The making of Martin Lau, the billionaire professional manager

July 11, 2019 12:32
Tencent’s Martin Lau, with his huge salary and stock grants, is the envy of many a professional manager in Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg

You might be aware that Tencent's Martin Lau Chi-ping is in a league of his own when it comes to executive compensation among top bosses at Hong Kong-listed firms, but did you know that he was also a distinction student during his school years?

Lau, who the president and the No. 2 man in the Chinese internet giant, grew up in Hong Kong and did his schooling here before going to the United States to pursue higher education.

In 1990, Lau got 9 distinctions in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, the predecessor to the current Diploma of Secondary Education Examination that serves as college entrance test in the city.

In the exam 29 years ago, there were only two pupils that outdid Lau, scoring 10 distinctions, as per media reports from that time.

Whenever exam results were released, it had been a tradition among local newspapers to quiz the top scorers on various topics, with the reporters also lobbing a few tricky current affairs questions. And the answers received wide coverage.

In the case of Lau, he was asked, among other things, as to who he was rooting for as legislators in an election (he didn't reveal any preference, according to reports) and whether he would migrate to another place -- to which he answered he might.

Lau went on to study in United States, where he graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Michigan, and a Master of Science degree from Stanford.

As was the case with many other high-flyers, he joined consultancy firm McKinsey and later moved to Goldman Sachs, where he was promoted as the investment bank's Asia executive director.

In 2005, Lau left Goldman Sachs and joined the then up-and-coming Tencent. With Goldman having served as a sponsor of Tencent's 2004 Hong Kong stock market listing, Lau must have sensed the growth potential in the mainland Chinese internet firm.

Lau joined as the chief strategy and investment officer and was promoted to president of the company within a year and made it to the board in 2007.

The rest is history.

After Lau came on board, Tencent has seen its business and stock market valuation grow by leaps and bounds. According to one estimate, investors have reaped compound annual return of 40 percent.

As Tencent's fortunes soared, so too did Lau's salary and perks. With annual compensation running into several hundred million Hong Kong dollars, the Tencent president -- the second most powerful person in the company after chairman and CEO Pony Ma -- has become a top earner among listed entities in Hong Kong.

Lau, who is now 46, also has the highest net worth among professional managers, thanks to the stock options he received since joining Tencent in its early days.

Last year Lau's compensation stood at HK$267 million, only slighter lower than that of CK Hutchison's co-managing director Canning Fok Kin-ning who has dominated the high-paid executives list in Hong Kong in the past two decades.

But Lau had over 49.18 million shares of Tencent. With the stock currently changing hands at around HK$358, Lau's holdings are worth more than HK$17 billion. And he still has several million share options yet to be exercised.

Looking at Lau's academic and career achievements, one can say that book smart can also be street smart.

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EJ Insight writer