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(DALE DE LA REY)
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Li to bring his business drive to Britain Add to ...

His name is synonymous with the hard-driving business style in his adopted city of Hong Kong, and now Li Ka-shing will also become a force in Britain after offering to buy one of the nation's top power grid operators for $9.1-billion (U.S.).

At a spry 82, Mr. Li is at once one of Hong Kong's most colourful and outspoken figures, with an estimated net worth of $21-billion that makes him Asia's richest man, according to Forbes.

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He added to his trove of holdings on Friday when two firms he controls, Cheung Kong Infrastructure and Hong Kong Electric, pooled forces with two of his foundations to win the bidding for UK power grid assets being sold by France's EDF.

Mr. Li is a complex figure, known at once for his plain speaking, humble origins and philanthropy. But he is perhaps best known for a no-nonsense, hard-driving style that helped make him the world's 14th richest man, according to Forbes.

"He is generous in his donations, but don't let anyone make money out of his pocket," said one director at a local brokerage who, like many others would only speak frankly about Mr. Li on condition their names not be used.

"He has a strong desire to win and never give up on anything. He has no mercy in doing business. He never gives up and never gives way," he said.

Rags to Riches

A high-school drop-out known locally for his deal-making prowess, Mr. Li embodies Hong Kong's own rags-to-riches story.

Arriving in the former British colony as a refugee after the Japanese occupied his home city of Chaozhou in south China's Guangdong province, Mr. Li went on to build a plastic flower business into a global empire with 240,000 employees in 54 countries.

His two flagships, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. and Cheung Kong, are heavyweights not only at home but also globally, owning the world's largest operator of container ports, the biggest health and beauty retailer, and Husky Energy, Canada's No. 4 oil company, among others.

"He's a man who has extracted monopoly and oligopoly profits from several sectors of Hong Kong's economy and redeployed them in industries overseas with varying success," said Hong Kong-based shareholder activist David Webb.

"He's more willing to hire good professionals to run his business units like the retail and ports," he said. "He's less of a micro manager than some of his peers."

Observers point to Mr. Li's ability to spot a bargain and predict where the next upsurge will occur. At Cheung Kong's press conferences, held twice a year, reporters often pepper him with questions on the latest trends in the stock and real estate markets, hoping for tips from the master.

"He is a superman in Hong Kong with a midas touch in the business world," said Francis Lun, general manager of Fulbright Securities.

Household Name

Li Ka-shing is literally a household word in his hometown, where people combine a local play on words with his name to refer to Hong Kong as the "Li family city."

One would be pressed to spend a day in Hong Kong without enriching the Li family, whose hodgepodge of businesses permeates nearly all facets of daily life.

His Hongkong Electric is one of the city's two main power utilities, and Cheung Kong is one of its top residential developers. He also controls ParknShop, the city's biggest supermarket chain, and one of its largest cellphone companies.

Most of those assets are held by his group's eight listed companies, whose total market capitalization of HK$601-billion ($77.38-billion U.S.) accounts for about 3.5 per cent of the Hong Kong stock market's value.

Born in the Chinese year of the dragon, Mr. Li fled to Hong Kong with his family in 1940. He founded Cheung Kong, named after China's Yangtze River, as a maker of plastic trinkets at the age of 22, before starting to dabble in property in the late 1950s.

In 1979 he became the first Chinese to take control of one of Hong Kong's big trading houses, or "hongs" in the British colony, when he bought 22 per cent of Hutchison Whampoa, a stake he later expanded.

The bespectacled Mr. Li may be Asia's richest man, but he is better known for his personal thrift, saying he still wears shoes with plastic soles because they last longer. He is also known for his philanthropy.

Widowed in 1990, Mr. Li dismisses repeated questions about when he will retire, saying he has no plans to do so.

When he does, he is expected to hand over the keys to his empire to his elder son Victor Li, who, unlike his younger brother, Richard, keeps a low public profile.

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