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Lee Man-tat, chairman of Lee Kum Kee, died on Monday. Photo: SCMP

Lee Man-tat, head of Lee Kum Kee sauce empire, dies at 91

  • Lee Man-tat was ranked third on the Forbes list of Hong Kong’s richest tycoons in 2019
  • Tycoon was honoured with DHL-SCMP Hong Kong Business Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018

Oyster sauce tycoon Lee Man-tat, chairman of Lee Kum Kee Group, has died. He was 91.

The company said in a statement that Lee died on Monday, surrounded by family members.

“Mr. Lee was an inspirational leader with a unique and forward-looking vision. He constantly brought new insight and momentum to the group and successfully transformed Lee Kum Kee into a world-renowned sauce and condiment brand,” the statement added.

Lee, whose wealth propelled him to as high as third on the Forbes list of Hong Kong’s richest tycoons in 2019, was born in Macau. However, his family hailed from Xinhui in Jiangmen, Guangdong province.
The tycoon was honoured with DHL-SCMP Hong Kong Business Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor expressed deep sorrow over the demise of Lee Man-tat and extended her condolences to his family. Lee was awarded the Silver Bauhinia Star by the Hong Kong government in 2018 for his charitable services and voluntary work.

“Mr Lee was a successful businessman and outstanding industrialist with distinguished achievements,” Lam said. “He developed the business inherited from his family into a Chinese sauce empire that has become a household name, with products being sold around the world.”

He joined Lee Kum Kee in 1954 to assist his father Lee Shiu-nan run the family business. The company was started by his grandfather Lee Kum-sheung in 1888, who developed his signature oyster sauce in Zhuhai.

The company has since become a specialist in cooking ingredients, with more than 200 types of sauces in its condiments portfolio, selling them in more than 100 countries.

Lee Kum Kee’s oyster sauce is the company’s best known product, which propelled the group’s growth and made it into one of Hong Kong’s best known brands. The company later diversified into health products, property investments, plantations and trading.

Lee Kum Kee’s premium oyster sauce in different packages. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Lee was the third generation of the family to run the business, and it is at this point that he should have lost everything, as according to the Chinese adage “wealth does not go beyond the third generation”.

Lee took over the business in the early 1970s, buying out his uncles with his father’s support, to take control of the business ahead of a planned expansion into the US market.

In the mid-1980s, Lee wanted to expand the company’s production base, but was opposed by his own brother. This time he bought out his brother’s share in the company to go ahead with the plan.

In 2002, Lee’s children presented their father with a plan to create a family council and a family constitution to govern the way the family ran the business and interacted.

Perhaps stung by the public family disputes of earlier years, Lee voluntarily agreed to the arrangement, which weakened his control over the family and the business. It was a rare move for a Hong Kong tycoon.

His children and now grandchildren have all joined the company, working in a more democratic style of corporate governance, which seems to have borne fruit.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: An inspirational business leader with a unique vision