Who is Li Ka-shing? Hong Kong's richest man is called the Warren Buffett of Asia

Key Points
  • Billionaire Li Ka-shing, who turns 90 in July, announced his retirement on Friday.
  • Li built a successful empire spanning the fields of real estate, telecommunications, shipping and retail in Hong Kong.

Billionaire Li Ka-shing — Asia's "superman" — is hanging up his cape after a storied career as one of the most successful businessmen in the region.

Billionaire Li Ka-shing, pictured in 2015.
Getty Images

Li's rags-to-richest story is well known. Born in 1928 in China's Guangdong province, Li's family moved to Hong Kong in the 1940s during the second Sino-Japanese war. Li was forced to leave school at a young age following his father's death and took his first job in a plastics factory at the age of 15 — an experience that helped shape Li into the savvy businessman he would become.

"The most terrible experience during my childhood was witnessing my father's suffering and ultimately dying of TB. I too was infected," Li said in an interview with Forbes in 2010.

"The burden of poverty and this bitter taste of helplessness and isolation sort of branded on my heart forever the questions that still drive me. Is it possible to reshape one's destiny? Is it possible to minimize challenges through lessening complexities? And is it possible to enhance chances for success through meticulous planning?" the tycoon explained to the magazine.

Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing announced his retirement on March 16, 2018.
Emily Tan | CNBC

Li went on to start his own plastics company, Cheung Kong Industries, in 1950. The name "Cheung Kong" was inspired by China's Yangtze River, where countless streams and rivers converge, to reflect the businessman's belief in synergy and the power of combined efforts.

The company listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 1972 and expanded into an empire spanning more than 50 countries with 300,000 employees in the fields including real estate, telecommunications, shipping and retail.

Li controlled one of the world's largest operators of container terminals, Hutchison Port, and Asia's biggest health and beauty retailer, Watsons.

All of Li's businesses were consolidated into two major companies in 2015: CK Hutchison for non-property ventures and CK Asset Holdings for property undertakings. The two have a total market capitalization of more than $80 billion.

The richest man in Asia and his $50 Seiko

In the span of his career, Li became and remained Hong Kong's richest man for two decades, according to Forbes. For many years, he was also Asia's wealthiest. His current net worth is estimated to be $35.3 billion.

The self-made billionaire's ability to build empires out of ordinary businesses earned him the nickname "superman" in Hong Kong. He's also been referred to as Asia's answer to Warren Buffett, and credited for having a hand in transforming Hong Kong into the buzzing financial and business hub it is today.

Recent years saw Li backing new and rising start-ups in the region. He was an early investor in Razer, a video game hardware maker, who went on to launch an initial public offering that was one of the most sought after in Hong Kong.

Much like Buffett, Li remained a modest man and dressed plainly despite his wealth and success. An anecdote often used to depict Buffett's frugality is his retro Samsung flip phone, which he hasn't given up for a smartphone. For Li, a similar tale — for a long time — involved his wristwatch.

Li wore a simple $50 Seiko watch for decades. He only in recent years switched to a $500 solar-powered Citizen Eco-Drive watch for its convenience, battery life. "I don't need to be careful," unlike when wearing timepieces costing hundreds of thousands, he told Bloomberg in an interview in 2016.

Also like Buffett, Li is an active philanthropist. The Li Ka Shing Foundation, established in 1980, has given grants and scholarships to causes including education, health care and humanitarian.

The billionaire has pledged to give one-third of his wealth to charitable causes — but not all of it.

"In Asia, our traditional values encourage and even demand that wealth and means pass through lineage as an imperative duty," Li said in 2006.

After a career of more than seven decades, Li, who turns 90 in July, is passing the baton to his eldest son — closing a chapter in one of Hong Kong's most successful and largest conglomerates.