Sheldon Adelson's casino empire passes to widow, with longtime lieutenant in charge

Mr Adelson's wife Miriam, 75, already controls the bulk of the shares owned by the family. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Robert Goldstein had just been offered a good job to run a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, when Sheldon Mr Adelson called to pitch him on a new opportunity.

Over Chinese food, the younger executive listened to Mr Adelson's vision for a Las Vegas resort focused on convention goers and business travel. "Sheldon never questioned himself - he never blinked," Mr Goldstein recalls. "When I hesitated, he said: 'You can't not do this. You can't not join me.'"

Mr Goldstein went on to help run the billionaire's casino empire, but few entrepreneurs held as tight a grip on their business as Mr Adelson. The feisty founder of casino giant Las Vegas Sands retained the titles of chairman and chief executive officer up until last Thursday (Jan 7), when the company announced that he was on medical leave to focus on his treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Four days later, Mr Adelson succumbed to the disease at age 87.

While Mr Adelson was never one to give up control, he made it clear who will be dealing the cards from here, according to regulatory filings and conversations with company insiders.

Mr Adelson's wife Miriam, 75, already controls the bulk of the shares owned by the family through a series of trusts. In some cases, she shares that authority with her husband's longtime friend and business associate, Irwin Chafetz, 84. In total, the family owns just under 57 per cent of the stock, a stake worth some US$24 billion (S$31.7 billion).

"Sheldon was the love of my life," Miriam said in a statement on Tuesday. "He was my partner in romance, philanthropy, political activism and enterprise. He was my soul mate." Mr Chafetz declined to comment.

Tax strategies

The family won't have to sell Sands shares to pay estate taxes since they won't be levied until Miriam dies, according to John Pantekidis, chief investment officer of the multifamily office TwinFocus. And even then, Mr Adelson planned for years to minimize the impact. The mogul had been an active user of a type of trust that allowed him to transfer stock to his family and avoid gift taxes.

"How many times do you have to pay taxes on money?" he said in a 2013 interview with Bloomberg.

Mr Goldstein, 65, a Sands employee since 1995, stepped up as interim CEO last week. He's expected to be given the job on a full-time basis after years of serving as Mr Adelson's No. 2.

Right behind him will be Patrick Dumont, 46, who has been chief financial officer for the past five years. Mr Dumont is married to Sivan Ochshorn, one of Miriam's two children from her first marriage. He's being groomed as a successor to Goldstein.

"Patrick is a leader and effective in the role that he has," said Jason Ader, an investor and former Sands board member. "He's young and very good. One of the best CFOs in the industry."

Relative calm

At another company, the death of a controlling shareholder might prompt a big move in the stock price - either in anticipation of a sale or out of concern for the future - but Sands barely budged pn Tuesday.

"They have a plan - they've been thinking about this," said David Katz, an analyst with Jefferies & Co. "I think they can move along just the way they are for a while, continuing to crank out cash for them to do stuff with."

Mr Robert Goldstein, a Sands employee since 1995, stepped up as interim CEO last week. PHOTO: SANDS

Even so, Mr Adelson's passing comes at a tumultuous time for Sands and the casino industry as a whole. The company's resorts around the world closed for several weeks last year due to the coronavirus. And business at its casinos in Las Vegas, Singapore and Macau remain well below pre-pandemic levels.

Sands also embarked on a plan to possibly sell its Las Vegas resorts last year, if the company could get the US$6 billion price it was looking for. While that sale process hasn't ended, no buyers have yet emerged.

The company is also dealing with a US probe into its money-transfer practices tied to its Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore. And in Macau, which accounted for almost two-thirds of company revenue in 2019, there's a looming question. Sands will have to negotiate with the Macau government on a concession that expires next June. That could result in substantial additional payments in licensing fees or commitments to invest more in the region.

One big strategic change afoot is the company's position on online gambling. Mr Adelson had been a staunch opponent on moral grounds, believing that games such as online slot machines made it too easy for problem gamblers to lose money. It's a battle he largely lost. Sports betting and other online wagers have exploded since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states outside of Nevada to offer wagers on athletic contests.

Goldstein has already been talking to potential partners about a role for Sands in sports betting, either by licensing its brands or building its own platform. Mr Adelson's death could prompt the company to make a bigger push into online wagering as a whole.

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Several heirs

Mr Adelson leaves behind a number of potential heirs. These include two surviving children from his first marriage; Miriam's two daughters from her first husband; and two sons she and Mr Adelson had together, who are now in their 20s. There's no indication of any kind of squabbling among the clan - unlike the decades of infighting surrounding the family of media mogul Sumner Redstone, who died in August.

Miriam, a physician born in Israel, has devoted much of her life to the science of drug abuse, operating clinics for addicts in Las Vegas and Tel Aviv. She also shared her husband's passion for Republican candidates in the US and for politics in her native Israel. The pair, who met on a blind date set up by one of Miriam's friends, were the single largest contributors to US politicians last year, giving some US$215 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In some respects, Miriam has been as active as Sheldon on the political front. Alongside her husband, she successfully championed US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. President Donald Trump awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, in 2018.

"I expect her to be quietly able to keep things moving in a positive way," said Sig Rogich, a longtime political strategist in Las Vegas who once worked for Sands. "She'll rely on people she trusts."

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