terça-feira, 25 de agosto de 2009

O fim de uma era?

Macau's leading light dims
Stanley Ho's extraordinary run as the 'king of gambling' is ending and his former fiefdom is facing a new future

Fox Yi Hu
South China Morning Post
August 25, 2009

Stanley Ho Hung-sun has run Macau as its unofficial king for years, apparently with a finger in almost every business pie in the special administrative region, at times accounting for half of its economy and, as befits a king, openly keeping concubines.

Mr Ho's dominance, and often monopoly, have been long-standing facts in the former Portuguese enclave, where anyone who decided to avoid spending money at any of his businesses and properties would find life difficult.

Under his name are 19 casinos, the two tallest Macau buildings, horse and dog-racing tracks, a large jetfoil fleet, a helicopter service, five hotels, department stores, and residential and commercial property, all in the 29-square-kilometre SAR.

Then there are casinos in Portugal, Vietnam and North Korea, as well as 169 Hong Kong company boards on which he serves as director. One of the busiest boulevards in Macau is called Dr Stanley Avenue. He is a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and of the election committee that chooses Macau's chief executive.

Mr Ho has four beautiful "wives", including one who has passed away, and has 17 children. And as the 87-year-old lies in hospital after brain surgery to remove a blood clot, Chinese gossip magazines are busy running cover stories of another woman in her 20s rumoured to be his fifth "wife".

But no king can stay in power forever. Mr Ho's four-decade Macau gambling monopoly was broken in 2001 when Beijing opened the market to foreign investors. In 2004, Sheldon Adelson's Macau Sands opened its doors, leading the charge of US casino giants and heralding a sea change in the SAR's economy and culture.

Mr Ho fought back and regained some lost ground but now, with him apparently severely incapacitated, there is growing speculation that his reign is ending.

A post-Stanley-Ho era is taking shape and Macau is emerging from the shadow of monopoly. Whether residents like it or not, life in the fast lane is becoming inevitable.

"Gone is the era of Stanley Ho as his economic power gets diluted by US casino investors," said Larry So Man-yum, a political commentator at Macau Polytechnic Institute. Macau residents were kissing goodbye to a leisurely past, Professor So said, and learning to cope with greater competition.

An influx of workers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia is threatening job security. Small local firms are struggling against large casinos and Hong Kong companies. Hong Kong's top real estate agencies have increased their presence there, eating up many smaller fish in the pond. On a grimmer front, loansharks from the mainland and elsewhere in Asia have been squeezing the profit margins of local competitors.

And regardless of whether Mr Ho recovers from his illness or not, the tycoon will eventually have to divide his business empire between his three wives and 17 children. To date, no succession plan has been made known.

Mr Ho has largely handed over day-to-day control and management of his two most prominent companies - Hong Kong-listed Shun Tak Holdings and SJM Holdings. Mr Ho remains chairman of both companies which have a combined market capitalisation of HK$27.6 billion, based on August 21 closing share prices.

Shipping, real estate and hotel developer Shun Tak has since 1999 effectively been run by three of Mr Ho's daughters, including Pansy Ho Chiu-king as managing director and Daisy Ho Chiu-fung as deputy managing director and chief financial officer.

The management of flagship SJM Holdings is largely in the hands of veterans from the earlier days of Mr Ho's former monopoly in the industry. Between them, SJM chief executive Ambrose So Shu-fai and chief operating officer Louis Ng Chi-sing have clocked up 64 years of service in Mr Ho's casino business.

Mr Ho's fourth "wife", Macau legislator Angela Leong On-kei, also serves as an SJM director. She has cultivated strong relationships among VIP junket agents and franchise casino operators.

Affairs at Mr Ho's 32.2 per cent-owned conglomerate, Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau (STDM), of which he is managing director, are less straightforward.

STDM ultimately controls most of Mr Ho's casino, property and transport businesses and remains SJM's biggest shareholder with a 61 per cent stake. Its 44 disparate shareholders include the Henry Fok Ying-tung Foundation, with a 26.58 per cent stake. New World Development and Chow Tai Fook Enterprises chairman Cheng Yu-tung has a 9.6 per cent interest. Mr Ho's estranged sister, Winnie Ho Yuen-ki, holds a 7.35 per cent stake. Ms Leong and third wife Chan Un-chan hold equal 0.235 per cent stakes, while Pansy Ho holds direct and indirect interests in the firm.

Mr Ho helped two of his children win two of Macau's six casino licences to start their own gambling businesses. Pansy Ho has entered the industry in competition with her father's SJM via a joint venture with MGM Mirage of Las Vegas. Likewise Mr Ho's eldest living son, Lawrence Ho Yau-lung, owns two rival casino resorts in Macau in a joint venture with Australian James Packer.

Professor So said it was unlikely that anyone could repeat Mr Ho's dominance in a post-Stanley Ho Macau. "It's hard to imagine someone as strong as Stanley Ho will appear when the economic and political powers are increasingly fragmented in Macau," he said.

Economist and gambling researcher Zeng Zhonglu, also of Macau Polytechnic Institute, agreed.

It was not unusual for Macau businessmen to have highly diverse portfolios in the past, but competition was forcing them to change, Professor Zeng said. "As Macau opens up and competition hots up, one needs to stay focused on a limited number of fields to be competitive."

Professor So said the Las Vegas Sands had brought to Macau a more efficient management style and local companies such as SJM had been forced to follow. The gambling business had become more regulated and transparent.

When Mr Ho finally leaves SJM, Professor Zeng says, the company may lose some lobbying power with the mainland and Macau governments, but it could still do well because it had matured as a listed company and adapted.

Mr Ho's casino monopoly, which he won in 1961, was frequently associated with organised crime, but he has always denied he has triad links.

Some analysts believe the government's move to end the gaming monopoly is partly designed to limit the influence of organised crime related to the VIP gambling halls. There are worries that as Mr Ho's power diminishes, triad gangs living off gambling money may wage bloody street warfare like they did before the 1999 handover.

But Professor Zeng said the Macau government was stronger than the Portuguese administration in the 1990s and mainland authorities would help ensure order in Macau.

There may not be anyone to replace the legendary casino king, but there may not need to be. Macau looks set to do as well, or even better, in a new era of market competition.

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