After graduating from high school, he was banished for three years to an agricultural cooperative where he continued his self-education. In 1977, after ten years of the Cultural Revolution, he seized the opportunity of the first National College Entrance Examination and enrolled at Guangdong Technical College, graduating in 1982.
Wanting to be an engineer, which was a top career choice at the time, he first worked in a tiny company in his hometown. Because of his outstanding performance in the company, Li was appointed as general manager of TCL Electronic Group in 1993. After the retirement of his predecessor three years later, Li at age 39 became the president of TCL Group.
Li’s success at TCL has mirrored China’s rising economy. After the economic reforms began in the early 1980s, Li noticed the popularity of imported tape recorders. With government investment, he helped form China’s first cassettetape company. As revenues rose, telephones caught on, and Li’s company became China’s biggest phone manufacturer. Black-and-white TVs arrived in 1981; color in 1992. However the huge success of TCL color TVs was dependent on marketing strategy and brand influence rather than on the company’s research and manufacturing capabilities. In 1996, Li had the first crisis in his career. A major accident at his partner company meant that TCL lost all its product supplies. Luckily TCL pulled through by using an old product line, but from then on Li established his own manufacturing facilities.
In 1997 TCL began gradual ownership reform. The total assets of the group increased about 30 percent annually, and Li made special efforts to avoid many sensitive problems and strove to pay back much to the enterprises and local government. By 2003 it finally went public, which successfully transferred the company from collectively-owned and locally controlled to a public-held stock ownership enterprise. Li became rich along the way, thus setting an example for other entrepreneurs to follow. Li also acquired some of the larger color TV manufacturers in the nation, such as Neimeng Caihong, Wuxi Hongmei, and Lehua. In 2003 TCL Group was listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, and overnight Li acquired an asset of RMB600 million, which made him the envy of many other presidents of state-owned enterprises. By the end of the year TCL’s brand equity was valued at RMB26.712 billion, ranking sixth in the nation.
Although competition remained fierce among Chinese electronics firms, Li’s goal was to create a world-class enterprise. In 2002, Li focused on TV marketing in Europe, acquiring Schneider, an established brand in Germany, for €8.2 million. In 2004 TCL struck a $560 million deal to merge its television manufacturing facilities with those of French consumer electronics giant Thomson. TCL’s investment in Thomson is the latest and most dramatic example of China’s determination to put its own stamp on the global marketplace. No company had a better chance of becoming China’s first truly global corporation than TCL. Because of this audacious move, Li was named the Asia Businessman of the Year in 2004 by Fortune magazine.
Even though Li initially received much international recognition as a bright star from China, the media considered him a failure because of TCL’s poor performance in the international merger business, conflict within the organization, and the group’s huge losses. Failing to turn the merged international business to profit within 18 months as promised, Li gained a more profound understanding of the internationalization of Chinese enterprises. Believing that the internationalization of the management team must be carried out systemically, Li restructured the overseas operation and made a major adjustment to personnel management. Although TCL’s global venture is still ongoing, Li as a pioneer has left his mark on the internationalist endeavor of Chinese enterprises in the world economy of the twenty-first century.