China Consumer, Who’s Hu

Lee Man-tat

From oyster sauce to healthcare empire


There is an old Chinese saying that “wealth does not last beyond three generations”. But the adage clearly does not apply to the Lee family behind the century-old LKK Group, which controls sauce brand Lee Kum Kee and health supplement giant Infinitus. According to Forbes, 89 year-old Lee Man-tat, a third generation member and patriarch of the Hong Kong-based family, doubled the family’s wealth last year and became the city’s third richest man with a net worth of $17.1 billion.

Getting started

LKK Group began with Lee Kum Kee, founded in 1888 in Zhuhai in Guangdong province. Lee Man-tat’s grandfather, Lee Kum-sheung, ran a small eatery selling cooked oysters. One day when Lee was making his signature dish he accidentally left the oysters simmering in a pot for longer than usual. The result was a thick, brownish mixture that was delicious and aromatic. Used for seasoning, the oyster sauce soon became a big hit in Lee’s neighbourhood and nearby Macau. In 1902 a fire saw Lee move his workshop and family to the then Portuguese colony. The following two decades saw the company make inroads abroad and shift its headquarter to Hong Kong in 1932.

Big break

Lee Man-tat was born in 1929, to the third son of Lee Kum-sheung. The outbreak of the Second World War ended his education prematurely, yet it also spurred him to become a resourceful entrepreneur running six factories outside the family business, producing rubber shoes, cosmetics, umbrellas and handbags. In 1954 he became more involved in Lee Kum Kee after his uncle’s death. He took the helm of the sauce firm in 1972 when several family members decided to emigrate amid an uncertain political backdrop.

Apart from adopting Japanese technology to modernise Lee Kum Kee’s production, another of the bold moves Lee made was introducing the affordable Panda line targeting the mass market. Since then Lee Kum Kee has become a household name with a portfolio of successful products. Over 100 million bottles of its Seasoned Soy Sauce for Seafood are sold every year, topping its flagship Oyster Sauce, according to Apple Daily.

But it was the company’s healthcare arm – run by Lee Man-tat’s youngest son Sammy – that brought greater wealth to the family in recent years. Established in 1992, LKK Health Products Group develops herbal and traditional Chinese medicine supplements under the brand Infinitus. Relying on the model of direct selling, its revenue reached $3.92 billion in 2017, displacing Amway as the largest company of its kind in China. The fortune allowed the group to spend over $30 billion buying properties around the world in the last six years, including London’s 20 Fenchurch Street, dubbed the Walkie-Talkie skyscraper. However, the People’s Daily has more recently been critical of Infinitus’ products amid a nationwide clampdown on direct-selling and pyramid schemes in the healthcare sector that began this year (see WiC436).

Beyond China…

American astronaut Scott Kelly reportedly served a dinner that incorporated Lee Kum Kee sauce aboard the International Space Station in 2015.

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