Billionaire Rita Tong Liu’s incredible story of breaking barriers to become Hong Kong’s fourth richest woman
Real estate tycoon Rita Tong Liu, the fourth-richest woman in Hong Kong, has quite the story – she turned a family gift of HK$1 million into a business worth US$3.4 billion.
In the early 1970s she received the money from her husband’s family to begin investing. That, along with land in Macau that was passed on by her mother, helped lay the foundation for a success story, elevating Liu, chairman of property firm Gale Well Group, into the No 25 spot on Forbes Asia’s list of Hong Kong’s 50 wealthiest this year.
“There is no such thing as always winning, I just gained more than I lost when I failed,” Liu said.
Liu, 70, is estimated to have built up a fortune worth US$3.4 billion and said careful calculation and risk assessment were crucial to her success.
“We are not buying much recently as we see that interest rates are going to rise and borrowing money will be expensive,” Liu said.
Being cautious seems a bit of a mismatch for Liu, a devout Catholic who radiates matronly warmth and yet is renowned for bold property acquisitions. A high-profile example was the purchase of more than 3,000 car parks in the early 2000s, which earned her the title ‘queen of car-parks’.
The story of how Liu’s attention became focused on parking in Hong Kong speaks to her ability to turn an unfortunate situation into an opportunity.
In the 1990s her family’s company Gale Well Group was caught flat-footed when Beijing unexpectedly began to tighten credit, putting her investments in the mainland under financial strain.
With dwindling cash flow, Liu decided investing in car parks was more prudent, given that such assets were cheaper, offering better value for money than residential or commercial buildings.
The decision helped the company to get through the property downturn in 2003, when the Sars epidemic shattered investors’ confidence, sending property values plummeting.
“It was actually a safe choice. It may not fetch a high return yield in the short term, but it will also not depreciate much,” said Liu, referring to the investments in parking.
However, being cautious at the right time does not mean staying defensive. Liu’s property portfolio has shifted focus to office space, where she foresees a continuing rise in demand, driven by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“There will never be a lack of corporate tenants in the city. Companies overseas or from the mainland will come to get a spot as Hong Kong will remain a financing hub in the region,” said Liu.
The veteran property investor believes low vacancy rates will push up rents in Grade A buildings as well as smaller, older buildings outside the core business district.
“With a price of HK$20,000 per square foot, there is still a wide range of office space in good locations to buy. What kind of flat can you get with that?” she said.
Her current portfolio of commercial property, according to Forbes, includes the China Insurance Group Building, Austin Plaza, 23 Queen’s Road East and three other office towers. She also holds entire floors in the Grand Millennium Plaza, Shun Tak Centre, Far East Financial Centre and the Lippo Centre.
“We also wanted to buy The Center,” Liu said, referring to unsuccessful attempts to buy stakes in the fifth tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong.
Liu said the assets worth HK$1 million (US$127,473 at today’s exchange rate) she received from the family of her late husband Liu Lit-ching proved to be gold in helping her gain a head start.
Her husband was the eighth of nine sons of Liu Po-shan, founder of Chong Hing Bank.
“It was big bucks back then,” Liu said.
In the 1970s, HK$1 million could buy four 600-square foot flats in Taikoo Shing, a mass residential estate in the city. Now, one similar-sized flat in Taikoo Shing would fetch HK$12 million.
Liu initially used the money to buy land and property in Macau in the early 1970s, taking inspiration from her grandparents and parents who were experienced landholders with a focus in warehousing.
Liu, described as a tomboy by her younger brothers, does not believe in the old Chinese saying, “least said, soonest mended”.
“If you do not say, how could others know?” she said, recalling that no one dared to hire her when she returned from overseas studies in the US. “If I did not ask my brother-in-law to offer me a job in Chong Hing Bank, I may have never started working.”
Liu and her two younger brothers recently donated HK$80 million to the Caritas Institute of Higher Education to help the school upgrade its accreditation as Saint Francis University, becoming the first Catholic university in the city.
“The competition in Hong Kong has been getting more and more fierce, and it is important to offer better education and career training to the young generation,” said Liu.