A ‘billionaire’ who has ‘spent years keeping an impeccably low profile’. That was how Spear’s described Calvin Lo when we interviewed the Hong Kong-based businessman in 2022 (Spear’s 85) about, among other things, his growing insurance business and his rumoured stake in a Formula One team.
Immaculately dressed despite joining our Zoom meeting after midnight in his time zone, Lo was charming and generous with his time. But in recent months it appears there may have been reason to doubt this convincing façade. According to an exposé subsequently published by Forbes, our supposed billionaire interviewee was actually nothing of the sort. His quoted net worth of $1.7 billion, which had been reported by numerous news outlets as a ‘Forbes estimate’, actually stemmed from a paid-for article that had been placed in Forbes Middle East (an independently run title that is operated under licence). The article has been removed from the Forbes Middle East website, because much of it was fiction.
Several publications put some credence in the claims. The Financial Times also interviewed Lo, describing him as a ‘life insurance billionaire’. In August 2022 both Reuters and the South China Morning Post referred to him as a billionaire with commercial links to Formula One. All three have since removed or updated the articles.
Facts and falsehoods
How did Calvin Lo do it? It helped that the story he peddled to the press contained some kernels of truth. It is true, for example, that his mother is the chair of RE Lee International, which specialises in so-called ‘universal life insurance’ (a specific type of high-value life insurance used by some HNWs, particularly in East Asia, to provide their family with liquidity on the event of their death).
But there is little real substance to Lo’s narrative. According to the newer Forbes article, he had embarked on a persistent and deliberate campaign to exaggerate. Indeed, Forbes has since estimated that the wealth of the entire Lo family (including his parents) amounts to less than $200 million.
Other claims were more fantastical. Lo had never been the owner, as he claimed, of the Mandarin Oriental in Taiwan. Likewise, he did not have any commercial interest in the Williams F1 team (Lo’s PR team had originally refused to ‘confirm or deny’ that link when asked by Spear’s).
The falsehoods may not have been limited to matters of wealth. Forbes was unable to find any evidence for Lo’s claims to have graduated from Harvard Business School. (Lo did not respond to a request to comment for this article.)
Was this elaborate ruse the work of one man? In a year-long investigation, Forbes pointed to the role of a network of enablers, most notably hired publicists, who helped Lo to paint himself as a billionaire tycoon. According to the exposé, at least seven representatives ‘reached out to 11 different Forbes reporters on more than 20 occasions’ since 2020. So what do the experts from the Spear’s network make of it all?
The expert view on Calvin Lo
‘Mr Lo actually approached our agency some time ago, and we turned him away,’ whispers one London-based reputation manager, who asks not to be named. The person felt suspicious of Calvin Lo’s self-branding. ‘Who wants to be known as an “unknown billionaire” in the first place? It just didn’t make sense.
‘Of course, you have clients who are already very wealthy, and sometimes they cannot help but try to add an extra 10 per cent to the value of their assets,’ continues the reputation expert. Yet the lack of any ‘demonstrable evidence’ that Lo possessed UHNW status, coupled with the strangeness of his proposal, was enough to tip the balance against him. ‘You have to be careful you don’t end up helping someone fabricate their wealth, as that’s when you’re looking at potentially aiding a fraud.’
It’s a reminder that reputation managers need to be aware when dealing with international clients, advises PR supremo Terence Fane-Saunders, executive chairman of Chelgate: ‘We were actually approached by someone a few weeks ago claiming massive successes in a country where validating his story would be difficult. We couldn’t verify them, so we passed.
‘We do tend to check publicly available information on would-be clients and will often make some discreet enquiries within our network,’ he continues. ‘But Hong Kong is one of those jurisdictions where complex family arrangements can make it hard to gauge someone’s wealth.’ Naturally, RE Lee International has always been completely private with its structure and finances.
While Lo might have been able to get some PR firms to work for him, any such agency is likely to regret its decision now. ‘Any publicist worth their salt knows that engaging in that kind of deception will only bring backlash and potential legal trouble,’ says Ryan McSharry, head of litigation for communications firm Infinite Global.
Still, at least one London reputation manager (choosing to remain nameless) noted the effectiveness of the tactics used by Lo’s team and the way they had been able to play the media game so successfully. ‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they targeted sports and motoring outlets at first,’ they tell Spear’s. ‘Those journalists would have likely been less used to asking questions about sources of wealth and would have jumped at a story about F1 ownership.’ Indeed, the F1 stories became a crucial part of Lo’s image, furthering speculation on social media (including busy F1 forums) about his supposed wealth and connections.
And the use of ‘sponsored content’ in the independently run Middle Eastern title under the Forbes umbrella helped build a seemingly robust foundation to the media strategy. ‘Just mentioning those kinds of big names [the titles in the Forbes stable] would have added a lot of weight to Mr Lo’s claims,’ says our reputation manager.
A twist in the tale?
Could there be more twists to come? During my reporting for this story, I received a tip-off from a source passing on what appears to be an online advertorial, published in an Indian publication called CEO Review Magazine, presenting the ‘celebrated entrepreneur’ and ‘devoted philanthropist’ Calvin Lo as the victim of a geopolitical conspiracy triggered by his ‘vehement opposition’ to pro-West protests in Hong Kong and his (apparent) defence of ‘China’s sovereignty and legitimacy’.
Despite this, the tide seems to have turned. Following the publication of the Forbes exposé, RE Lee Capital – the fund management part of the Lee group of companies, not to be confused with RE Lee International, the insurance broker – circulated a statement to journalists and media outlets to clarify that although Lo’s mother remained the firm’s chairperson, ‘this must not be misconstrued as Lo being connected with our firm in any way’.
The statement added: ‘We categorically affirm that Calvin Lo has no dealings with the firm. He was never an employee, officer, director, or shareholder of the company. He has never had any affiliation with RE Lee Capital, nor is he authorised to speak in any capacity on our firm’s behalf.’
It’s all a long way from the dapper and slightly bashful businessman who appeared on Zoom from his plush Hong Kong apartment in 2022. Back then, Calvin Lo had sought to present himself to the world as an unknown billionaire. Now you have to wonder if he’d be happy going back to being just the first of those things.