EVEN in the days after the huge probe into his group was launched, Lee Ming Tee retains his reputation as one of the wittiest and most charming business executives in Hong Kong. In contrast with the terse style of many Chinese tycoons in Hong Kong, the Malaysian-born Mr Lee is famous for the wide smile and his extrovert nature. One former business colleague said the only similarity between Mr Lee and most Hong Kong executives was his fast-disappearing hairline. Born in Kuala Lumpur in 1939, he graduated from Sydney University with a degree in engineering. In an interview with Asian Finance in the mid-1980s, he said he spent a couple of years working for oil companies before striking it rich as chief executive of a Malaysian company, called LYL, turning rubber plantations into housing estates to satisfy the fast-expanding Malaysian middle class in the 1970s. Yet, in 1980, while on holiday skiing in Australia, he had a dramatic change of heart. ''I sold everything,'' he told reporters. Former business associates say that he put tens of millions of dollars into US treasury bonds and contemplated a life of ease, retiring at just 41. According to Mr Lee, he returned to business to help a friend, running an Australian parking station company called Enacon, fend off a hostile takeover. Mr Lee, by now married with children and an Australian passport-holder, wanted to have them educated in Australia and decided to plunge into the business scene there in Christmas 1983. In May 1984, he bought a stake in Sunshine Australia, a corporation which formed the centre of a growing empire fuelled by money tapped from stock markets - unlike those of Alan Bond and other entrepreneurs, who borrowed from banks - and led to his firstserious brushes with regulatory authorities. Mr Lee achieved wider fame when he took control of Wormald International in 1986. Friends, and there remain many, say that, by taking control of this famous and traditional Australian company, he stirred racial feelings among business rivals. Yet, his eye for a good deal proved sharper than that of many home-grown entrepreneurs. It was Mr Lee who spotted the potential of Hastings Deering Finance and Investment, the provider of credit to Asia's largest dealer in Caterpillar equipment. His empire spread to Hong Kong in 1986 with the establishment of what is now known as the Allied Group, with his Australian interests dwindling since then. Regulators had, in subsequent years, been critical of his dealings Down Under although high-profile investigations in 1986 and 1987 by Australia's National Companies and Securities Commission found no violations of the law. Mr Lee's style has won him many admirers in Hong Kong, particularly among small, fast-growing companies, whose chairmen wish to emulate his rapid rise. Yet regulators, he says, are out to get him. In an interview last year, Mr Lee noted that Robert Nottle, now chairman of Hong Kong's Securities and Futures, was previously employed by the Australian regulator, whose probes had found nothing in the 1980s. Mr Lee is married, although no one can remember the last time his wife appeared on the business cocktail circuit. A daughter has just started a career as a stockbroker in Hong Kong and a son is working for a merchant bank.