PROFILE

Hong Kong entrepreneur Lui Che-woo rises from a tough beginning to run property, hotel and gambling businesses

Lui Che-woo had to struggle in his youth; he now runs property and hotel businesses and most recently a gambling franchise in Macau

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 12:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 12:52pm

"Being rich doesn't necessarily make you happy!" This frank statement coming from the mouth of tycoon Lui Che-woo, one of Asia's richest men who experienced hardships in his early days, carries as much weight as the business empire he forged with his own hands many decades ago.

So for the property and casino tycoon who recently created a buzz in the philanthropic world with his Lui Che Woo Prize, nothing is more important than having a peaceful and loving mind and knowing how to appreciate the good in the world.

At the age of 86, the chairman of K. Wah Group and Galaxy Entertainment has already penned his thoughts in his will to ensure his children continue his philanthropic vision through his various foundations.

"My children are all filial. I have already laid down my plans in my will and there's nowhere they can escape," he told the Post at his North Point headquarters.

The philanthropist - who had an estimated net worth of US$8.9 billion in August - declined to be compared with Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, amid mainland media suggestions that he could replace Li as the city's "spiritual leader" because of his strong adherence to traditional Chinese values.

"I have my own [philanthropic] vision while other people have their own way of thinking. I only care about how we can enforce our objectives and spread goodwill," he said.

Indeed Lui, who is well-known for his keen eye for business opportunities, especially his decision to enter the gambling business in Macau at the age of 73, has shown a strong determination to create his own wealth and help others through his money.

Born in 1929 in Jiangmen , Guangdong province, he moved to Hong Kong with his family at the age of four to escape the turmoil and poverty on the mainland.

However, he was deprived of formal education as a result of the Japanese occupation and became the breadwinner of his family in 1942 at the age of 13. Lui was the eldest of six children and the only son in the family. He helped to support his five younger sisters.

This was when he started getting into business. He became a food manufacturer and distributor in Yau Ma Tei under Japanese occupation. He landed his first real job after the war as a stock keeper in a car parts trading company run by his uncle.

Because of the hardships he suffered during the war, he realised the importance of education as well as helping the needy - foreshadowing future donations, especially large ones to educational causes on the mainland, in Hong Kong and overseas.

Realising life was fickle thanks to his wartime experiences, Lui decided to launch his own car parts business after working for his uncle for six years.

In the early 1950s, he learned from his friends that the US army was auctioning military equipment left behind in Okinawa, Japan after the Korean war, including jeeps, GMC trucks and rock-breaking machinery. Sensing the opportunities, he went to Okinawa to check out the goods.

At the time, Hong Kong was subject to an embargo, and it took quite a lot of lobbying to convince the US army to sell him such heavy-duty equipment.

Finally, he sent a full shipment of heavy machinery back to Hong Kong and sold it to the city's contractors, making what he called his "first pot of gold".

Riding on this success, he founded his first company - K. Wah Group - in 1955 and started quarrying the mountains for construction material, becoming a major supplier of quarry products and concrete in the city.

By turning stones into gold, Lui earned his reputation as the "King of the Quarry". At about this time, he got married; the couple have five children - three boys and two girls.

In the 1960s, he ventured into the city's real estate business but it was only in the 1990s that he became active in the local and mainland property markets, later expanding to Southeast Asia and the United States.

The tycoon once remarked that he had missed many opportunities of making big money because he did not know how to "speculate".

That changed in 2000 and 2001 when his group bought four sites, some with other firms, for a total of HK$1.8 billion when the property market had not yet recovered from the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Lui's foresight helped generate profits from the sites he bought at the bottom of the market, and turned K. Wah International, the property arm of K. Wah Group, into a major developer.

Back in the early 1970s, Lui grasped another opportunity on the back of the city's soaring economic growth as he decided to diversify into the hotel industry in Hong Kong and the US.

He surprised his friends and business partners when he acquired a harbour-view site in Tsim Sha Tsui East to build the city's first international star-rated hotel on a newly reclaimed site which had few visitors. It was considered a risky venture.

The tycoon, however, was confident that demand for world-class hotels would soar as old-fashioned inns and guesthouses would soon become out-of-date. He has since expanded his hotel business - partnered with international hotel brands - to the US. The group now owns a total of 28 hotels around the world.

However, there was one last surprise. In 2002, Lui stunned the business world by setting up Galaxy Entertainment. He took advantage of Beijing's policy of opening up the gambling market in Macau and was awarded one of the six prized gaming concessions.

Now Galaxy is one of the three big operators in Macau after its US$2 billion casino and resort complex opened on the Cotai Strip in 2011.

Lui set out his succession plans three years ago. His eldest son, Francis Lui Yiu-tung, vice-chairman of Galaxy, is in charge of the group's Macau business, while his younger son, Alexander Lui Yiu-wah, executive director of K. Wah International, is responsible for the developer's business in Hong Kong.

But the tycoon insisted he was not ready to retire. "Retirement plan? Absolutely not! How am I supposed to spend my time if I retire? Watching the sunrise and sunset every day? No thanks. I always combine work with leisure," he said.


Profile for Lui Che-woo

Posts: Chairman of K. Wah Group and Galaxy Entertainment Group

Age: 86 (born August 9, 1929)

Marital status: Married with five children - two girls and three boys

Honours

2012: Grand Bauhinia Medal awarded by Hong Kong government

2004: Honorary Doctor of Laws from Concordia University

2002: Doctor of Social Science, honoris causa, from Chinese University; Honorary University Fellowship from University of Hong Kong

2001: Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from University of Victoria, Canada

1995: Asteroid discovered by Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing named "Lui Che Woo Star"

1982: Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) given by Queen Elizabeth