RICH PICKINGS: Ten of the best, forget the West

By one measurement, the epicentre of world wealth has switched from East to West. So who are the big names at the top of that Asian wealth pile and how did they make their money?

Forget Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Carlos Slim Helu.

The names Australian wealth watchers need to know are Robin Li, Mukesh Ambani and Wee Cho Yaw.

As a new report from financial services firms Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management confirmed this week, the epicentre of global wealth has officially shifted from the West to the East.

According the annual World Wealth Report, the Asia-Pacific region is now home to the highest number of high net worth individuals (defined as having more than $1 million in inevitable assets, excluding the family home and trinkets) in the world at 3.37 million, just in front of North America with 3.35 million.

Australia didn’t play its part – our population of HNWIs actually fell by 7 per cent to 192,900 to 179,500 in 2011 – but rising wealth levels across China and Japan (yes, that country that seems to be in continuous recession and was hit by an earthquake last year) helped propel the Asian region to the top of the charts.

It’s a marked shift in just three years. In 2008, the Asia-Pacific region accounted for 7.4 per cent of the world’s HNWI; this has now risen to 10.7 per cent.

It is a trend that Dorus van den Biezenbos, wealth management specialist at Capgemini, expects will continue as GDP growth, equity markets and property markets in Asia outperform those in the West.

"We believe Asia Pacific is the region where the biggest growth will be, given the turmoil we are seeing in North America and Europe.”

However, the region won’t always rise as a single region – even this year we’ve seen marked differences between the performance of different nations.

In Hong Kong for example, Dorus says the willingness of HNWI individuals to take on debt and invest in equity markets means the city state’s wealth can bounce from year to year, and in the last 12 months the millionaire population fell.

In Japan however, investors are ultra conservative and invest heavily in stable assets such as real estate and fixed interest. In times when markets are spooked – like the last 12 months – Japanese millionaires do well.

Van den Biezenbos points a few common characteristics of Asia Pacific HNWIs, including a love of real estate, a higher proportion of females and a higher number of younger millionaires – about 38 per cent of millionaires in the region are aged between 31 and 45.

Of course, despite this shift in the balance of wealth towards Asia, Australia still looks towards the big English-speaking billionaires for inspiration – names like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg.

Given our location, and Australia’s determination to exploit what many are calling the Asian Century, we should be following Asia’s wealth heavyweights.

With this in mind – and with the help of the Forbes billionaire list – we’ve scanned across the region to come up with a list of 10 of the richest entrepreneurs we should know much better than we do.

China: Robin Li, $10.2 billion

Most of the world has Google, China has Baidu, the home-grown search engine with a market share of almost 80 per cent. Li, who worked in Silicon Valley before launching Baidu, has profited from Google’s problems in the world’s most populous country, which is notorious for web censorship. He’s now facing up to the challenge of mobile search, although just days ago Goldman Sachs said this remains a major challenge.

Hong Kong: Li Ka-shing, $25.5 billion

Asia’s richest person is a name well known to Australians, thanks to his investments in this country. Li’s empire truly sprawls and includes investment in everything from telecommunications and technology to infrastructure, retail and manufacturing. As well as employing a staggering 270,000 people in 53 countries around the world, Li also invests in start-ups including Facebook and Spotify. Li is currently working on the vexed issue of succession in order to head off potential family feuds.

India: Mukesh Ambani, $22.3 billion

India’s richest man is coming off a difficult year in which is fortune dropped by an ugly $4.7 billion, thanks to the declining value of his oil and gas conglomerate, Reliance Industries. Last week, Ambani admitted his was disappointed by the performance of his gas operations, but announced plans to double Reliance’s operating profit in the next four to five years by boosting its energy business and investing in its retail and telecoms operations.

Indonesia: R. Budi Hartono, $6.5 billion

Budi and his brother Michael control a sprawling empire covering tobacco (a company called Djarum), banking (Indonesia’s largest private bank, Bank Central Asia), property (Grand Indonesia, the huge office, retail and tourism complex in Jakarta) and technology (they own Kaskus, Indonesia's most popular website).

Japan: Tadashi Yanai, $10 billion

Australia has seen an influx of overseas retailers in recent years, but Japanese chain Uniqlo remains on the list of potentials – fashion fans are waiting impatiently. Yanai is the head of the chain and its parent company, Fast Retailing, which was founded by his father in 1949. The 63-year-old makes no secrets of his ambitions: "It is our goal to be number one in the world. It is our aspiration. We believe Uniqlo has made efforts, more than other companies, in clothing, development and sales." The company recently opened in the Philippines, where it wants 50 stores in three years’ time.

Malaysia: Robert Kouk, $12.4 billion

The Kouk Group has received a few mentions in the Australian press in recent weeks because of its potential involvement with Nathan Tinkler’s bid for Whitehaven Coal; Kouk Group is a backer of Tinkler and may have a role in the deal. Robert Kouk’s large empire is organised around subsidiaries in Malaysia and Singapore, and a well-known company called Kerry Holdings in Hong Kong. The largest source of his wealth is palm oil giant Wilmar.

Philippines: Henry Sy, $9.1 billion

Henry Sy started out running a shoe store in Manilla. Today his retail real estate empire SM Prime is the biggest owner of shopping centres in the Philippines, as well as 176 department stores, supermarkets, grocers and hypermarkets. He also owns the country’s largest bank (as ranked by assets) and recently raised $1 billion to support its expansion. It was a record share issue for the country.

Singapore: Wee Cho Yaw, $3.8 billion

You’ve probably never heard of Wee Cho Yaw, but you may well know the iconic Chinese ointment Tiger Balm that is made by Singaporean company Haw Par; Wee’s family owns 25 per cent. The main source of his wealth is Singapore’s largest bank, United Overseas Bank, which Wee chairs and run until 2007. The bank was founded by his father in 1935.

Taiwan: Tsai Wan-Tsai, $6.2 billion

Tsai Wan-Tsai is another Asian billionaire with an empire covering several sectors. His company Fubon Financial Holding, which recently raised $1.3 billion, has interests insurance in banking, but the family also has expanded its react to telecommunications and media. However, global jitters haven’t been kind to Fubon, with its shares down almost 30 per cent in the last 12 months.

Thailand: Dhanin Chearavanont, $7 billion

The sheer numbers around Dhanin Chearavanont's agribusiness conglomerate Charoen Pokphand are staggering. It is the world’s largest animal-feed manufacturer, it operates in 17 counties, exports to 40 and has revenue of $33 billion. Half of this comes from China, where Dhanin has extensive interests. He was named Forbes Asia’s entrepreneur of the year in 2011, and in an extensive profile Dhanin explained how his 'farm to fork' philosophy will help the company push towards becoming one of the biggest food groups in the world by modernising farming in Asia.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.