16. Li Ka-shing

Hong Kong tycoon; Asia's richest man

Benjamin Wachenje
"If you think, then you will be prepared. If you are prepared, then you will have no worries."

Chairman, Cheung Kong Holdings and Hutchison Whampoa
Born: June 13, 1928, Chaozhou, China
Education: High school

Li Ka-shing is Asia's richest man, with a fortune of $28.8 billion, according to Bloomberg estimates. His wealth and extensive philanthropy, and the scale of his Hong Kong-based commercial empire combine to make him widely considered the region's most powerful businessman.

Li is the oldest member of our list of the 25 rebels, icons and leaders of the past quarter-century. A large part of his career predates 1989, when he bet his earnings—from making plastic flowers in the 1950s after his family fled China—on the economic future of Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. Shrewd local property investment gave him further resources to expand his industrial assets. His critical move was acquiring control of Hutchison Whampoa in 1979, which broke the British hold on Hong Kong's dominant trading houses, or hongs.

He earns his place in our rankings because of his achievements since then. Li has ridden as well as any the transformation caused by the opening of China's economy, while diversifying his businesses worldwide.

Similar to Carlos Slim's influence on Mexico, Li's businesses touch on virtually every aspect of Hong Kong life—from telecommunications and electricity to retail, real estate and shipping. His reach stretches far beyond Hong Kong, though.

Li controls the world's largest private operator of container terminals, Hutchison Port, with ports from the U.K. to Panama, and the largest health and beauty retailer, A.S. Watson, which has stores from China to Europe. His telecom interests span Europe and Australia. Husky Energy, his Canadian oil and gas company, has operations stretching from the Atlantic to Asia.

His investment prowess has won Li the nickname "Superman" in Hong Kong. The Hutchison Whampoa conglomerate has a market valuation of $58 billion; his investment and real estate vehicle, the world's No. 3 property developer, Cheung Kong Holdings, has a market cap of $40 billion. Li maintains control through a complex corporate structure involving dual-class equities and various holding companies and trusts. Li owns 43 percent of Cheung Kong, which in turn owns half of Hutchison Whampoa, for example.

Though Li keeps himself trim and fit, and his looks belie his age, he laid out a succession plan in 2012. His older son, Victor, who has been a member of China's top political advisory committee, is to take over Cheung Kong and Hutchison. His younger son, Richard, head of PCCW, Hong Kong's largest telecom company, will be financed to start new businesses.

Li Ka-shing: Lifelong highlights

  • Donated more than $1.4 billion to philanthropic causes, including universities in Hong Kong, China, the U.K., the U.S., Canada and Singapore; is a long-term benefactor of Stanford University
  • Pledged to donate one-third of his assets to charity
  • Served for one year on the board of the state-owned investment fund China International Trust and Investment, at the request of China's late leader Deng Xiaoping
  • Invests in digital businesses; holds stakes in Facebook and music service Spotify
  • Plays a round of golf early every day with Hong Kong movie mogul Raymond Chow
  • Famously plain-dressed, he wore a $50 Seiko watch for many years before switching to a Citizen in 2011
  • Made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2000, becoming Sir Li Ka-shing

Read MoreFULL LIST: CNBC FIRST 25

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