A Hong Kong-based billionaire who is one of the world’s richest men is the new owner of the region’s main water company, Northumbrian Water. But who exactly is Li Ka-shing? Stuart Arnold reports

HE’S a high school drop-out who was brought up in extreme poverty and is said to have a “no-frills” lifestyle.

Li Ka-shing – who is known as “Superman” because of his supreme business prowess – also just happens to be the 11th richest person in the world with an estimated wealth of $26bn, or £16bn.

As chairman of Cheung Kong Holdings Limited and Hutchinson Whampoa Limited, the 83- year-old controls a global empire which spans banking, construction, property, plastics, mobile phones, satellite television, retail outlets, hotels, airports, utilities, steel production, ports and shipping.

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Forbes Rich List 2011

1. Carlos Slim Helu (Mexico) £45.5bn ($74bn)
2. Bill Gates (US) £34.5bn ($56bn)
3. Warren Buffett (US) £30.8bn ($50bn)
4. Bernard Arnault (France) £25.2bn ($41bn)
5. Larry Ellison (US) £24.3bn ($39.5bn)
6. Lakshmi Mittal (India) £19.1bn ($31.1bn)
7. Amancio Ortega (Spain) £19.0bn ($31bn)
8. Eike Batista (Brazil) £18.5bn ($30bn)
9 Mukesh Ambani (India) £16.6bn ($27bn)
10 Christy Walton (US) £16.3bn ($26.5bn)
11 Li Ka-shing (Hong Kong) £16.0bn ($26bn)
12 Karl Albrecht (Germany) £15.7bn ($25.5bn)

Through the two companies, he is the world’s largest operator of container terminals and the world’s largest health and beauty retailer – high street store Superdrug being just one familiar name to UK shoppers.

Now Northumbrian Water can be added to his international portfolio after Ka-shing’s spin-off, Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings, completed a £2.4bn takeover of the company.

Aside from business, he set up the Li Ka Shing Foundation in 1980 and has donated more than $1.4bn, or £860m, to charity and other philanthrophic causes.

According to the foundation’s official website: “Trials, hardship and a sense of loneliness accompanied him on his journey from a small coastal village to the flourishing enterprise he oversees today.”

Ka-shing was born on July 29, 1928, in the city of Chaozhou, in eastern Guangdong, China. His father, Li Yunjing, was a primary school principal.

When Japanese troops invaded the city in 1939, Ka-shing – then 12 – had to quit his studies and fled with his family to Hong Kong, which also fell under Japanese occupation in the early Forties.

Shortly afterwards, his father died from tuberculosis.

In interviews, he says his father’s death when he was young spurred him on to become what he is today.

He says: “I realised I must work doubly hard to have a future and rather than just learning I grabbed knowledge and took jobs no matter how lowly they were.

“When times are tough you need to ask yourself if you’re up to it. During tough times I’ve always thought I’m up to it.”

He was forced to take a full-time job in a company making watch straps to support his mother and younger siblings, who had returned to Chaozhou. Later, he took a job at a plastics factory, but continued to study, buying used textbooks to read.

He says: “When work colleagues went to play, I went to study, striving for improvement every day.”

Eventually he was promoted to manager and general manager and then in 1950, aged 22, started his own plastics business, moving into the large-scale manufacture of plastic flowers, which sold in huge numbers around the world.

His company, Cheung Kong Industries, then began buying up property and this side of the business grew steadily throughout the Sixties.

The re-named Cheung Kong Holdings Limited was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1972.

Ka-shing’s fortunes really took off when Cheung Kong acquired a controlling stake in Hutchison Whampoa Limited (HWL) seven years later. It grew to become one of the world’s top 500 companies. One of the firm’s best known deals came in 1999 when it sold its controlling interest in Orange – the mobile phone business with its own links to the North-East – to German firm Mannesmann, netting a £9.2bn profit in the process.

HWL is the first international provider of 3G video mobile services and regarded as an early adopter of the most advanced mobile phone technology, serving 40 million customers around the world.

As if to demonstrate the diverse nature of its business the company also owns the UK’s busiest port, Felixstowe.

Meanwhile, Ka-shing’s charity foundation continues to be his greatest legacy. In 2006, he described it as his “third son” and pledged to donate one third of his assets to support philanthropic projects.

The foundation’s past donations include $100m to provide free operations for more than a million cataract sufferers in China.

Its Cheung Kong New Milestone programme has offered artificial limbs for 170,000 amputees.

Other achievements include the establishment of hospitals and universities across Ka-shing’s home country.

Proving its popularity, last year a campaign by the foundation to get people living in Hong Kong to come up with projects to receive grants to benefit their communities saw more than one million online votes cast.

ASIDE from business and charity, Kashing’s other great passion appears to be golf. As part of his daily routine, he gets up at the same time every morning – 5.59am. He then heads for the golf course – sometimes on his own – for up to an hour-and-a-half to play a sport he likens to the business world.

He says: “It takes a cool head to do business, as does playing golf. Even if you’ve teed off badly, as long as you keep your composure and stick to your plan, you may not lose the hole.”

In Hong Kong, where Ka-shing lives and plays his golf, his businesses continue to dominate residents’ everyday lives. He controls the territory’s main supermarket and pharmacy chains, as well as electricity and telecommunication providers. And about one in seven homes in the country are built by him.

And he has no lack of fans, both in Hong Kong and abroad.

A post on one of the many internet websites to include interviews with Ka-shing states: “He is the greatest living businessman.

“He is a true self-made man. Tough environments produce great heroes.”

Another says: “In Hong Kong you buy credits for cell phones from him, food from him, apartments from him, you even buy condoms from his shops.”

Water from taps in the North-East of England will soon be included in that list.