Book Review, Others

A life in full

Simon Murray’s page-turner book recounts his days with KS Li and Jardines


No one who has met Simon Murray will contest the view that he’s eminently memorable. The octogenarian businessman and adventurer is a raconteur with a knack for great storytelling. His first book – published in 1978 – was a bestseller that recounted his five years in the French Foreign Legion. Frederick Forsyth, no less, was a fan. Murray’s descriptions of military life are meticulous, although some of the passages that stick most in the mind are the almost Dickensian description of his fellow Legionnaires’ descent from extreme discipline into abject gluttony and violence during a boozed-up Christmas feast.

Many decades later and WiC had a sneak preview of volume two of his memoirs earlier this summer. This time the focus rests largely on his business career – principally the quarter of a century he spent first with Jardine Matheson and then with Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison Whampoa. Suffice to say, for anyone who has lived or worked in Hong Kong there is plenty of dinner party conversation to be had from Murray’s recollections in this new book – which is out this month.

For those who have met Murray, at times it feels less like reading a book than having lunch with him. The Englishman’s voice – with its distinctive cadences – jumps from the page in every paragraph. Longtime readers will recall that Murray spoke to WiC in an exclusive Q&A back in 2009 (see WiC34). At times that interview read like an early draft of this new memoir, discussing some of his early memories of Hong Kong, such as staying at Kowloon’s (long gone) August Moon Hotel.

In fact, the ex-Legionnaire reveals far more eye-popping details about his Hong Kong arrival in his new book – titled Nobody Will Shoot You If You Make Them Laugh – such as that he was fully armed on first disembarking at Kai Tak Airport.

“In 1966 there was no security gates at any international airports, which is why I was able to walk into Hong Kong with a 9mm PK Walther pistol, picked up from a dead Arab in the Legion, tucked down the front of my trousers, supported by a piece of string around my waist. No problems at all.”

Murray had arrived in Hong Kong courtesy of his new employer, Jardine Matheson, a conglomerate founded in the city in 1832 and known as ‘the Princely Hong’. As a new boy at the firm he was initially dispatched to Jardine Waugh in Thailand, spending three years there before returning to Hong Kong as managing director of trading company Harry Wicking, a Jardine subsidiary that specialised in furnishings for the city’s burgeoning number of new hotels.

This was soon followed by a posting as executive assistant to Jardine’s deputy managing director Jeremy Brown. The work involved liaising with decisionmakers at the ‘principals’, i.e. companies whose goods Jardines distributed in Hong Kong and the region. “My job was to brief Jeremy on the people coming through. How we were doing with their merchandise, profits, problems, identify any likely ‘flak’ coming in and to make sure our relationships with these principals continued to go well. They were, after all, our food line.”

It was also a great opportunity to see more of the region and get to understand Jardines’ varied operations. One memorable trip was to mainland China in the early 1970s. His memory of the Canton Fair – which he attended with Brown – was of “thousands of young Red Guards wandering around in gangs”.

In 1973 Murray was dispatched to ‘head office’ in London and tasked with dealing with the European principals who visited 3 Lombard Street. “The senior directors of all the big companies we represented in Asia were invited to the Matheson’s directors’ lunch on a daily basis. The heads of Rolls-Royce, the banks, the law firms, the booze companies, Guinness, White Horse Whisky, Unilever, Westland Helicopters and the rest.”

Murray gives a flavour of a now- departed corporate world, where work lunches were nine parts convivial and one part commercial. “The daily directors’ lunch began with a healthy, refreshing round of gin and tonic. By the time all the guests had arrived, this had been doubled. We sat down at the table where the sherry was already waiting for us in our glasses,” he recalls. “Then the white wine was downed and the red circulated. Lunch ended with cheese accompanied by Madeira. The Madeira was pushed around until the decanter was empty, and woe betide anybody who did not keep it moving. After lunch we would return to our offices: the oldies for a nap; me, feeling very fresh and ready to go.”

Jardines was (and still is) a family controlled firm, with the Keswick clan from Scotland the key shareholders. Fortunately for Murray he got on well with the senior family member at the time, John Keswick, who was Matheson’s chairman. Murray says he acted as Keswick’s “bag carrier” on trips all over Europe and their relationship deepened to the point that he regarded Keswick as a surrogate father figure. He learned a lot from him too. Keswick was regarded as one of Britain’s foremost experts on China (a thin field, admittedly, in the 1970s), after running Jardine Matheson in Shanghai in the pre-1949 era.

Two years later, Murray was back in the thick of it in Hong Kong, heading up one of the firm’s biggest operating businesses, Jardine Engineering Company (JEC). As a leader in elevators and air-conditioning units, it was thoroughly entwined with Hong Kong’s booming property market. And that meant its boss had to become familiar with the new generation of local tycoons – a task Murray took to with gusto.

Jardine Matheson’s powerful taipan in Hong Kong at the time was not a Keswick but a long-serving executive from outside the family called David Newbigging. The taipan of the ‘old order’ wanted to get to know one of the rising tycoons better and asked Murray to set up a lunch with Li Ka-shing (also popularly known as KS Li).

