James Packer Bets Big On Asia’s Casino Sector

Like his late media mogul father, James Packer likes to bet big. The difference? While Packer senior punted millions at blackjack, poker and baccarat tables around the world, his son prefers to own the casino. Five of them, in fact, with another four in the pipeline.

Over the next few years Packer, 46, is making his biggest bet yet, gambling much of his fortune on Asia’s burgeoning casino sector. In Sri Lanka he won government approval in December to build a five-star casino resort in Colombo. In the Philippines his City of Dreams Manila will open later this year. And in the global gambling capital of Macau, his third casino is on track to open in mid-2015, and he’s now adding a fifth tower to the already massive casino resort, City of Dreams.

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Packer’s also been busy in Australia. In his hometown of Sydney final government approval came through in November for a controversial $1.8 billion casino resort on the harbor, targeting Asian high rollers and due to open in 2019. As the chairman and major shareholder of Crown Resorts, he’s overseen a seven-year, $1.3 billion makeover of Crown’s flagship casino, which spreads across two city blocks on the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River. And in Perth, conveniently close to much of Asia, a $1.3 billion expansion is under way for Burswood casino, now renamed Crown Perth. “That’s a hell of a lot of money; they’re huge bets for me,” says Packer of the dollars he’s spending in Australia alone.

So far he’s on a winning streak. Crown’s market capitalization now tops $11 billion, up $3 billion in one year. Packer’s private company, Consolidated Press Holdings, owns 50.01% of Crown, so half of that cash splash?and the stock price gains?are on Packer’s personal ledger. Those gains boosted FORBES ASIA’s estimate of his wealth by 10%, to $6.6 billion, this year, making him once again Australia’s third-richest person.

As Packer points out, what has the market excited is Crown’s 33.7% stake in Melco Crown Entertainment , a joint venture run by Lawrence Ho, the son of Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho. It is Melco–which last year joined FORBES ASIA’s Fab 50 list of the top Asia-Pacific companies–that has taken Packer into Macau and Manila. Japan, too, is on the agenda, if casinos are legalized before the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Vietnam is another target.

Melco contributed more than a third of Crown’s net profit of $407 million for the year ended last June. After Crown released the annual results in August, analysts scrambled to upgrade their earnings forecasts on estimates that the Melco joint venture will contribute 40% to 50% of Crown’s profit for fiscal year 2015. “We put $750 million into Macau, and it’s now worth $8 billion,” says Packer during a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “I’ve now got more of my money in China than anywhere else, more probably than in Australia.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround from five years ago, after Packer had invested in Las Vegas, Pennsylvania and Canada. “I lost a bunch of money in America because of the financial crisis,” he says, adding that impairment charges totaled $1.4 billion. That included writedowns on investments in Fontainebleau Resorts, Station Casinos, Harrah’s, Gateway and Cannery Casino Resorts, as well as an ambitious but abandoned plan to build Crown Las Vegas.

Was he worried that the mistimed Las Vegas debacle would destroy his company? “I don’t want to answer that.” (Some estimate that he lost more than $3 billion in the financial crisis, and plenty were writing his business obituary.) He will, however, share the biggest lesson he learned from that dark period. “Don’t be too leveraged–our balance sheet is now much more conservative than it was in 2008″ after he reduced debt “significantly,” he says.

Las Vegas was Packer’s second major business flop after a disastrous foray into telecommunications in 2001. He and his good friend, Lachlan Murdoch, son of another Australian media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, invested heavily in One.Tel, which collapsed. Although the Packer family’s $300 million-plus haircut on One.Tel was a fraction of the Las Vegas loss, it probably hurt Packer more, since his famously abrasive father, Kerry, was still around to see the debacle–and lash him for it. Shortly afterward his first marriage, to Australian swimsuit model Jodhi Meares, ended and a subdued Packer spent the next decade shunning the media spotlight.

He may not have been talking to the media, but behind the scenes Packer moved quickly to forge a new path after his father died in 2005 at age 68. His grandfather, Sir Frank Packer, had taken a few media assets inherited from his father, Robert, and built the family fortune on Australian magazines, newspapers and the Nine television network. Kerry Packer then expanded the family’s media interests into a $5 billion empire, almost entirely Australia-based. James Packer harbored global ambitions–and not for magazine or TV assets.

In October 2006, just ten months after his father’s death, Packer announced the sale of half of PBL Media (which housed his major media interests) to private equity firm CVC for $3.3 billion–a move later seen as almost perfectly picking the top of the market. He sold a further 25% to CVC in 2007 for $430 million. In 2012 he sold his last major media stake, in pay TV company Foxtel and Fox Sports, to News Corp. and used some of the $1 billion in proceeds to top up his stake in Crown. Packer, who describes casinos as his “true passion in business,” could see that Crown’s Macau punt was about to pay off big time. “One of the things that is attractive about Crown is that it is a globally scalable model,” he says. “And the Crown brand is a very strong regional brand already.”

Now his bold Asian casino play and swelling fortune (up by more than $2 billion over the past two years) has predictably prompted comments about him emerging from his father’s shadow to become a billionaire in his own right. “I think life’s more complex than that,” says Packer. “My father and I finished on good terms, and I’m very happy about that.”

Does he wish his father were still around to see the Asian casino success? “But then he would have also seen me in 2008,” Packer counters, presumably grateful not to have had to face a Kerry Packer meltdown over Las Vegas. He’s also mindful of his father’s urging to try to be realistic about business: “You’re never as good on your best day as everyone thinks, and you’re never as bad on your worst day as everyone thinks.”

Still, Packer concedes that with Macau he has hit the jackpot. “The business in Macau is going amazingly; I’ve been very lucky that it has been more successful than I would have thought possible.” For that, he says, the Melco Crown cochairman (with Packer) and chief executive, Lawrence Ho, deserves much of the credit.


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