Sammy Tak Lee is one of those secretive billionaire “citizens of nowhere” who so annoy the British electorate that Theresa May chose to demonise them in one of her forays into populism.
Reputed to have properties in Geneva, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo, he also owns a big chunk of London north of Oxford Street.
Apart from that, and the fact that his son owned his own Boeing, two yachts and 28 cars when he got divorced, we know very little of him.
For years, he has been pestering the well-run owner of much of Covent Garden, Chinatown and Soho, Shaftesbury.
Conservatively financed and managed for the long term, Shaftesbury has delivered consistently for its investors since the financial crisis. Its share price has gone from 208p then to 860p now, even after falls since the Brexit referendum. It invests in its properties and is sprucing up the area in anticipation of the crowds who’ll flock when Crossrail arrives.
A few years back, Lee tried to buy a big chunk of the business for 888p, a lucky number in Chinese lore. The cultural significance of the price didn’t chime with Shaftesbury’s investors as it was only 2% higher than the shares were worth at the time. They sent him packing.
Since the referendum, he’s built his stake up to 26% and seems to enjoy sniping from the sidelines at management every so often. Today is one such day.
As before, his criticisms are bunkum. His prime concern remains over a £260 million fundraiser Shaftesbury did in late 2017 to raise money for new properties and investment in the existing estate. Lee argues it should have whacked up its debt pile rather than raise equity. But that isn’t in the company’s conservative DNA.
Instead, it went for the common technique of running a quick share placing. Lee argues this was a cunning plan to dilute his stake. If it was, it wasn’t very clever; he ended up with almost precisely the same percentage as before.
He also attacks Shaftesbury for delays on a development on Soho’s Berwick Street. This, too, isn’t fair; Shaftesbury isn’t even the developer.
So, what is all this sniping really about? Only Lee knows. But one suspects that, having apparently tried and failed to buy the estate in the early Nineties, he wants to buy it now.
If so, he faces a serious obstacle in its second-biggest shareholder, the Norges pension fund. It also owns West End property and, who knows?, may also want to buy Shaftesbury.
In today’s letter, Lee presents himself as the champion of the ordinary shareholder. Hmm. More likely, he’s really trying to get non-Norges shareholders onside and destabilise the Shaftesbury management, preparing for a cheap takeover bid.
If that is the plan, he should drop the Man of Mystery act and make an offer. If it’s not, he should meet the board in person, something he has never done, and air his concerns properly.
The West End needs solid, dependable landlords. Not inscrutable game-players.