competition in 2002, has at least 17 children with four women - an extended family not entirely unique to some of Hong Kong's wealthiest people.

'A best-male-gets-it deal'

Two of Ho's children, Pansy and Lawrence, run rival gambling concessions with overseas partners in Macau. Pansy Ho also sits on the board of her father's Shun Tak Holdings conglomerate along with siblings Daisy and Maisy Ho.

The 89-year-old Ho - released from hospital in March after an eight month stay - has long been embroiled in a bitter legal dispute with his estranged sister Winnie over control of his casino firm Sociedade de Jogos de Macau.

Reports of his poor health sent shares in his casino firm tumbling.

Li Ka-shing's son Victor is deputy chairman of his father's conglomerate Cheung Kong (Holdings), while the billionaire's other son Richard took a hit last year when a Hong Kong court scuppered his bid to privatise telecom giant PCCW, ruling that a shareholder vote on the deal was rigged.

Despite exceptions like Pansy Ho and her sisters, Hong Kong sons are most favoured to take over the family business, although the eldest doesn't necessarily get the spoils, said author Joe Studwell.

"Very, very occasionally a girl might be chosen over a boy if that boy is particularly incompetent," said Studwell, whose "Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia" takes an inside look at the region's super-rich.

"So it is a best-male-gets-it deal. And fathers are pretty ruthless about bypassing elder sons who don't cut it."

"Many patriarchs make the inheritance decision late, not least because not deciding gives them a lot of power over family members," he added.

Nina Wang - once Asia's richest woman, who controlled the Chinachem property empire - highlighted a key red flag for the tycoons: unclear wills.

The long-running saga kicked off after Wang's tycoon husband Teddy was kidnapped in 1990 and never seen again, sparking a nasty legal dispute between the wealthy woman and her father-in-law for control of the fortune.

Both had competing wills, but the courts eventually sided with Nina, who died two years later.

She, in turn, purportedly left two wills - both scant on details - which became the subject of another bitter legal battle between her family and Wang's former lover, feng shui master Tony Chan.

Wang's family prevailed in February, with the trial judge accusing Chan of profferring a fake will to get his hands on the multi-billion-dollar estate. Chan was arrested shortly after the judgment and then released on bail.

Historically, Hong Kong's wealthy have been reluctant to even draw up a will, although that tradition is changing, Mok said.

"For many Chinese it is like a death omen - they don't like the thought of it," he said.

"The older generation of Chinese were reluctant to have a will."

But the future of the tycoons' businesses may depend most on how easily they loosen an iron grip on the day-to-day running of their companies to make way for a new generation of management.

"Businesses that are dominated by personalities are harder to keep going across generations than ones which run on systems and structures," Studwell said.

"The big boss approach carries big risks."

  - AFP