Sun, Feb 24, 2019 - Page 7 News List

A 97-year-old tycoon,
his four wives and the push
to revive a casino empire

Illustration: June Hsu

In Macau, the world’s biggest gambling hub, few family business dynasties are as powerful as the clan led by patriarch Stanley Ho (何鴻燊). Or as complex: The tycoon, 97, has fathered 17 children with four women he calls his wives.

Now, one branch of that sprawling family is consolidating control just as its SJM Holdings Ltd prepares to rebid for its casino license and faces a serious challenge from Las Vegas rivals, who have built glitzier resorts in Macau.

Ho’s rise in the gaming enclave is one of the more dramatic stories in Chinese business. He built the Chinese city’s first casino in 1962, and became a billionaire from his 40-year monopoly there.

Over the decades, Ho family drama has been rife with plot twists that have made running SJM — and planning succession — a tricky business.

In recent weeks, the children from wife No. 2, Lucina Laam (藍瓊纓), forged an alliance with another group of shareholders — Hong Kong’s influential Fok family (霍家) — to gain voting control of the board.

Now the concentration of power in a single branch of the family, backed by the heft of another Chinese empire, could boost business as they seek permission to keep operating in Macau’s US$38 billion-a-year gaming industry.

The stakes are high: SJM is one of Asia’s oldest gambling businesses and it still controls the largest number of casinos in Macau.

“The shareholders in the alliance all possess irreplaceable goodwill, accumulated through prolonged understanding and exposure in various industry sectors in Macau and mainland China,” Daisy Ho (何超鳳), SJM’s chairman and one of Laam’s daughters, said in her first interview since the pact was announced on Jan. 23.

Members of the alliance have interests in retail, hospitality, conferences and travel services, she said.

“Together with Timothy Fok (霍震霆), who is cochairman of SJM, we can leverage and apply these resources to further develop SJM’s competitiveness to pursue the new gaming concession,” she asid.

SJM’s stock traded 3.61 percent higher at the close of Hong Kong trading on Friday, while the benchmark Hang Seng Index was up 0.65 percent.

In the 1960s, Stanley was a Hong Kong entrepreneur with a reputation as a charismatic power broker. He and a group of businessmen won the first license to set up a casino in Macau, a ferry ride from Hong Kong.

Among his partners was Henry Fok (霍英東), Timothy’s father. The city was still a Portuguese colony, and prostitution and gang wars were common on the streets, but as the Chinese economy opened up and its population grew wealthier, gamblers playing for high stakes came pouring in.

The Ho empire controlled Macau’s economy almost completely for decades, and its founding families went on to gain tremendous clout. Stanley became one of Hong Kong’s richest men.

When Henry Fok died in 2006, China’s Xinhua news agency called him “a close friend of the Communist Party.”

Timothy, 73, has been a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body in China.

Macau’s market opened in 2002, soon after the city was handed back to China after more than 400 years of Portuguese rule. Licenses — called concessions — were given out by the local government.

Of the six big companies operating there, SJM and MGM China Holdings Ltd’s concessions expire in March 2020. Those of Sands China Ltd, Wynn Macau Ltd, Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd and Melco Resorts & Entertainment Ltd run out in June 2022.

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