“Businesspeople in general shouldn’t have an overly narrow view of their industry,” he says, explaining his interest in Europe at a time when others see a cloudy future. Rather, they “need a 360-degree perspective and to look at everything from all possible angles.”
That’s in part why even now Li tries daily to read books about science, economics, politics and philosophy. In February he was deep into a history about an influential political leader during China’s Ming dynasty, Zhang Juzheng. “I know how to find peace within my heart and soul,” he says. “If I have a rare vacation, I will spend it reading.” His curiosity about the world and openness to it is summed up in the spirit of a Chinese-style calligraphy painting behind his desk. “Set your goals high; make friends with different kinds of people; enjoy simple pleasures. Stand on high ground; sit on level ground; walk on expansive ground.”
All this action with his core business explains why Li treats his Western tech investments like a high-stakes hobby. True to that spirit, Li won’t personally make any money from Facebook or any of these other scores. He invests his own money through Horizons. If an investment fizzles, he takes the loss himself. If it pans out, he transfers the shares or proceeds into his Li Ka Shing Foundation, which he calls his “third son,” after his two real-life ones.
The foundation has donated more than $1.6-billion to date; its total assets are $8.3-billion. Unsurprisingly, especially after you spend a lot of time talking with him, a lot of the money has gone to education. He has given $690-million to create Shantou University, named after his hometown. In February the university and Li Ka Shing Foundation sponsored the Prometheus Project that brought 100 high school students together with mentors from the best U.S. colleges to talk about biomedical research. On the other side of the world, in California, he donated $40-million to the University of California, Berkeley for a new biomedical research facility named after him that opened in October. (Medical research is another field close to his heart. Not only did his father die too young, a heart attack killed his wife of 27 years in 1990 at age 56; he never remarried.) His rock star status transcends the Pacific: A throng of 300 gathered outside the Berkeley chancellor’s house during a thank-you lunch, hoping to meet him.
For all this emphasis on formal education, Li’s golfing partner and fellow Hong Kong real estate billionaire Henry Fong Yun Wah, 87, maintains that merely listening to Li’s thoughts about business reminds one of the Chinese expression: “Listening to enlightening words is better than studying for ten years.”
Yet some of the fervor that once compelled Hong Kong stock investors to stand in the street by the thousands to wait in line for shares in Li-connected IPOs has cooled. Spinoffs from his conglomerate companies have disappointed lately, including Li’s first Internet public offering, Tom Group, whose stock price has lost more than 90 per cent of its value since it went public in Hong Kong in 2000. (Li maintains that the lessons from Tom awakened him to the mobile technology revolution that he has since profited from.) There has also been growing public criticism of Hong Kong’s wealth gap in recent years, though Li’s large-scale giving helps keep him above that fray.
Some people wonder what will happen to his grand empire when he eventually retires. In terms of the public companies he controls, Li has designated his older son, Victor, as the heir apparent. The 48-year-old already serves as deputy chairman and managing director at Cheung Kong and deputy chairman at Hutchison Whampoa. “If I were to tell Victor two minutes before I depart that I was going on vacation for two months, I would have confidence that the company would operate as smoothly as normal,” he says. “I have been teaching him by example how to be a leader since he was a boy.”