28 October 2016
Douglas Li is leaving SmarTone in August after serving as chief executive for the past 14 years. Photo: HKEJ
Douglas Li is leaving SmarTone in August after serving as chief executive for the past 14 years. Photo: HKEJ

SmarTone says so long to Douglas Li

Hong Kong’s longest-serving mobile chief will call it a day at the end of summer.

SmarTone Telecommunications Holdings Ltd. (00315.HK) chief executive Douglas Li will take his helmet off at the end of August after serving the mobile arm of Sun Hung Kai Properties for nearly 20 years.

Li, 61, was the founding chief executive from 1992 to 1996 and returned to head the firm in 2001.

SmarTone’s announcement did not mention the word “retirement” but said the firm would announce succession arrangements later.

“Having been CEO for over 14 years this second time around, it is time to hand over to the next generation of leadership to take the company and the industry forward in the fast evolving mobile-first internet,” Li said.

A man who likes to do things differently, Li oversaw the golden period of mobile development in Hong Kong, from paging services to smart and trendy phones, of which everyone in this city now has at least one, and many have several.

As the mobile business expanded, he witnessed its consolidation from eight operators at its peak to four.

In the process, SmarTone, once the third-largest operator in terms of subscriber numbers, has become the smallest, trailing behind PCCW Ltd. (00008.HK), Hutchison Telecommunications Hong Kong Holdings Ltd. (00215.HK) and China Mobile (Hong Kong), a subsidiary of China Mobile Ltd. (00941.HK).

His pending departure was not a surprise to rivals, who said SmarTone has been very quiet for quite some time.

Li is an unpredictable man who does not usually play by the rules of the game.

On some industry issues, such as withdrawing unlimited mobile data plans (to gain operators more revenue), SmarTone was often the last operator to respond to industry pricing.

His biography in the annual report states that he is “a believer in challenging the status quo and doing things differently”.

Now, does that make you wonder what lies ahead for SmarTone, which is often subject to rumors about a merger with China Mobile or other mainland carriers?

I remember him well as a chief executive with character.

I was privileged to have a business lunch with him in Central. When I casually asked if there had been a minor breakdown in his network recently, he stared at me and put down his fork.

“What the heck are you talking about?” he shouted and went on to defend the quality of his network for about five minutes, using colorful English words I am not at liberty to share.

His deputy did not show any sign of emotion, but I still vividly remembered Li’s voice when I saw his announcement of his resignation.

He is damned serious about his product and his job.

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EJ Insight writer

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