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Hong Kong Rich Kid Turns Asia on Its Headset : Media: Richard Li declines family job to found satellite-TV venture. Next goal is pan-Asian 'information exchange.'

April 11, 1994|CHRISTINE COURTNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HONG KONG — In an office unusually Spartan for one of Hong Kong's business elite, Richard Li calls out to his secretary to bring him a pen.

"I'm in transition . . . moving from one office into another," explains Li, who last year turned down an offer from his father, billionaire Li Kashing, to be managing director of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., the flagship conglomerate of the family empire.

Instead, he accepted a lesser position in the family firm and set up his own company, Pacific Century Group. Li said his new venture will take particular interest in Asian infrastructure projects that use advanced technology.

Li, 27, is determined to assert himself as a major player on the Asian business scene, and he is succeeding in ways that exemplify the region's economic boom and the emergence of a new generation of Asian-Pacific business leaders.

"If I (headed) Hutchison, would I lose my independence? The answer is definitely yes," says Li, whose clipped, upper-class Hong Kong-British accent survived his 10 years in the United States and Canada. "My father is still very much hands on."

Heir to the Li dynasty fortune with his older brother, 29-year-old Victor, he was widely regarded as just another rich man's son when he returned home from attending school and working in North America.

He surprised many people when he launched Star TV, the first pan-Asian satellite television service, three years ago.

"On the onset, what we saw was a very young, somewhat inexperienced person in the corporate environment and in the broadcasting community," said Alex Zilo, a former Star TV executive.

"But Richard didn't really leave us much time for that impression to last, if you will, because he very quickly picked up the concept and ran with it."

The impatience of investors in Star TV's parent company, Hutchvision Ltd., drove Li to sell a majority stake in Star to media magnate Rupert Murdoch last July. The sale, for $525 million in cash and stock, was highly profitable for Hutchison and the Li family, who together invested about $110 million in Star TV.

Li used his family's share of the profits to set up Pacific Century.

"I feel quite comfortable to be on my own, taking what I'm earning, rather than being greedy and taking what I didn't make," Li said.

Although he doesn't believe in family succession in management, Li said, he was obliged to take up the deputy chairman's position at Hutchison.

He said: "20% of my time will be given to Hutchison, and 80% will be given to Pacific Century," he said.

Li left Hong Kong before his 14th birthday to attend a prep school in Menlo Park. He lived alone in an apartment without a chaperon or a maid. "I knew how to fry an egg and that was about it," he said. "TV dinners certainly helped out a lot."

To augment his allowance, Li did as many American high school students: He worked the night shift at a local McDonald's for a couple of months, and scooped ice cream at a Swenson's ice cream parlor.

He earned a degree in computer engineering from Stanford University in 1987, but then shifted to investment banking, landing a job in Toronto with Gordon Capital Corp., one of Canada's top investment banks. After four years in Canada, he returned to Hong Kong in 1990 at his father's behest.

Back at home, Li became smitten with satellite television, and Star TV was his first big test as skeptics among Asia's veteran business executives watched eagerly to see if the rich kid would fall flat on his face with his new toy.

Li quickly showed his detractors that Star TV, which he built from scratch, would be a winner.

"We probably had 100 years of experience in our respective businesses," Zilo said, "and here was this young kid. . . . What we saw was a resemblance of a very inexperienced, charismatic young man who fooled all of us to become very seasoned, very aggressive and very determined."

Today, Star TV beams five channels across Asia. As of November, Star TV reached 42 million homes, a fourfold increase from February, 1993.

Li's main goal is to examine new ways of using existing technology in Asia to bring basic services, such as telephones and a variety of television programming, to masses of consumers at affordable prices.

"We want to approach pan-Asian territory with a common medium or information exchange, like Star TV has done, to bring people together," Li said. "I believe that when people from different nations can communicate more and understand each other, at the end of the day they are more similar than they are different."

The Singapore Business Times reported in March that Li may invest in a new, $233-million satellite Malaysia is planning to launch from French Guiana.

But Li is barred for several years from providing satellite television services, according to the agreement he made with Murdoch when he sold Star TV.

Li would not comment about specific investment interests for "strategic reasons," but he said more about the company's direction may be announced as early as October.

For now, he is quietly fixing his attention on his new venture.

"My position at Hutchison is work," Li said, "but my role at Pacific Century is living."

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