HONG KONG — The multibillion-dollar sell-off saga of telco/media giant PCCW that entertained Hong Kong’s financial and media circles in summer has turned into a family brawl worthy of “Dallas.”
With Hong Kong standing in for Texas and technology, media and telcos replacing oil, battle lines have been drawn between Richard Li Tzar-kai, the 38-year-old billionaire prexy of PCCW, and his father Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest businessman.
Li Sr., whose interests span telcos, ports and power generation, got rich by quietly cooperating with the communist officials in mainland China.
Spoiled plutocrat brat or misunderstood genius?
Richard Li has long tried to fight his way out of his father’s shadow.
In June Li Jr. announced plans to sell PCCW’s media operations to Australia’s Macquarie Bank in a deal worth $4.7 billion. He received a counter offer from Texas Pacific Group and analysts reckoned the price could go as high as $7 billion.
Li argued that, because he wasn’t selling the core telco, he was not breaking any of the regulations on nationality of strategic businesses that he and PCCW had signed up for.
That was nixed by China Unicom, mainland China’s No. 2 fixed-line operator, which bought a 20% stake in PCCW a year earlier.
Still heading for the door, Li devised a plan to sell his shares to Francis Leung Pak-to, a banker who previously headed Citigroup in Hong Kong and had sound relations with China.
Unfortunately Leung did not have the coin to buy the stake. He was lent the money by — wait for it — Richard Li. That raised eyebrows.
But with the value of PCCW shares dropping below the price Leung had committed to buy, the Hong Kong finance industry was not willing to come to his rescue.
That opened the door to Li Ka-shing and a tie-up with Spain’s Telefonica.
But this irked Junior, who, in a reported outburst, said it was all getting too political and he wished he had never sought such a circuitous exit route.
Nevertheless, all would have gone according to plan were it not for the fact that Richard Li holds his PCCW stake via Singapore-listed Pacific Century Regional Developments, in which he owns a 70%-plus share.
But as he would have benefited directly from the proceedings, Li was disqualified from voting by the Singapore Stock Exchange — which left the PCRD minority shareholders holding PCCW’s fate.
And they clearly agreed with Richard Li’s assessment that the sale was too political. Even though, in the final days before the Nov. 30 vote, Li claimed he hadn’t dissed his dad, the damage was done.
The long-suffering minority shareholders nixed the $2 billion sale, leaving Richard Li as head of the conglom.
The jury is still out on whether Junior has the makings of a media maven. He made a handsome profit selling Star TV to Rupert Murdoch, then lost tens of billions of dollars buying PCCW at exactly the wrong time.
But he earned back credibility by turning the enterprise around and growing NOW Broadband TV into an IPTV role model.
Proof of just how difficult he is to read came only days after the defeat.
Instead of finding a new way to dump his PCCW shares, he waded into the stock market and bought a bunch more.
Already the conglom’s largest shareholder, he now appears to be assembling a stake large enough to vote down any more interference from the mainland.
Then again he could just be taking advantage of the share price slump that followed the proxy defeat.
But, in another plot twist, Richard Li seems determined to not only resist China’s influence in his business affairs, but also oppose them at the ballot box.
In last week’s electoral primary, a limited vote among business, academic and social welfare groups to pick representatives to an 800-member committee that selects the territory’s chief executive, he emerged on the side of Hong Kong’s anti-China Democratic Party.
Li denied that he was trying to antagonize Beijing’s politicos.
He told journalists he wants to see Hong Kong move toward democracy, but also described himself as a “profound patriot.”
Rather than get party political, Li Sr. licks his wounds in silence.
When his bid to buy long-distance phone group Global Crossing was quashed in a display of economic nationalism — from Washington this time — he said little. But then he has so many more ventures to pursue.
Richard Li on the other hand seems in a hurry to prove something — to Dad and, maybe, to the scions of the Murdoch and Packer clans — but he may have slipped up again.
Having bought financial journal Hong Kong Economic Times in summer and finding himself still a TV boss, Li now stands accused of breaching the Hong Kong’s regulations on cross-media ownership.