Nan Fung

Family fraying at the edges

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 10:49am


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Before the Chen family feud erupted onto the front pages of Hong Kong's newspapers two years ago, patriarch Chen Din-hwa and his kin were best known for being little known.

Chen, one of the Hong Kong's wealthiest men who died at the weekend aged 89, rarely gave interviews and was seldom seen in public despite his privately run property empire Nan Fung Group being one of the city's major players. In a typically low-key announcement, granddaughter Karen Cheung said Chen had passed away after a long illness.

With his demise, the Chen family is again in the media spotlight as the on-going legal dispute over the distribution of his assets and the fate of the development firm becomes more uncertain.

The ugly family fight surfaced in December 2010 when his wife, Yang Foo-oi, now 87, siding with elder daughter Angela, sued younger daughter Vivien, now the group's chairwoman and managing director, alleging she had been misled into transferring assets.

Chen was declared mentally incapacitated by a court in 2008 and Ma Mo-leung of Mazars CPA was appointed administrator of the billionaire's estate and affairs.

'Chen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1995 and his wife saw his mental health and memory rapidly decline. She feared his assets and empire would be taken by people other than family members,' said a source close to the family.

'Angela returned from the US in 2004 at the request of her mother, who hoped to protect the family's assets.'

After suing Vivien, Yang filed for divorce. It came through last year and Yang reportedly walked away with as much as HK$10 billion. Meanwhile, another court case has been going on in the United States since December 2009 when Rostack Investments, a company indirectly wholly owned by Chen, commenced action in a California court against Angela for repayment of a US$30 million promissory note made in 1995.

In turn, Angela claimed that Vivien had exerted improper influence and control over Chen and that Rostack was controlled and directed by Vivien. Angela claimed that the money was linked to a ranch given to her by her father and Vivien knew about the gift. .

Chen had sent Angela to the US to take care of family businesses many years previously.

She has two sons - Marcel and Damien from her first husband, Ricardo Sabella. Her second husband, Anthony Tang, lives in US.

'As Chen Din-hwa had no son, Marcel and Damien were given the Chen surname,' a source said.

But the outcome of the court battles is unlikely to reverse Vivien's position at the Nan Fung Group because she is well entrenched, according to people familiar to the situation.

She has three children from her first husband, Albert Cheung Chi-tong - Vincent, Karen and Vanessa. Vincent and Karen are now working in Nan Fung. Vivien's boyfriend, Frank Seto Kai-shui, is a director of the group.

By all accounts Vivien has plenty of business acumen and is quick in making decisions.

'She is a fair person and she is willing to pay commission if you clinch the deal,' said a property agent who has served Nan Fung.

But whether Vivien's dynasty can successfully carry on the Chen legacy remains to be seen, and she certainly has big shoes to fill.

Born in Ningbo in 1923, Chen left school at the age of 12 to serve as an apprentice to a silk merchant. By his early 20s, he was entrusted with the management of several companies by his employer.

In 1949, Chen left Shanghai for Hong Kong, where he hoped to establish his own business. By 1954 he had set up Nan Fung Textiles and revolutionised the industry with innovations such as the open-end spindle, earning the sobriquet 'King of Cotton Yarn'.

With the boom in Hong Kong's property market, Nan Fung entered the industry in 1960s. It purchased land in Quarry Bay from the British firm John Swire and Sons and marked its first major property development, Nan Fung Sun Chuen. The firm later developed into a major developer in Hong Kong.

Chen is ranked 464th on Forbes list of the world's billionaires, and 15th among the 39 billionaires from Hong Kong with a net worth of US$2.6 billion.

Chen was an extraordinarily low-profile billionaire. But his low profile did not detract from his business skills with everything from nitty gritty details to grand plans.

He was hard working and stayed in the office very late. Before he left, he would make sure his staff turned off the lights before leaving, another former staff member recalled.

Chen was also described as a brilliant man. 'He was very persistent. He was not afraid of any difficulties that confronted him,' a family connection said.

One of the smartest decisions Chen ever made was the delisting of Nan Fung.

Taking into account the market crash, Chen privatised Nan Fung for just HK$1 billion in July 1989.

In anticipation of a strong luxury property market, Nan Fung acquired a number of valuable properties on The Peak for long-term investment. They included 5 Mount Austin Road, Mount Austin Estate at 8 Mount Austin Road, No 4 Peak Road and No 26 Peak Road.

'He always told us properties on The Peak should not be sold,' said a former staff member.

His vision was proven correct in the mid 1990s when despite many property developers paying record high prices to snap up sites, Chen stopped buying. He shifted his money into banking stocks in the US, where it was rumoured that at one time he owned as much as 1 per cent of Citigroup. In late 1990s he started offering real estate-backed lending, offering mortgage loans and mezzanine financing.

In March 1998, Nan Fung stunned the market by announcing it had accumulated more than 10 per cent of Sino Land, boosting its stake to 13.66 per cent.

Nan Fung also picked up shares in debt-ridden Lai Sun Development and financially troubled Century City International.

Chen was a devout Buddhist.

Inspired by Buddhist teachings, he established the DH Chen Foundation in 1970, through which significant donations have been made to support worthy causes in medicine, education, welfare and the teaching of Buddhism.

Attracted by the fresh air and water, Chen frequently visited Yakushima, a small island in Japan, and Alishan in Taiwan.

Today, the group has a staff of about 3,000 and businesses in Hong Kong, the mainland and other countries including the United States.