In his mid-20s, Ben Keswick was being groomed to lead the business his family had run for five generations in Hong Kong and was growing into a $ 50 billion pan-Asian empire.
This week, at 48 and under two in his role as magnate – or top boss – by Jardine Matheson, Keswick succeeded one of the most important corporate restructurings in the history of the company.
The deal, in which the Jardines Group will buy out the shareholders of its second-largest business unit for $ 5.5 billion, could add huge sums to the Keswick’s multibillion-dollar fortunes and that of two other families linked by marriage, the Weatheralls and the Jencks.
Yet it also poses risks for the 190-year-old company. Keswick would unroll a convoluted cross-detention structure designed by her uncle, Sir Henry Keswick, in the 1980s to defend her against the threat of a hostile takeover. The setup allowed the descendants of the group’s founding family to control a huge conglomerate while owning only around 17% of the stock.
Keswick is trying to “modernize the business at an urgent rate,” said a confidant, an adviser to Jardines board.
However, “it creates a more conventional set of risks,” the person added, “the most important being what happens if they don’t come up with the numbers in two or three years.”
A smart business for Jardines
Jardine Matheson’s dominance is felt all over Hong Kong. Its sprawling assets in the city include some of Hong Kong’s most expensive commercial properties and its biggest brands, such as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Elsewhere, its holdings range from Vietnam’s largest dairy producer to a small cement manufacturer in Thailand.
But his vast portfolio has drawn criticism. Jardines is’ in about 28 totally decorrelated sectors acquired by Henry [Keswick] in the 47 years he’s been at the helm of the company, it’s really hard for anyone to explain why, ”said a company advisor. “Under Ben, you’ll start to see them managing their portfolios with more emphasis on sectors and return on capital.”
The Keswicks have controlled the group for five generations since Thomas Keswick, of Dumfriesshire, Scotland, married the niece of Scottish trader William Jardine, who had started a trading business in Hong Kong to trade in tea and opium.
But keeping the family in charge has required politically unpopular measures. Jardines angered Beijing in the mid-1990s when Henry Keswick relocated its listing to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in singapore amid concerns about the territory after it was handed over to China in 1997.
Keswick inherited the presidency from his uncle, Henry, who retired at the age of 80. “Ben is a consensus leader where Henry was a conviction leader,” said a person close to the company.
Henry – who was described by the FT as a “tall, round old Astonish man with a courteous demeanor and a mischievous sense of humor” – had no children, which resulted in a succession battle between Ben and his cousin, Adam , an administrator of Jardines.
“I’m sure Adam was upset, but I didn’t see any problem between the two,” said an executive who advises the council. “They have a very good working relationship and together orchestrated the restructuring.”
The redesign has so far been viewed positively by the market. The group’s shares rose 15% after the announcement and continued to climb.
“It was definitely a good deal for Jardine Matheson,” said Hugh Young, Asia manager of Aberdeen Standard, whose stake in Jardine Strategic will be bought back at $ 33 a share. “It was probably worth a lot more.”
How to perpetuate a conglomerate
Keswick is regarded by his allies and by people who know him as both “brilliant” and “paranoid”.
“He has a strong sense of duty to the company, but also knows that his story cannot define it,” said an ally.
In common with his uncle, friends said, Keswick did not make the company’s role in the Sino-British opium wars taboo. The two approached building a relationship with China – which is crucial for Jardines’ future in Hong Kong – being upfront about their family’s past.
“We have had long discussions about Jardines’ history in the opium business,” said the chairman of a large financial services company that has worked with the group for a few years. “[Ben] don’t take yourself too seriously in these discussions.
Keswick, who lives in Hong Kong with his wife, Martha, and four children, is “extremely private,” according to a friend. He never gave an interview to the media.
Today, its biggest challenge is to perpetuate Jardine after a significant impact on its real estate and hotel portfolio during the pandemic and after two years of political crisis in Hong Kong, where it achieves more than a third of the income.
He made a number of decisive blows since taking office in 2019. Among them was the appointment of a ‘fresh blood’ board of directors that includes Stuart Gulliver, former CEO of HSBC, and Anne O’Riordan, former head of life sciences at Accenture, responsible for overhauling the digital strategy of Jardines and its portfolio companies. Previously, its board of directors was dominated by former company executives and family members.
Keswick also established Jardine’s first investment committee, ending a cultural hangover from his uncle’s tenure that meant the president had final control over all investment decisions. This week, he also announced a strategic investment partnership with Chinese private equity firm Hillhouse Capital.
In an article published in 2016 in the Jardines corporate magazine, Thistle, he wrote about his ambitions to bring the company into the 21st century. “Once we have taken this first step, there is no going back. . . We just have to face the future and give it a shot. “
Five years later, the future of one of Hong Kong’s oldest trading empires is in his hands.