“I was certainly the man at Jardines with the best relationship with the local property boys. I was dealing with them on a daily basis with my JEC hat on. One evening Newbigging asked me if I could arrange a lunch with KS Li. I was surprised that Newbigging did not seem to know him. It was arranged and we had a good lunch, jocular but without depth.”

At the time Jardines had a mixed reputation in the property market – even though the firm controlled much of it for historical reasons. “The local Chinese companies in Hong Kong were pushing up government revenues at land auctions, but strangely Newbigging began selling Jardines and Hong Kong Land’s property. The joke among the Chinese was that ‘If Jardines are selling, it’s time to buy’.”

Newbigging started to smart at this reputation and Murray says a turning point was the decision to ‘bet the ranch’ – so to speak – on the biggest government land auction of the era: the harbourside plot that would go on to host the new stock exchange.

Murray says that Hong Kong Land (controlled by Jardines) overpaid, bidding a record price of HK$4 billion. This was rumoured to be much higher than other local bids. “Matheson’s in London, now chaired by Henry Keswick [John Keswick’s nephew], was apoplectic,” recalls Murray. This set off a blame game. “The knives were out and Newbigging began a long walk on a tightrope.” (He would eventually be replaced as taipan by Simon Keswick in 1983.)

Murray meanwhile was promoted to ‘acting’ trading director after his immediate boss was fired over financial shenanigans. But a battle of wills was developing with the taipan himself, which came to a head in the oddest of fashions.

The year was 1979 and Newbigging ordered Murray to his office. He then blindsided him by asking the then 39 year-old: “I heard you said you would resign from this company if you were not a director by the time you are forty. Is that true?”

Murray admitted he’d made that remark to colleagues when he started his first role in Thailand but said it somewhat in jest. Newbigging didn’t see the funny side. “You will be a director of this company, when I say so,” he seethed. This seemingly innocuous exchange – and the taipan’s aversion to his subordinate’s resignation threat – developed into something more poisonous. “It was the moment I decided to leave the company,” writes the author.

In the memoir’s earlier chapters Murray details his various commercial successes at Jardines. However, he was also becoming a little jaundiced by the firm’s decisionmaking. “Jardine’s did not give me a good feeling that I was riding a good horse. They were losing out to all the local companies on the property side… The Princely Hong was infested with sycophants and the politics at the top made the US Congress look like a children’s playground.”

Murray says resigned from the company on good terms personally with the Keswicks, but he was persona non grata with most of the senior figures at Jardines in Hong Kong. “It was normal for a departing senior executive to be hosted at a farewell drinks party. No such party for me.”

“These were dark days for me,” he recalls, noting that he had walked away from a top job at what was Hong Kong’s bluest of blue chip firms. The local rumours were that Murray’s departure was far from amicable and that Jardines wanted him out of Hong Kong for good. One immediate source of vulnerability: Jardine Matheson revoked its guarantee of Murray’s housing loan with HSBC.

It was at this point that various people stuck their necks out for Murray. One was William Purves, then number two at HSBC. He asked the ex-Jardine executive to visit him and found out from an underling that Murray’s housing loan was currently charged at 10%. “Well, I think we can do better than that can’t we? What about 4%,” he said.

As Murray puts it: “Another moment engraved on my memory forever. Thank you, Willy Purves the best chairman HSBC ever had.”

This juncture in Murray’s career is an object lesson in the importance of building strong relationships. After he set up his own firm Davenham Investments, he had lunch with Michael Green, whose family owned JEC’s rival Arnhold. Green was supportive and invested a crucial £40,000 in the start-up.

The relationship Murray had forged with Mitsubishi at JEC also proved vital: the Japanese giant awarded him a generous six-year retainer as its agent in Hong Kong, jumpstarting his cashflow.

Murray’s story is also revealing in a different way, by showing how the crossroads in a career path can be a product of luck as much as skill or judgement. Case in point: one of the first big deals he worked on with Davenham was supplying coal to Hong Kong’s power stations. Here he was butting heads with his old employer, which wanted the business. Both were bidding to partner with France’s Total, which had the coal on offer. It sent a team of five to investigate the situation and Murray says the visitors were wined and dined by Jardines at the top of Connaught House, the tallest building in Hong Kong by a factor of three. “They were left in little doubt about who ran the town and with whom they should be doing business in Hong Kong.”

By contrast Murray’s office was too small to seat them all, so he arranged a lunch in a private room in a hotel. “The leader of the Total team was a Monsieur Alain Dandrieux. When they arrived I felt they had already made up their minds as to who would be their agent and it wasn’t me,” he remembers.

During the meal Murray was bombarded with technical questions, while Dandrieux said nothing. At the lunch’s conclusion, the Frenchman spoke for the first time, asking if it was true that Murray had served in the French Foreign Legion. Murray said yes: that he had joined at the beginning of 1960 and spent five years in Algeria in the second parachute regiment. He recalls there was a long pause before Dandrieux responded: “I was in Algeria at that time, in the regular army Parachute Regiment and I remember in 1961, April, I think it was, I was ambushed with my company in a steep-sided gorge at El Kantara. I was a second lieutenant at the time and the Fellagha had us surrounded with machine guns. I thought it was the end. And then your regiment came and got us out.”

