Aussie gaming mogul's bet on China goes awry

The arrests have caused damage to Mr James Packer's company, Crown Resorts, including a drastic fall of Asian VIPs. And the fallout appears set to continue. As he reshapes his gaming empire, it is a matter of speculation whether his China venture wil
The arrests have caused damage to Mr James Packer's company, Crown Resorts, including a drastic fall of Asian VIPs. And the fallout appears set to continue. As he reshapes his gaming empire, it is a matter of speculation whether his China venture will be added to his list of career mistakes.PHOTO: REUTERS

Arrests of staff in China could also hinder plans to build a new resort complex in Sydney

Four years ago, Australian gaming mogul James Packer gave a rousing speech on the benefits of embracing China and ended with a line that he may now prefer to forget.

"I have made many, many mistakes in my life but investing in China is not one of them," he told an Asia Society luncheon in Sydney.

Mr Packer is perhaps ruing his words, as his big gamble on doing business in China and targeting Chinese high rollers for his Australian operations has turned sour. His company, Crown Resorts, ran into serious trouble with the arrest last October of 18 employees in China.

The arrests were apparently part of a Chinese crackdown on casino operators recruiting Chinese high rollers to gamble - an illegal practice in China. With about 14 Crown staff still in detention, the arrests have caused damage to the firm, including a drastic fall of Asian VIPs. And the fallout appears set to continue.

Following the arrests, Crown scaled back its global plans, including reducing its stake in Macau - the world's biggest gambling hub - where it has a joint venture with Hong Kong gaming tycoon Lawrence Ho. Crown also ditched a plan to build a casino in Las Vegas for A$2 billion (S$2.16 billion).

It has now emerged that its plans to focus on its Australian operations also face hurdles.

Victoria state authorities revealed last Friday that they will begin conducting a five-yearly review of Crown's flagship casino in Melbourne by the middle of the year.

This follows suggestions that its plans for a new Sydney resort could come under scrutiny from regulators because of the China arrests.

The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) said it would examine Crown's suitability to hold a licence. "The VCGLR is monitoring the situation involving Crown staff in China and will not comment further regarding the matter," a spokesman told The Australian.

The review follows a difficult year for Crown. Last month, the company revealed that its VIP intake at its two casinos in Australia had fallen 45 per cent - a drop attributed to a reduction in the number from Asia.

VIP revenue plunged 47 per cent at its Melbourne casino and was down 39 per cent in Perth.

VIPs from China have reportedly been steering clear of Crown casinos out of fear that they will become ensnared in the Chinese crackdown on the company.

The drop has also been attributed to competition from casinos in Singapore, Macau and South Korea.

Crown executive chairman John Alexander said last month that the company was waiting to see the outcome for its staff detained in China before again pursuing Chinese high rollers. "We're in a different situation right now because of obviously what happened in China," he noted.

"We're just basically waiting to see how that plays out before we resume a traditional marketing pattern in the region... VIP remains a focus for us long term but in the short term... we are in a holding pattern."

The detained staff are still in legal limbo and have apparently not yet learnt whether they will be charged.

Following the arrests, Crown has reportedly begun plans to sell a flagship golf course and exclusive private jets that it used for high rollers.

It is reportedly also dropping its sponsorship of former Australian Open tennis champion Li Na.

Experts say Crown's future expansion plans in Sydney may face additional obstacles. The company plans to build a luxury resort complex in the new harbourside precinct of Barangaroo, including gaming rooms for VIPs.

The project is due to open in 2021.

Former New South Wales gaming authority head Chris Sidoti said the convictions of Crown staff could lead to reviews of the project and potential sanctions, ranging from cautions to the removal of the company's licence.

"We would have to take into account the deficiencies in the Chinese legal system... but if there are charges in China and if those charges result in convictions, that would place an authority like a regulatory body in Australia on notice and require further inquiries to be made," he told ABC's Four Corners programme earlier this month.

Crown has dismissed suggestions that the arrests will affect the Barangaroo project, saying the resort's appeal will extend beyond VIPs.

As Mr Packer reshapes his gaming empire, it is a matter of speculation whether his China venture will be added to his list of career mistakes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2017, with the headline 'Aussie gaming mogul's bet on China goes awry'. Print Edition | Subscribe