In the 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, the creme de la creme of wealthy Singaporeans are portrayed as those of Chinese descent who can trace their family’s fortune back to British colonial times. In reality, many of these scions of notable families are no longer the wealthiest in “the Switzerland of Asia”, thanks to the influx of new immigrants from China. Back in 2019, Zhang Yong (see WiC428), founder of hotpot chain Haidilao, became the richest tycoon in the city state according to Forbes; that was until Li Xiting of medical device maker Mindray (see WiC459) took top spot in April 2020.
The latest Chinese to lead the billionaire league table is Li Xiaodong. Li did not amass his fortune through business in China. Instead it was by building an internet giant in Southeast Asia focused on online gaming, e-commerce and financial services, creating a regional player that combined Tencent and Alibaba’s strengths.
Born in 1978 to parents who worked at state-owned enterprises in Tianjin, Li was said to be a good student who also enjoyed playing video games. After graduating from Shanghai Jiaotong University, he worked for a few years in the human resource departments of various US companies including Motorola. Hoping for a lifestyle change, he borrowed $120,000 to study for an MBA at Stanford University. It was there that he developed an interest in entrepreneurship and a social network in Silicon Valley. He met his Singaporean girlfriend (now his wife) at Stanford too and decided to move to the Lion City.
Despite struggling with student debt, Li joined a start-up called GGgame in 2007. Although the platform quickly took off, GGgame’s founder Chen Ou, who later became the CEO of cosmetics e-tailer Jumei (see WiC239), decided to exit the company. Li then took over and changed its name to Garena.
Garena’s big break came in 2010 when it secured a deal to distribute League of Legends in Southeast Asia. The subsequent success of the multiplayer online game helped Garena turn profitable within two years, and attract investment from Tencent, which by 2017 had built a 40% stake in Garena. The company was restructured into a holding firm called Sea and subsequently taken public in New York.
The IPO enabled Sea to licence more titles and produce its own games including the popular Free Fire. It then expanded into e-commerce under the brand Shopee (see WiC542), dislodging Alibaba-backed Lazada as the go-to platform for online shopping with a 57% market share in Southeast Asia by the end of 2020. And in a similar fashion to how Ant Group piggybacked on the growth of its e-commerce sister firms, Sea’s online finance unit, SeaMoney, had also attracted 32.7 million users to its payment platforms by the end of the second quarter.
With a 12% stake in Southeast Asia’s largest listed company – which has a market capitalisation of $184 billion – Li has a net worth of $20 billion. Now looking to expand into Europe, Sea last week raised just over $6 billion in what was the largest ever equity and convertible bond sale in the region.
Need to know
Li describes himself as shy and a “freak”. He claims an affinity with the eponymous protagonist in the movie Forrest Gump played by Tom Hanks, hence he chose Forrest as his English name when asked to pick one at university.
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