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The cooking accident that started a global empire

FEEL LIKE ASIAN FOOD for dinner tonight? Chances are that one Hong Kong family will play a key role in flavoring your meal—and that’s true, whether you live in the US, Asia, Australia, or anywhere else.

A Hong Kong firm has quietly become the global king of sauces—and made the family behind it remarkably wealthy. In more than 100 countries around the planet, people reach for Lee Kum Kee (李錦記) products—whether they are cooking Chinese food, or want some Thai-style Sriracha chilli sauce, or are looking for a snack with mixed US-Asian influences such as Kung Pao Chicken Flavored Popcorn.

Lee Kum Kee moved to Macau with its sales network expanded. Image: Lee Kum Kee Group

Pretty good for a firm which started humbly with a single chef, Lee Kum Sheung (李錦裳), having a cooking accident in a small restaurant in Nanshui (南水鄉), a town in the Zhuhai district of Guangdong, close to the Portuguese-administered enclave of Macau.

Legend has it that the sauce that made his fortune was discovered in the 1880s. One day, Lee was cooking oysters, but he forgot to turn off stove containing the liquid in which the oysters had been cooked. He smelled a pleasant aroma from the kitchen, and found the liquid had been reduced to a layer of dark brown paste in the pan.  

In 1888, he founded a company to sell Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce. It spread across the border to Macau in 1902 under the leadership of a member of the next generation, Lee Shiu Nan (李兆南), and then the firm moved to Hong Kong in 1932—and from there, it grew its product line and took over the world.

The size of the empire today is hard to imagine. Not only are there more than 300 products, which can be found around the planet, but the firm is clearly cash-rich—it bought the most expensive building in London, for example. More on that later.

The family is now in its fourth generation and is ranked among the top four richest families in Hong Kong, according to the Forbes list. Their wealth is estimated at US$19.3 billion. 

Lee Man Tat expanded sales of signature oyster sauce and other products globally. Image: Lee Kum Kee Group

The group’s business really boomed when Lee Man Tat (李文達), the eldest son of Lee Shiu Nan, became determined to expand sales of signature oyster sauce and other products globally.

He developed a range of products from soy sauce to fresh seafood sauce. He bought out the shares from his uncles with his father’s support to gain full ownership of the group to initiate his expansion plan.

In 1970s, Lee Man Tat introduced Panda Brand oyster sauce for the international market. This came amidst the popularity of Chinese panda as a symbol of friendship between the US and China when former US President Richard Nixon made a landmark visit to Beijing in 1972. The US received pandas from China during Nixon’s visit. The Panda Brand oyster sauce proved to be extremely sought-after by Chinese communities in the US and other overseas nations.

Between 1980s and 1990s, the group’s headquarters was relocated to Tai Po Industrial Estate while various production bases opened in Guangzhou and Xinhui in Guangdong, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Los Angeles in the US.

Lee Kum Kee production base in Los Angeles. Image: Lee Kum Kee Group

Lee Man Tat developed the business into a Chinese sauce empire that has become a household name, with some 300 products being sold around the world.

Lee Kum Kee sauces ventured into space. Image: Lee Kum Kee Group

The group’s products were even used in China’s space mission several times in 2010s, as condiments for the food of astronauts on Shenzhou spacecraft.

From oyster sauce to property investment

Meanwhile, Lee Kum Kee group expanded to healthcare products and real estate investment. It made an investment of RMB 4.5 billion to build Guangzhou Infinitus Plaza, as designed by late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid in Baiyun New Town.

Guangzhou Infinitus Plaza in Baiyun New Town. Image: Zaha Hadid Architects.

The group has purchased a London skyscraper, known as the Walkie-Talkie because of its extraordinary shape, at 1.28 billion pounds in 2017 –a record for a stand-alone office building in Britain at that time.

Lee Kum Kee has purchased London skyscraper, known as the Walkie-Talkie. Image: Public domain

Its real estate investment portfolio in Hong Kong started much earlier, notably with the purchase of Infinitus Plaza in Sheung Wan, formerly known as Vicwood Plaza. The group has a wide array of commercial properties in real estate investment.

Establishment of family council

Lee Man Tat’s four sons and a daughter joined Lee Kum Kee in 1980s.

Lee Man Tat’s children have joined Lee Kum Kee Group. Image: Lee Kum Kee Group

To avoid squabbles or internal family rifts, Lee’s family members established a family council in the 2000s – which bonds all family members together and keeps business thriving.

In the council, Lee’s family reaches consensus on business, investment and family matters.

Sammy Lee serves as Executive Chairman of Lee Kum Kee. Image: Lee Kum Kee Group

Sammy Lee (李惠森) serves as Executive Chairman of Lee Kum Kee, and the family council handles various family and business affairs such as business planning and succession.

The rules include prohibiting spouses from working for the group, and requiring younger heirs to work outside the family business before returning, and setting mandatory retirement ages of 65.

The establishment of the family council aims to guarantee family cohesion and harmony – which are the basis to make the family business succeed.

Lee Kum Kee’s oyster sauce has become the group’s best-known product, which has propelled the company’s business growth and made it into one of Hong Kong’s homegrown brands on the globe. Lee Kum Kee is one of few Chinese family-run businesses operating for more than a century.

Image at the top by Lee Kum Kee Group

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