All eyes are on Victor Li, as he steers the Cheung Kong Group through Hong Kong's worst economic slump in decades

By Pearl Liu pearl.liu@scmp.com / https://www.scmp.com/business/companies/article/3075981/all-eyes-are-victor-li-he-steers-cheung-kong-group-through-hong?utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=contentexchange&utm_source=EdgeProp | March 23, 2020 12:17 PM SGT
Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, the elder son of Hong Kong's richest man, said the two flagship companies founded by his father nearly seven decades ago are financially adequate to survive and thrive in the city's worst economic slump in decades.
CK Hutchison, which owns businesses from chemists and supermarkets to ports and mobile phone networks, posted a 2 per cent increase in 2019 net profit to HK$39.83 billion (US$5.13 billion). Underlying profit at CK Assets, one of the city's largest property developers, jumped 19 per cent to HK$28.7 billion, helped by a real estate bull run in the world's costliest city.
"Our group was built, and [grew strong] through various rounds of storms, and we are used to turbulence," Li said during an online press conference to announce the two companies' results. "We are generally conservative with our finance, which means whenever there are difficult times, we stay well-capitalised."
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All eyes are on Li, 55, as he steers one of Hong Kong's most renowned companies through a pandemic that has sickened more than 200,000 people and killed 8,845 in 150 regions and countries. The last time Hong Kong's economy caught a similar slump from a pandemic in 2003, Cheung Kong's reins were in the grips of an entrepreneur dubbed "Superman Li" for his deal making prowess.
Trucks between stacks of shipping containers at the Hong Kong Container Terminal, situated in the Kwai Chung-Tsing Yi basin, on 17 May 2019. Photo: Roy Issa alt=Trucks between stacks of shipping containers at the Hong Kong Container Terminal, situated in the Kwai Chung-Tsing Yi basin, on 17 May 2019. Photo: Roy Issa
Li's father Li Ka-shing retired at the age of 90 in 2018, handing the keys of his business conglomerate to Victor, who had the benefit of years of tutelage at the company's highest ranks. Younger brother Li Tzar-kai, 53, is chairman of the telecommunications company PCCW and the insurer FWD.
Among the range of businesses at CK Hutchison, telecommunication has held up well and withstood the overall slump in consumption, Li said, as millions of people all over the world had been homebound since the outbreak was first reported in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan.
(L-R) Tycoon Li Ka-shing with his son Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, Chairman of CK Asset Holdings Ltd, at the companies annual dinner, Wan Chai on 10 January 2020. Photo: Dickson Lee alt=(L-R) Tycoon Li Ka-shing with his son Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, Chairman of CK Asset Holdings Ltd, at the companies annual dinner, Wan Chai on 10 January 2020. Photo: Dickson Lee
Sales of its A/S Watson chain, which operates chemists and health care stores in 25 markets, have risen in Europe, defying the slowdown in the world's retail and entertainment industries, including restaurants, retail stores and cinemas.
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"No matter what happens, local governments have indicated that their drug stores and pharmacies will always stay open, not like restaurants," said Li, seated in a conference room, donning a surgical mask and with hand sanitiser next to him during the online conference.
Hong Kong's economy has landed in its first recession in a decade, weighed down by a combination of the year-long US-China trade war, and a consumption slump brought by many months of anti-government protests, and now, the coronavirus outbreak.
A Watson's store in Tsim Sha Tsui on 17 October 2014. Photo SCMP alt=A Watson's store in Tsim Sha Tsui on 17 October 2014. Photo SCMP
Tourists, especially the deep-pocketed mainland Chinese visitors, have stayed away, while businesses have refrained from investing " all of which are trickling into reduced consumption, empty offices and shops that impact the CK group's earnings with business spanning container ports, retail, telecommunications, power plants and property.
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The city's output is projected to shrink 7.5 per cent in the second quarter, putting it on track for a 4.8 per cent decline this year, according to Standard Chartered Global Research.
The economic impact of the viral pandemic, caught by 192 people and killing four in Hong Kong, has not been fully reflected, Li said. Yet, the company is confident of prospects at its CK Assets unit.
"Hong Kong people still need homes, and as long as we can sell our homes, [CK Asset's launch of property projects] will not be delayed."
CK Asset's Seaside Sonata apartment complex on sale on October 17, 2019. Photo:Handout alt=CK Asset's Seaside Sonata apartment complex on sale on October 17, 2019. Photo:Handout
To underscore his confidence, the CK companies are maintaining their dividend payouts. CK Hutchison declared a final payout of HK$2.3 per share, bringing its full-year dividend on par with 2018. At CK Asset, a final dividend will bring the full year's payout to HK$2.1, 10 per cent more than a year earlier.
The two companies' shares fell before earnings were announced on Thursday amid a global slump in stock markets, including a 2.6 per cent drop in Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng Index. CK Hutchison, which gets substantial chunk of its earnings from Europe, tumbled 8.7 per cent before earnings as the pound sterling plunged to a 35-year low. CK Assets dropped 7.4 per cent in Hong Kong before financial results were announced.
Economists are cutting their 2020 growth forecast for the world economy to between 1 per cent and 2 per cent, attributing the downturn to the Covid-19 outbreak, which is shutting down key economies in Europe and the US.
"While I hope it does not get too bad, we are prepared for the worst and we are financially adequate and are looking for new opportunities," said Li, ending his presentation with a wish for everybody to "stay healthy."
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