Hong Kong-based billionaire Li Ka Shing is as unassuming as they come. Born into poverty, the tycoon — who’s known as “Superman” in Hong Kong these days, thanks to his business smarts — continues to prefer simple suits and watches from brands like Citizen and Seiko. In fact, you might never imagine just by looking at the man behind the trademark glasses that he lives in a house in Hong Kong’s Deep Water Bay — or that the property costs an estimated £13 million (S$27.7 million).
Li sits as CEO of two main companies — Hutchison Whampoa Limited and Cheung Kong Holdings — but the various brands and businesses he owns reads like a laundry list of services we’ve come across on trips overseas. They include UK mobile operator O2 and beauty and health retailer Superdrug, as well as Canada’s Husky Energy. Closer to home, he’s made donations to both SMU and NUS’ Lee Kuan Yew School Of Public Policy.
With his wealth overshadowing so much of everything else Li can teach us, though, we thought it might be a good idea to bring it back to the basics, and look at some of the life and entrepreneurial lessons he can teach us.
1. Stay humble & optimistic, but be prepared for the worst
Li’s rags-to-riches story is a well-documented one — he left school to support his family after his father passed away from tuberculosis — but this doesn’t mean he gave up trying to better his prospects in life.
“First of all, I am an optimist…When I was 10 years old, I lost my schooling, but I still had plenty of hope to return to school. When we came to Hong Kong, the family had no choice, and I had to work. I was facing life for the first time…We had no choice. I needed to be strong, and needed to find some way to secure a future.”
“Many events have occurred over the past 50 years…that have had an adverse impact on Hong Kong. But how many times have you heard that Cheung Kong’s finances were in trouble over the last 50 years? Never. The reason is, we are always prepared for the worst. That is my policy.”
2. Knowledge will change your life – keep up with everything
Li’s zeal and desire to better himself, of course, wasn’t simply blind optimism at play. He had a game plan to go along, and it was as simple as making sure he kept up-to-date with everything he could.
“I got my first break right after the Second World War. My boss needed a letter written…my colleagues recommended me. My boss said that my letters were quick and nice, and I got his meaning. He was happy with my work, and I was promoted to head a small department. I always believe that knowledge can change life.”
“In manufacturing in particular, you must be well versed not only with the market, but also with productivity and quality. I had worked at every level, doing different tasks. I was very careful. I had no debt (actually, I was not qualified for a bank loan at the time), but I knew my company’s finances like the back of my hand, and I could answer any question that anybody asked.”
3. The secret to managing different kinds of businesses
As someone who’s worked his way up from a factory worker to head billion-dollar companies, you can bet Li knows a thing or two about the differences between small and large businesses — and how to handle them.
“In a small business — a family business you’ve got to do everything personally. But when the company is big, you need to give your staff a sense of belonging and make them feel at ease. That’s vital.”
“The secret of management is simply identifying and making use of talent. But you must in principle make them feel they belong and like you first.”
4. Stability and progression are not mutually exclusive
Business owners might have, at some point in time, faced the conundrum of whether to take a risk and expand their business, or stay safe and maintain the status quo. To Li, however, the two are not necessarily conflicting goals. Rather, they can — and should — be considered equally essential.
“I always had a fighting heart. I only had a small amount of capital when I started my own business. That’s why I am always conservative. I never forget to maintain stability while advancing, and I never forget to advance while maintaining stability. Stability and advancement must always be in balance.”
5. Luck had no part to play in his success
Believing that Li Ka Shing’s personal items can bring them good luck, some have gone all out to bid for his belongings when he donated them to a charity auction years ago. Ironically, Li himself has said that luck is not a big part of his success, though he did concede that timing might be an influencing factor.
“No, I wasn’t lucky. I worked hard to achieve the goals I set for myself.”
“[On ‘How much of your success is due to good fortune?’] I cannot deny it’s the times that create heroes.”
“Today I can be frank. When I started my business, I almost certainly did not rely on luck. I relied on work, hard work and ability to make money.”
6. How a simple lifestyle can lead to bigger things
Apart from his habit of dressing simply, Li Ka Shing has been pretty vocal on his pursuit of a simple lifestyle. He famously taught us how to save enough money for a house and car in 5 years, in an article that broke down how exactly one should spend their monthly income.
“The first set of funds is used for living expenses. It’s a simple way of living and you can only be assigned to less than twenty dollars a day. A daily breakfast of vermicelli, an egg and a cup of milk. For lunch just have a simple set lunch, a snack and a fruit. For dinner go to your kitchen and cook your own meals that consist of two vegetables dishes and a glass of milk before bedtime. For one month the food cost is probably $500-$600. When you are young, the body will not have too many problems for a few years with this way of living.”
(Source: CEO Connectz)
7. On helping others
Li is not only a shrewd businessman; having had a taste of poverty himself, he’s been giving back to others by supporting various causes and educational institutions. It’s estimated that he’s donated more than US$1.4 billion to date. And this is not merely because he feels obliged to:
“I will continue to do the same and more, not out of a sense of my duty but because it is a maxim by which I choose to live my life.”
(Source: Hutchison Whampoa Limited)
8. Don’t freak out too much about your retirement plan
At least, this was what the 87-year-old had to say to Forbes back in 2006, and which he reiterated to members of the media six years later in 2012.
“[On his retirement plans] No, no plan.”