Jardine Matheson's new generation make their name with China car dealership investment

Jardine Matheson has made a big bet on a mainland car dealer, with its heirs to the throne setting their sights on China's consumer sector

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 4:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 12:40pm

British hong Jardines has zoomed back into the spotlight after a HK$5.6 billion bet on a mainland car dealer last week.

Jardines, or Jardine Matheson, the biggest landlord in Central and one of the biggest employers in Hong Kong, wants to flex its muscle in China "organically" and "through partnerships", said its spokesman Neil McNamara.

The conglomerate, which has a vast business portfolio ranging from real estate, restaurants and car dealership to insurance, luxury hotels and IT services primarily in the Asia-Pacific region, has set its sights on the mainland's robust consumer sector.

Last week, it made its first big investment in a listed mainland company by buying shares and convertible bonds in rival Zhongsheng Group, which will eventually enable it to take up to a 20 per cent stake in the company. Jardines, which has already had a dealership network of about 29 outlets across the mainland, will have the network expanded via Zhongsheng's 163 dealerships across 15 provinces trading mostly Toyota and Mercedes-Benz.

The investment comes at a time when the mainland's car market is facing headwinds following the government's attempts to limit car sales in a bid to ease traffic snarls and reduce pollution.

"It is a business empire no different from Cheung Kong, Henderson Land, Wheelock and New World Development in the sense that they are controlled by families with deep roots in Hong Kong," said corporate governance advocate David Webb.

The Jardines empire dates back to the 1830s, when it was founded by the Jardine family in Canton - now Guangzhou - trading opium, tea and cotton. Successive generations of the family, which traces its roots to Scotland, have since been closely associated with the business.

A slice of life in Central offers an example of Jardines' ubiquity in Hong Kong's daily life. Whether it's a breakfast at Maxim's, shopping at Landmark, working in office towers like Prince's Building, high-tea at Mandarin Oriental, popping into a 7-Eleven to pick up a magazine or a Mannings pharmacy for a lipstick, shopping for grocery at a Wellcome outlet or ordering takeaway from a PizzaHut restaurant - one is inevitably dealing with Jardines, controlling as it does all these companies.

Having 360,000 people on their payroll across the region, Jardine Matheson and Jardine Strategic, like many of the prominent family-run firms in town, are now going through the process of passing the torch to the next generation - the fifth generation, in case of the Keswicks.

Ben Keswick, 42, was named managing director in 2012 while his cousin, Adam Keswick, 41, was named his deputy.

Ben, who is the son of famous 1980s taipan Simon Keswick, succeeded Anthony Nightingale, who retired. Adam Keswick is the son of Chippendale 'Chips' Keswick.

"The managing director job can be seen as Ben Keswick's 40th birthday present," Webb said. "He has 20 years to prove himself, assuming he plays the leadership role until the retirement age."

The Post's repeated requests to interview the young taipans were declined.

Jardines receded to the background in Hong Kong in the 1980s when it moved its stock listing from here to London and Singapore in a surprise move that caused a stir and strained relations between the British and Chinese governments in the midst of their very difficult negotiations over Hong Kong's future.

The business house's management operation for its myriad units, however, still remains in Hong Kong. In the past couple of years, there have been sporadic market rumours of Jardines contemplating moving its listing back to Hong Kong for its proximity to the all-important mainland market.

Eric Wong, head of property consultant Bricks & Mortar Management, said he does not think such a return is possible because of the group's unique interlocking shareholding structure.

"If Jardines chooses to be listed in Hong Kong again, they have to restructure their shareholding structure. That would risk its main units losing control in each other , which I don't think is something the Keswick family would want to see."

The share structures of Jardine Matheson and Jardine Strategic have long been a subject of debate in corporate governance.

Jardine Matheson owns 83 per cent of Jardine Strategic, which in turn owns 55 per cent of Jardine Matheson.

The two Jardine companies have the same directors, with no independent non-executive director on either board. The unique shareholding pattern is said to be designed to fend off corporate raiders.

Jardines recently got a breather as the British stocks regulator chose to put off the planned changes in listing rules, originally scheduled from the middle of this year, concerning minimum levels of board independence and free float percentages.

An earlier version of this article stated that the Jardines empire was founded by the Keswick family in Canton. It was in fact founded by the Jardine family in Canton. We apologise for the error.