Hong Kong's richest man – dubbed "Superman" for his business skills – is set to table a bid for the UK power distribution arm of France's EDF Group this month. Li Ka-shing's Cheung Kong Infrastructure (CKI) will make an offer for the network jointly with Hongkong Electric Holdings, in which it also has a 40 per cent stake.
EDF Energy's business operating 100,000 miles of electricity cables in London, the South East and the East has been on the market since last October, as part of plans to raise €5bn (£4.5bn) to cut the €20bn debt pile of the wider EDF Group. A number of groups including Scottish & Southern, National Grid, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and several Canadian pension funds, have been tipped as rivals to CKI. But a five-year price review by watchdog Ofgem that was not concluded until November put a drag on sale talks. A decision is now expected from EDF later this month or early in April.
The French energy giant has said throughout that it is only "evaluating ownership options" for the distribution network, which supplies around 8 million households and employs nearly 5,000 people. But if a sale goes ahead, the division is expected to bring in between €4bn and €5bn.
The vast CKI conglomerate already has interests in the UK, including stakes in Cambridge Water, Southern Water and Northern Gas Networks. As part of plans for further overseas acquisitions, CKI and Hongkong Electric spent £76m in November raising their holding in Northern Gas Networks from 75 to 88 per cent.
CKI executive director Andrew Hunter said: "We have lots of experience in the UK's utilities businesses. We see the investment could offer us a predictable and steady return."
Mr Li is a standard fixture on lists of the world's richest people. He is the chairman of both Cheung Kong Holdings, which owns CKI, and Hutchison Whampoa, another vast conglomerate which includes amongst its telecommunications assets the UK mobile phone network operator, 3.
With a personal fortune estimated at $16.2bn (£10.8bn), Mr Li is not only the wealthiest person in Hong Kong, he was also ranked 16th in the world last year and has been voted the most powerful man in Asia. His reputation has earned him the nickname "Superman" in his native Hong Kong, but he is also a widely respected player in global business.
The 81-year old's empire started with a plastics factory in the 1950s before branching out into property development. Now CKI's sprawling interests include ports, telecoms, property and hotels, retail, and energy infrastructure. It is both the world's biggest container terminal operator and the largest health and beauty retailer.
Annual results for CKI this week showed profits up 26 per cent to HK$5.57bn (£476m) in 2009, with more than HK$10bn in cash to spend on overseas acquisitions.
"Currently, we are working on a number of international acquisition opportunities in different sectors," Victor Li, the CKI deputy chairman and eldest son of Li Ka-shing, said. "We are well-placed to consider large-scale acquisitions that add value to CKI's quality portfolio."