The Art of Giving

28 June 2004

Thank you all for recognizing me as a successful businessman. I appreciate your support and encouragement.

One of the questions I am often asked by the media is how to be a successful businessman. The truth is I don’t like to be typecast. I consider myself to be a man first, and then a businessman. Everyone plays different roles in life. Perhaps the key to success is to identify your moral and intellectual coordinates. A life without principles is a life without direction. The right coordinates enable us to take on different roles while staying true to ourselves. You’ll lead a much more satisfying and enriching life if you can achieve success in different capacities.

For millennia, the Chinese have considered merchants and traders to be the lowest among the social classes, behind mandarins, farmers and laborers, in that order. The Chinese historian Sima Qian made a strong case for merchants, saying that they served society by distributing resources, managing risks and using capital efficiently. But his pioneering ideas were sometimes misinterpreted, which led to the belief that all merchants were profiteers.

The unfortunate fact is that there are many business people prepared to sacrifice their moral integrity for the bottom line. Their conduct is damaging to their industry and to society. There are still others who make their profits in murky grey areas. However, most business people understand that social progress requires courage, hard work and perseverance; more importantly, they know that a fair and equitable society is built on trust and integrity.

Fan Li and Benjamin Franklin

I’ve loved stories since I was a child. Of course, this is not limited to stories about famous or historical figures. Stories are happening all around us, and they are often the source of inspiration, and sometimes, enormous profit. I believe most of you know about Rockefeller and the shoeshine boy. In 1929, just before the Wall Street crash, Rockefeller was getting his shoes shined when he received a stock tip from the shoeshine boy. Rockefeller realized that if even a shoeshine boy is playing the market, then the market was ripe for a fall. Rockefeller then sold his shareholdings and was able to hold on to his wealth.

Fan Li was a senior official in the State of Yue in Ancient China during the Spring and Autumn period (770-480 B.C.) who helped the Emperor Guo Jian restore his kingdom. Having outlived his usefulness to the new emperor, Fan Li feared for his life and decided to give up his fame and riches to live in seclusion for the remainder of his life. After changing his name, he became a successful merchant and amassed another fortune, which he promptly gave away again for fear of jealousy. This cycle of accumulation and distribution of wealth was repeated several times.

The great American Benjamin Franklin was truly a Renaissance Man. He was a philosopher, politician, diplomat, author, scientist, businessman, and a musician. But on his gravestone are simply the words “Benjamin Franklin. Printer.”

Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706 in Boston Massachusetts. Franklin’s formal schooling ended early, but his education continued through self-learning. Young Ben Franklin loved to read and by age 12, he was apprenticed to his brother who was a printer. In 1730 Franklin bought the Pennsylvania Gazette. Poor Richard’s Almanack, published by Franklin under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, became the best-selling book next to the Bible. Franklin was wise beyond his age, and his dedication to community work quickly won him the public’s trust. From 1748 onwards, he launched a number of civic projects, including a library, schools, and hospitals. After gaining widespread fame, Franklin continued to find ways to help young people add value through his prolific writings.

Fan Li and Benjamin Franklin were different people from different worlds. But the stories of their lives are worth pondering. Fan changed himself to fit society, and Franklin pioneered changes in society. They played different roles during different times, but their coordinates were vastly different. Fan only wanted to live out the rest of his days in peace, but Franklin used his intellectual capability to illuminate and create a humane and bountiful society. Fan gave his riches to his neighbors, but Franklin used his for capacity building. People who are capable can serve society, and people who have a giving heart can push social progress.

I’ve been telling my friends recently that I have a third son, and they inevitably offer their congratulations with some embarrassment. I love my third son, my two sons love him, and so will my grandchildren. My third son is my Foundation. During my long career spanning over 60 years, I have stayed true to my core values, which are fairness, integrity, honesty, compassion and to achieve success through honest means. I believe that what I have built will continue to grow. I hope that my wealth can be used systematically to benefit others. We have to act concerted to sow good seeds and to build a fair and compassionate society, making contributions to the economy, education and healthcare. I hope that everyone can work together to nurture a culture of giving to create a brighter and more prosperous future for our beloved country and for mankind.