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High returns don’t run in the family for Asia’s business empires

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-06-2017 Shelly Banjo

Hong Kong:Three of Asia’s wealthiest tycoons are stepping down from the empires they built, and investors shouldn’t assume their scions will carry the torch as effectively.

Gaming magnate Stanley Ho retired as chairman of Shun Tak Holdings Ltd. on Monday, ending a lifelong mission to build what was once Asia’s largest casino operator. Billionaire Shin Kyuk-ho stepped down from Lotte Group, the chewing gum maker he transformed into one of South Korea’s top conglomerates. And Li Ka-shing stirred the region after the Wall Street Journal said Hong Kong’s richest man would retire as chairman of flagship CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd by next year.

Children of all three founders are set to take over the family businesses.

The story of Asia’s ascent can’t be told without tycoons like Li, Ho and Shin, who built skyscrapers, ports and manufacturing hubs, often from scratch. First-mover advantage and strong political connections helped them consolidate power and build wealth in tandem with the region’s rising economic fortunes. Many investors, including institutions, have been loyal to these companies out of patriotism or sentimentality.

Yet, there’s little evidence the second generation can keep their parents’ businesses flourishing.

One study of more than 200 family-owned businesses in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan found that, on average, a shareholder who invested $100 in a Chinese firm five years before the founder’s departure would be left with an average $44 at the succession, according to Joseph Fan, co-director of the Institute of Economics and Finance at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Following the succession, that lost value is rarely recovered.

Perhaps the biggest factor in value erosion can’t be analyzed from balance sheets.

Intangible assets, such as political connections and tightly intertwined networks, can disappear among a progeny that’s typically Western-educated and less used to traditional ways. And the challenge of defending dominance in an increasingly competitive global environment is very different from building something out of nothing.

Take Stanley Ho, who formed his Macau-based gambling empire with the help of a four-decade government monopoly in 1962. The island was closed to foreign gaming companies until 2002. His successor, daughter Pansy Ho, won’t enjoy the same monopolistic perks.

As markets in Hong Kong and China matured, Li Ka-shing, too, shifted much of his business elsewhere. His American-educated son and successor, Victor Li, is more adept at striking deals and managing assets in developed markets, where his Stanford University degree can serve him better.

In a study of 70 M&A transactions led by the younger Li between 2003 and 2013, another study by Fan found that shares in Li Ka-shing’s flagship businesses rose 1% to 3% following deals announced by Victor in developed markets like the UK or Canada. By contrast, they fell by 1% to 2% following deals in emerging markets including China and India.

Finally, the asset-heavy businesses like shipping and telecom that shaped the fortunes of the old guard are falling out of favour with investors drawn to the so-called new economy: technology, biotech and renewable energy. And entrepreneurial flair isn’t hereditary. Bloomberg Gadfly

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