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Hong Kong property tycoon Lee officially passes baton to sons

Successors to Henderson Land founder bullish on property market

HONG KONG -- Lee Shau-kee, Hong Kong's second-richest man, has officially brought the curtain down on a career that spanned over seven decades and created one Asia's largest property conglomerates.

Henderson Land Development, the crown jewel of Lee’s business empire, said in a stock exchange filing that the 91-year-old will step down from his position as chairman and managing director of the group, effective May 28, due to "advanced age." However, Lee will retain his role as executive director on Henderson's board.

On Tuesday morning, Lee, dressed in black suit and pink tie, walked slowly into the ballroom of The Mira Hong Kong, followed closely by his two sons, Peter Lee Ka-kit and Martin Lee Ka-shing, the successors to his $64 billion empire. A brief press conference followed.

Lee's retirement marks the end of an era, as he was the last of the city's four legendary property barons to relinquish control of his empire and pass the baton to the next generation.

Lee, who once ranked fourth on Forbes’ global rich list, was silent but smiling throughout the media session. Martin Lee explained that his father was a bit "uncomfortable" because of a throat ailment that had been bothering him since that morning. Lee’s two sons and Colin Lam Ko-yin, group executive director and vice chairman, answered most of the questions.

According to Martin, his father plans to spend more time on charity work and playing with his grandchildren. The 48-year-old heir also shared the lessons he learned from working with his father over the years.

"Father taught us that we should always leverage limited resources to achieve bigger returns," he said. Just like his father, the younger Lee, who is tasked with managing Henderson's Hong Kong businesses, is bullish on the future of the property market.

"There is still huge demand for Hong Kong [commercial] properties," he said, which he attributed to the influx of mainland and overseas companies. As for the residential market, Martin said he "did not see much room" for prices to fall.

Still, there are concerns over Lee’s succession plan. The patriarch has been the face of Henderson for so long, that little is known about how his sons will work together and lead.

Peter, eight years older than Martin, addressed these concerns at the press conference.

"We two brothers divided our responsibilities many years ago, and the company has become used to this framework and arrangement," he said. "There is no need to be worried." Peter looks after the family’s businesses in China.

Lee -- affectionately known as Uncle Four because he was the fourth child in his family -- founded Henderson Land in 1976 and racked up huge profits in the residential market and expanded into the commercial sector. Lee went on to develop iconic buildings like Hong Kong's International Finance Centre and the World Financial Centre in Beijing, and now controls six listed Hong Kong companies with operations spanning utilities, hotels and ferry services.

In a move echoing Lee's, Bank of East Asia CEO David Li, 80, is also stepping down and passing control to two sons. He announced last week that he will step down from his current role in July, but will remain as executive director, while his sons will take over as co-CEOs.

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