The grandfather of Lee Man Tat (seated, with son Sammy) burnt a batch of oysters and created a delicious fortune as a result
An oyster-sauce business that started in 1888 during imperial China’s twilight is growing by leaps and bounds in the internet age. It has survived two rounds of bitter splits in the family fortune, gained strength through four generations of invention and is now prospering with new ventures in healthy food, real estate and fitness mobile apps.
The Lee Kum Kee brand boasts a lineup of more than 200 different sauces—soy, shrimp, chilli, Japanese, panda, you name it—but the wealth it has created is now concentrated in one branch of the family, headed by 88-year-old Lee Man Tat. Forbes Asia estimates that fortune at $8.4 billion, putting it at No 30 on our list of Asia’s most successful business families.
The modern-day success owes much to critical decisions that Lee took in the late 1990s: Expanding into China by opening two factories in Guangdong Province; and setting up a Chinese-herbal-ingredients unit, LKK Health Products.
All five of Lee’s children—Eddy, David, Charlie, Sammy and Elizabeth—have worked in the Hong Kong-based business. He passed on the management reins of the mainstay sauce business to Charlie, who oversees a sprawling distribution network in more than 100 countries that’s supported by five factories—in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Los Angeles. Sammy heads LKK Health Products.
It was Lee Man Tat’s grandfather Lee Kum Sheung who stumbled on a recipe to make the world’s first oyster sauce. Then a 26-year-old oyster hawker in a village in today’s Zhuhai, next to Macau, he overcooked his oysters by accident. What he got from the bottom of a burnt wok was a thick yet delicious paste of dried oysters and sauce. He named it Lee Kum Kee sauce, and it proved to be popular with a wealthy clientele.
But it was not the best of times. China’s imperial court was trying to reinvent itself militarily and culturally to counter assertive foreign forces on its borders. The operation survived by moving to Macau in 1902 and then to Hong Kong in 1932. Today, though, it ranks among the top three sauce makers on the mainland. Chinese astronauts used its sauces to spice up cold meals in outer space during four excursions, including one last year.
In August, the family accelerated its move into Europe with the $1.7 billion acquisition of a skyscraper known as the Walkie Talkie, whose three-floor rooftop Sky Garden has become a popular attraction in central London. Sammy said the purchase was made “to expand our global presence through strategic investments.” The deal set a record for a standalone office building in the UK and is the crown jewel in a trove of real estate purchases, including ones in mainland China and Hong Kong.