Stanley Ho, the legendary gambling tycoon who died one year ago this month, left behind a complex inheritance.
That is perhaps not surprising for a man who had fewer recognised partners (four) but more children (17) than Henry VIII. It also made for some interesting board proceedings at his flagship Macau gaming company, SJM Holdings.
SJM’s board is now headed by Daisy, the late patriarch’s daughter from his second marriage. One of her two co-chairs, Angela Leong, was Ho’s fourth wife. His third wife, Chan Un Chan is also an SJM director.
For the better part of a decade, as Ho’s health faded, SJM was the subject of what people close to the protagonists call “the war between the second and fourth families”.
This war was finally won by the second family in 2018, when Daisy succeeded her father as SJM’s chair. Less than a year later, the second family further consolidated its grip on Ho’s empire when Daisy’s older sister, Pansy, announced an alliance giving her effective control over SJM’s parent company.
The question now is whether Daisy can chart a new course for SJM, whose development was constrained by Ho’s conservatism.
When Macau’s gambling market was liberalised in 2002, ending Ho’s 40-year monopoly, new entrants led by Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands built huge new resorts on the Cotai strip — a vast land reclamation that linked Macau’s two previously separate outlying islands, Coloane and Taipa.
Adelson, who passed away in January, and his top executives were often dismissive of Ho, who clung stubbornly to a collection of no-frills casinos on Macau’s densely populated peninsula.
When I sat down for an on-the-record interview with William Weidner, then president of Sands, just ahead of the 2007 opening of the Venetian Macao, I expected him to be respectful of Adelson’s new arch rival. Instead, he said that on his first visit to Macau in 1980, Ho’s Lisboa casino reminded him of “the cockfight scene in The Deer Hunter”. “We in Las Vegas,” Weidner added, “couldn’t believe a place as poorly executed as the Lisboa did as well [financially] as it did.”
Ho remained wedded to his old business model of catering to high-rolling “whales” in quiet VIP rooms. But Adelson was convinced that China’s emerging middle class, when not losing money at his baccarat tables, wanted Las Vegas-style resorts, shows and convention centres.
When it was opened in the summer of 2007, the $2.5bn Venetian had 3,000 hotel rooms and 1.2m sq ft of convention space. As one of my impressed friends said at the time “it’s like gambling in an airport, but bigger”.
The popularity of Macau’s new generation of casino resorts, which soon propelled the territory far past Las Vegas as the world’s biggest gambling market, proved that Adelson had a better understanding of his Chinese clientele than Ho ever did.
Ho, however, was not one to admit defeat. In his first — and last — SJM chairman’s note, in the group’s 2008 annual report, he said the company would continue to “focus on the business of gaming that we know best and provide an attractive product aimed at a targeted clientele”. He also proudly described the Macau peninsula as SJM’s “home base”.
In one sign of the group’s long period of drift, from 2009 to 2017 Ambrose So, SJM’s caretaker chief executive, would sign the opening business overview in its annual reports before finally handing the pen over to Daisy in 2018.
Over the next few months — and some 14 years after the Venetian transformed Macau — SJM will finally venture out from Ho’s long shadow with the opening of its Grand Lisboa Palace integrated resort on Cotai.
The timing could hardly be less auspicious, as Macau continues to stagger from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, the territory’s visitor arrivals and gross gaming revenues fell 85 per cent and 79 per cent respectively, compared with 2019. But visitor numbers are finally starting to pick up after Macau reopened its borders to travellers from mainland China in August.
For SJM, much will depend on its June appointment of a new chief operating officer, Frank McFadden. Ho originally poached McFadden from Adelson in 2006 to oversee the opening of SJM’s current flagship casino, the Grand Lisboa.
McFadden, an Irishman who often told friends he was looking forward to retirement in County Donegal, has made it clear that he thinks a new era beckons for SJM. “My mandate,” he told Inside Asian Gaming magazine shortly after his appointment, “is for change”.