Murray piped up: “I remember it well. It wasn’t April, it was 25 March. I remember it particularly as it was my birthday… We lost twenty men in the first two hours and many more wounded, but we got you out over two days.”

The author says Dandrieux smiled and slammed his hand down on the table: “Gentlemen, I think I know who’s going to be our agent.”

To complete the anecdote, the entrepreneur notes that Davenham was soon selling a million tonnes of coal a year from Total to Hong Kong utility China Light and Power.

Other successes saw NM Rothschild buy 49% of Davenham for $500,000. But then Murray’s career took another decisive turn. In 1979 HSBC sold its 33% stake in Hutchison Whampoa to Li Ka-shing for about £60 million. Murray points out the company was very similar in structure to Jardines: property ownership, a ship-repair business, retail outlets such as supermarkets and pharmaceuticals stores, a consumer goods distributor, wines and spirits stores and an engineering business very much akin to JEC.

In March 1984 Murray received a phone call from Philip Tose, a stockbroker who was close to KS Li, who told him that the three senior bosses at Hutchison were being fired by the tycoon. In trademark fashion, Murray responded immediately to the news with: “The only person in Hong Kong who could run Hutchison is me.”

Tose replied: ‘That’s exactly what we thought, Murray. The old man wants to see you tonight for a drink.”

“I was joking for Christ’s sake,” Murray remembers responding.

He then went to Li’s office and explained why the offer would not work: “Rothschild own half my company and they have said they will never sell.”

Li – who would become Asia’s richest man – gave this short shrift: “Simon, everything for sale, just a question of price… I give them $4 million for the company. You tell them and then you become managing director of Hutchison. Call them now, Simon, there’s the telephone.”

And that’s how Murray joined KS Li’s growing empire. Ironically some years earlier he had walked in on his old boss Henry Keswick watching cricket on TV in his office in London’s Lombard Street. Murray was then a senior executive with Jardines in Hong Kong and Keswick asked him which Chinese companies were climbing the corporate ranks in his view. “I told him KS Li was the guy to watch. He scoffed and said, ‘Oh Simon, he’ll be bankrupt within a year’.”

The irony here is that probably Murray’s most significant piece of M&A with KS Li involved Jardines selling a crown jewel. This was the £300 million purchase of Hong Kong Electric. “At the time the largest deal ever done in Hong Kong’s history,” he points out. The purchase was agreed over the course of just two days and two meetings with Simon Keswick (more details of the quick-fire deal can be found in the book).

Murray says that Li, born in 1928 in Guangdong, had the “ultimate rags to riches story” and that “he was fantastic to work with and we hit it off immediately”. He adds, that’s “perhaps because we were both born in the Year of the Dragon. He was twelve years older than me.”

Among Murray’s main legacies from his time running Hutchison was the push into cellphones, initially in Hong Kong but later building up major new mobile businesses in the UK and Europe through Orange, as well as India via a joint venture with Essar. Murray says that Li largely left all the non-property businesses to him, but it also becomes evident in the book that his bets on the then new technology were a career risk because “KS never warmed to our mobile phone business”.

With some pride Murray points out that Orange was sold to Mannesmann for $30 billion and that “Vodafone bought out Hutch in India at a valuation of $19 billion. Yes, that’s billion: not a misprint.”

Murray also gives credit to Li’s son Richard for being forward-looking in technology investment, including plaudits for the $400 million sale of Star TV to Rupert Murdoch (“When I told KS we had sold it for $400 million he assumed I was talking Hong Kong dollars and nearly died when I told him it was US dollars”).

Richard Li’s deployment of his internet firm PCCW to buy Hong Kong Telecom also merits mention from Murray as the “deal of the century”. Not surprisingly the book is laced with interesting anecdotes about the family. The anecdote about Richard Li on page 211 is among the most telling. Another good KS Li tale that Murray recounts involves Margaret Thatcher and Hutch’s investment in UK conglomerate Pearson. It’s best read in full by picking up the book.

Murray stayed at Hutchison for a decade. “Ten great years and the company grew to about five times the size of Jardine Matheson, which gave me some satisfaction,” he points out. And unlike at Jardines, he left on unreservedly good terms. KS Li later became one of the founding investors in Murray’s newly-created private equity firm GEMS, alongside the likes of GE and Richemont.

Indeed, the short chapter on GEMS rounds things off in terms of Murray’s corporate narrative (his time as chairman of Glencore gets little mention in the book).

The book abounds with great anecdotes and portrays a man who has genuinely lived a life in full. So what are the key lessons that today’s young people might learn from such a long and varied career? Perhaps they are distilled in Murray’s final paragraphs: learn and lead by example, live by your principles, and make good friends. Take risks. And retain a sense of humour!

Nobody Will Shoot You If You Make Them Laugh is available from from September 13.

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