Star TV made Richard Li, younger son of Hongkong's
richest man, a corporate bigwig in his own right.
Now the tycoon, all of 27 years, is moving on to other
exciting things through a company which will have
Singapore as its regional headquarters. CATHERINE
ONG of Business Times finds out more about the man
beneath the public facade.
MR RICHARD LI hosted a concert and dinner in Singapore
the other day, and al l the movers and shakers of
The guests, according to eye-witnesses, included
Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Chief Justice Yong Pung
How, Minister for Information and the Arts George
Yeo, the chairmen of the Big Four banks, and chief
executives of major government-linked companies.
One man who was conspicuous by his absence was Mr
Li Ka-shing, Hongkong's richest man and father of
the 27-year-old host. "That was clearly his (Richard
Li's) do," a dinner guest observed.
If Mr Richard Li is trying to assert his place in
life, he is halfway there judging by the looks of
He showed he was not just another rich man's son
out to squander the wealth created by the first generation
when he built up Star TV in less than three years
into the first pan-Asia satellite TV network with
200 million viewers in 38 countries.
In a financial coup, he sold the network to media
baron Rupert Murdoch last year for a cool US$525 million
(S$787 million), or six times the original investment.
He then turned down the top job at Hutchison Whampoa,
Hongkong's biggest conglomerate and controlled by
his father, to set up his own company, Pacific Century
Holdings, with the US$400 million profit he raked
in from Star.
Pacific Century will be the new corporate vehicle
through which the younger Li intends to prove he is
worthy of the tradition which has turned his father,
in four decades, from plastic flower-seller to Hongkong's
Superman, as Mr Li Ka-shing is nicknamed in the British
Mr Richard Li was in a relaxed, genial mood during
an interview recently.
Sitting in his spacious but spartan office on the
38th floor of The Concours e at Beach Road, he looks
a picture of sartorial elegance in his well-starched
Oxford-stripped shirt and aquamarine tie.
He speaks with a clipped British accent despite having
lived more than 10 years in the United States.
In conversation, he exudes confidence far beyond
his years. It is not every day that one comes across
a 27-year-old who moves with the ease he does among
some of the most powerful political and business figures
He has talked technology with Mr Lee, discussed business
plans with Malaysia n Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr
Mahathir Mohamad, negotiated a US$525 million deal
with Mr Murdoch, and snubbed cable TV king Ted Turner.
And he is set to make Singapore the regional headquarters
for Pacific Century, now in the process of taking
over listed Seapower Asia Investments.
Pacific Century will focus on telecommunications,
infrastructure and financial services.
Mr Li said he is attracted to Singapore because he
has confidence in the legal system, the capital market
is well regulated and there is a pool of skilled managers.
"We are not saying our whole company will move
here now, we're not precludin g it if we feel the
environment and the government is indeed open to us
to do so."
Plans to beef up the company's presence here appeared
to be in an advanced stage. It employs about 130 people
in Hongkong and a dozen in Singapore. The Singapore
office, now occupying 4,500 sq ft of space, will be
expanded by another 3,500 sq ft soon.
Another sign of his growing commitment here is the
recent purchase of an apartment for himself in expensive
After he takes possession of the flat in October,
Raffles Hotel is likely to
lose his patronage during his weekly trips to Singapore,
usually from Thursdays to Sundays.
Mr Li brushes off the suggestion that he is trying
to get out of the old man's shadow and prove his own
"There is no shadow. I would like to run my
own type of company. It's a personal desire."
Of course, having Mr Li Ka-shing for a father helps
to reinforce one's belie f in oneself.
His confidence has also been honed during the years
he was left to fend for himself in a foreign country.
Before his 14th birthday, his father sent him to
prep school in Menlo Park, California, and left him
very much on his own. He waited at tables during vacations
and ate all the TV dinners on the market.
He gained entry into the top college in that state,
Stanford University, where he studied computer engineering.
His first job after graduation in 1987 was with a
merchant bank in Toronto. He was there for three years
before being recalled to Hongkong to join Hutchison.
Star TV, a joint-venture between Hutchison and the
Li family, was born in 1990 amid much scepticism.
This was the first time satellite TV was being made
available not for one bu t for 30-40 countries. It
was an ambitious project which charted new ground.
There were as many doubting Thomases as there were
teething problems. How ca n a free-to-air regional
TV network succeed? Who is going to advertise in a
medium where there is no independent means of gauging
EVEN the Hongkong government, which has long wanted
to make the territory a regional broadcasting beacon,
was nervous. Despite the obstacles, things moved at
a frenetic speed, no less because the younger Li was
a taskmaster of the first order.
Five channels were launched, the premier ones being
the news channel by the BBC, and the MTV music station
which turned its Hongkong-based deejays into instant
celebrities among teenyboppers from Bombay to Beijing.
In building up Star, Mr Li displayed the same entrepreneurial
fleet-of-foot characteristic of his father.
He resisted the temptation to focus Star's marketing
and distribution effort s on the lucrative Taiwan
market, and showed a profit within 18 months.
This would have made Star the fourth Taiwanese TV
station with a couple of million viewers rather than
the pan-Asian platform it was to become, reaching
out to 40 million homes.
Star also earned Mr Li a reputation as an upstart
who wants what he wants when he wants it. There were
reports of his temper, and how he reduced men twice
his age to tears. He is said to scream and yell at
meetings, a charge he does not deny but which he puts
down to inevitable tension arising from brainstorming
His supporters defended his aggressive style as necessary
to keep the new company focused while his detractors
dismissed them as the misplaced tantrums of a spoilt
Most agreed that at the end of the day, they worked
with him because he compensated them well for their
efforts and he was doing something refreshingly new
It is being said that he has mellowed considerably
after Star's sale.
Pacific Century plans to bring innovative telecommunication
services to corporations in the region in October.
If Star TV is any guide, the new company looks set
to usher in the same revolutionary impact and reach
for telecommunications in the region.
Catherine Ong, a senior correspondent with Business
Times, was the paper's Hongkong correspondent for
five years until May this year.