Even at 83, Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, gets more done by lunch than people half his age pull off in a full day. By the time I meet him he’s already mowed through his daily breakfast of congee and vegetables, a thorough read of the international news and a round of golf near the home he has lived in for the past 50 years.
Ensconced in his office atop the Cheung Kong Center in central Hong Kong, which boasts a private pool and one of the world’s fastest elevator rides (70 stories in an ear-popping 45 seconds), he exudes serenity. “A person investing in technology will feel younger,” he smiles, his signature black square glasses dancing on his nose.
For the entire quarter-century that Forbes has been measuring global billionaires, Li has controlled a huge swath of the teeming city of 7 million people below. Li’s companies have built one in every seven residences here, handle 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s port traffic and hold big market shares in electric utilities and mobile phone service. His success in mainland China–notably retail and real estate – is also impressive.
But for the first time – he hasn’t granted an interview to the Western media in nearly five years – Li is opening up about the most surprising chapter in a remarkable career: the recent technology investments that have catapulted him into the Yuri Milner-like ranks of visionaries whose mere participation can help ensure a startup’s success.
The octogenarian, it turns out, has an uncanny gut for what plays in the digital world. Li says it took him only five minutes in December 2007 to decide to invest in Facebook, even though it barely had any revenues and was seeking investments that valued the young company at a relatively high $15-billion. The opportunity was presented to him by longtime companion Solina Chau, head of his private technology investment company, Horizons Ventures. Li was immediately drawn to Facebook’s growing number of followers and its prospects on mobile phones; he quickly approved spending $120-million (U.S.) for a 0.8 per cent stake. He has purchased an undisclosed amount since. With Facebook poised to trade north of $100-billion after its IPO, Li will certainly add a billion or more to his pile.
Li’s Facebook score is just the most high-profile in an enviable streak. Horizons invested in moneylosing Skype in 2005 a year before eBay paid $2.5-billion for it. Another Li-backed firm, Siri, was bought by Apple in 2010 after Li invested $7.5-million a year earlier. More recently he has made investments in music site Spotify, crowdsourced car-navigation aid Waze and waterproofing tech outfit HzO.
“One of the coolest things about him and his team is that they have this idea of where they think the world is going,” says Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, who at age 29 is young enough to be Li’s grandson. “From the moment he made the investment, he made sure that Spotify was in his car. This was 2009, before Spotify was a mobile app. He was like, ‘When are we going to be in all the other cars?’ For him it was this given thing that Spotify will be everywhere. He doesn’t see the limitations of technology. He sees where the world should be.”
With its deep ties in Asia, Horizons is also a magnet for young companies looking for help in cracking the market in China, now the world’s second-largest economy. “I knew about them from their investments in Facebook and Skype, not anything else,” says Noam Bardin, CEO of Waze, an Israel-U.S. outfit that received a combined $30-million from Horizons and Kleiner Perkins last year. Quickly, he came to appreciate Li’s global view, speedy decision making and powerful Asian Rolodex. “They are entrenched in China,” adds Yahal Zilka, cofounder of Israel’s Magma Ventures, Waze’s original funder, who says Horizons helps them navigate the Chinese culture and reach potential partners. He has since co-invested with Li on two other Israeli tech startups.
Li’s brilliance isn’t just who he invests in – it’s how. The billionaire has adroitly stepped in to fill the widening gap in the U.S. between projects that are likely to be funded by angel investors and those that are likely to be backed at the next stage, a chasm that Norman Winarsky, a vice- president of SRI International, the one-time Stanford University affiliate that helped create Siri, terms “a valley of death.”