Noble house looks north

THE departure of taipan Simon Murray from Hutchison Whampoa and the rise of Canning Fok Kin-ning and Richard Li Tzar-kai could be a scenario from a James Clavell novel, with the ''noble house'' entering an era of localisation in terms of personnel and company strategy.

Hutchison International, the epitome of an old British hong, merged with Whampoa Dock and became Hutchison Whampoa in 1979, when it was taken over by Li Ka-shing, and the energetic Mr Murray was appointed its head.

Under his directorship, Hutchison Whampoa looked to expand to the West - buying Husky Oil in Canada in 1987 and taking a slice of the British telecommunications market.

However, Hutchison's diversification into the oil and gas business in Canada proved to be a costly mistake as the company had to make $1.42 billion in debt provisions during 1992.

The move into the British telecommunications industry proved equally troublesome, with Hutchison forking out GBP500 million (about HK$5.8 billion) to build a network from which it has yet to receive a penny in profit.

Hutchison experienced its lowest point in the 1991-92 financial year, when the company recorded negative growth in earnings per share.

The $1.42 billion provision made by Hutchison against its $3.3 billion investment in Husky Oil disappointed the market and analysts still expect the Canadian operation to remain unprofitable until at least 1995.

In terms of capital expenditure, Hutchison's diversification into the British telecommunications market is of greater significance than its investment in Husky Oil. It is estimated that the network itself calls for a total spending of around $7 billion, with other operations requiring a further $1 billion to $2 billion.

LOSSES from the telecommunications operations in Britain increased significantly in 1991, and are expected to continue deteriorating over the next few years.

It is believed that the two unsuccessful deals played a major part in Mr Murray's resignation, since he initiated those projects.

However, Mr Murray has been reported as saying that the final judgement on those deals should be reserved because ''time will prove whether they are right or not''.

However, the long-running speculation about Mr Murray's future was finally settled with the formal announcement of his resignation and Mr Fok's appointment last week.

Mr Fok, in his early 40s, had moved up Cheung Kong's ranks before joining Hutchison as one of five executive directors under Mr Murray.

Mr Fok is the first ever Chinese taipan in the history of Hutchison and it appears that the company's westward expansion will come to an end for the time being.

Hutchison Whampoa is expected to look to China to develop infrastructure, property and the container terminal businesses.

Mr Fok, Mr Li's trusted aide-de-camp, has served him for many years and Mr Fok's familiarity with the China business is in line with the company's change in strategy.

In recent years, Hutchison has been actively investing in infrastructure projects in China.

The market estimation is that $5 billion will be invested into the mainland, most of which will be directed at container operations.

The company first moved into the China container business in September 1992, when it acquired a 50 per cent stake in Shanghai's container port from the Shanghai Port Authority for $1.4 billion.

The development of the Sanshan River terminal near Guangzhou, in which the company has a 50 per cent interest, is progressing satisfactorily.

Hutchison is also said to have sealed a deal for the controversial Yantian port project in Shenzhen.

The company's change in focus to Hong Kong and China was a logical strategy, an analyst from Baring Securities said.

The recent surge in Hutchison's share price from $23.40 to $24.10 reflects that the move is at least welcomed by the fund managers.

''The speculation on the selling of their UK telecommunications business has been partly discounted and the Hutchison share price will rise gradually in future,'' said Samuel Lau Kwok-leung, research manager of Seapower Securities.

On the whole, Hutchison's re-focusing towards China has been welcomed by investors.

However, fund managers are more cautious about the managerial ability of the company's second generation and particularly Hutchison's heir-apparent, Mr Li.

The second generation taipans of blue-chip companies have not been outstanding, except perhaps for the Kwok brothers of Sun Hung Kai Properties, according to a Baring Securities analyst.

However, he pointed out that a gradual transition to allow Mr Li to take charge of Hutchison was very obvious, as he had assumed the position of vice-chairman of the company.

Although Mr Li has taken the job of vice-chairman, Mr Fok has the task of running the show on a day-to-day basis, said an analyst with a British brokerage.

The recent sale of 63 per cent of STAR at US$525 million (about HK$4 billion) to News Corp has resulted in a huge profit for the company.

The deal has brought Mr Li deserved praise and certainly contributed to his becoming vice-chairman at Hutchison.

The rise of Mr Li is in marked contrast to the resignation of Mr Murray, who has served Hutchison for more than nine years.

In that time he has won and lost his fair share of battles. Now the former soldier with the French Foreign Legion is about to embark on his next adventure.

For the moment he will stay on at Hutchison as a non-executive director, but it is rumoured he may be going to Deutsche Bank in Singapore. Although, Mr Murray has declined to comment.