Call it the battle for new south 'whales', the tug-of-war over control of Sydney's Star casino. With stakes so high, it's on for young and old, writes Simon Mann.
They are the so-called whales, fabulously rich gamblers jetted into town to be pampered by their eager hosts. Often demanding, sometimes quirky and superstitious, they attract the very best and attentive service, and enjoy the trappings of the high life, often gratis: six-star luxury accommodation, fine dining, live shows, top-brand shopping.
They can win or drop millions of dollars at gaming tables on a single visit. Wagers of several hundred thousand dollars are not uncommon. Occasionally, as much as $1 million is bet on a hand of cards. Baccarat is a favourite game.
Predominantly ethnic Chinese, their money also buys discretion and exclusivity. Little is ever revealed by casino operators about their identity or their gambling habits, but in a single year, at Melbourne's Crown casino alone, these VIP punters turn over an extraordinary $30 billion - around $600 million a week.
"It's simply another world," says an insider, still agog after a decade's involvement in the industry.
It's a world, too, that is fast expanding, as China's exploding wealth and the rising prosperity of nations such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, spawn a new and vast generation of high rollers.
That reality, and the intensifying competition for their business, lies at the centre of a stoush over control of the Star casino, one that has several elements, commercial and political, and which is flavoured by a hint of hoary Melbourne-Sydney rivalry. At its core is James Packer's ambition to retain his dominance over VIP gambling in Australia by having a key say in Sydney's newly rejuvenated casino business.
The Packer-controlled Crown group enjoys 75 per cent of the nearly $1 billion of annual casino revenue generated by high rollers in Australia through its internationally acclaimed Yarra River complex and its Burswood casino, in Perth.
But the once dowdy northern cousin, the Star, tarted up with a $900 million facelift, is aiming more aggressively at the same VIP market, a threat magnified by Sydney's standing as Australia's gateway for international tourism.
Packer's response has been fierce and multi-pronged, with Crown taking a 10 per cent stake in the Star's owner, Echo Entertainment, and applying to the regulator to be allowed to move to the takeover threshold of 20 per cent.
Simultaneously, the Packer camp has waged a public relations war against Echo over the latter's lacklustre recent performance to the point of forcing out its chairman, John Story, while pushing for its own boardroom appointee, the former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett.
Packer's pitch has been for a united Australian front in the quest to wrest bigger numbers of the region's high rollers, and he has wowed tourism chiefs, and the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, with a proposal for a 35-storey luxury hotel at Barangaroo.
Apart from a potential public backlash, the snag is that Packer wants the hotel to include exclusive gaming salons for high rollers. But the Star holds the state's only casino licence and would need to agree to a hybrid arrangement that split its facilities between its current site and Barangaroo.
O'Farrell, unimpressed by the recent sexual harassment scandal at the Star, has appeared to revel a little in the Star's discomfort by publicly praising Packer as a "shrewd and successful businessman", while acknowledging that the Crown push "is starting to look like a political campaign". While Packer's ultimate objective is clear - gaining Star's licence - he faces stern resistance from an Echo board that accuses him of seeking control of the company on the cheap, by denying a premium to its shareholders.
They appear to be daring him to launch a full takeover bid, something that could be in the offing once Packer offloads his remaining media interests. The sale of those, which indirectly include a 25 per cent stake in Foxtel, could raise close to $1 billion.
The longer game plan could be his positioning for Crown's own casino licence in NSW when the Star's exclusivity expires in 2019.
"Everyone concedes that Crown has been the key venue for high rollers in Australia," says a close Echo observer. "They've worked hard and put a lot of effort into that market.
"But the upside for Star is enormous. Sure, you could tackle that market through some joint venture or tie-up with Crown, so in that sense Packer is absolutely right. But Star doesn't need Packer to do that."
As for Packer's push for new blood in the Echo boardroom, he adds: "Why on earth would you agree to put a competitor on your board?"
Echo is confident that it can offer a similarly impressive high roller experience as Crown's by coupling the Star with Echo's Queensland casinos, the soon-to-be upgraded Jupiter sites on the Gold Coast and in Townsville, as well as the Treasury in Brisbane.
"The truth is," suggests one stockmarket analyst, "Packer might need Star more than Star needs Packer."
But that's if the Star gets it right. There are plenty who see Crown's management expertise as vital in finally raising the Star to the high roller firmament. And they offer as evidence Star's recent admission that the collapse of a Macau-based junket operator (businesses that scoop up high rollers and deliver them to casinos throughout Asia) had cost it $7 million in forward commissions and potentially another $23 million in unrecoverable high roller debts.
Echo, which has portrayed the losses as teething problems, unveiled on Friday details of a $450 million capital raising that will be used to strengthen its balance sheet and lend weight to its high roller push. But the announcement was accompanied by a downgrade in its profit outlook, further fodder for its critics.
The Packer camp argues that its agitation is on behalf of all Echo shareholders, who now include the Singapore casino group Genting, which has built a 4.9 per cent stake, along with Macquarie Bank, whose similarly sized holding on behalf of various investment funds would appear to be a punt on profitable future resolution. Standing steadfast, too, has been Perpetual Investments, with 8 per cent, which has backed Echo's board in rebuffing the Packer demands.
No one would dare suggest that the prevailing obstacles are insurmountable for the Packer camp, which has assembled an impressive roll call of political heavyweights. They include the former federal government minister Mark Arbib and former ALP national secretary Karl Bittar, as well as the former Liberal senator and federal communications minister Helen Coonan, a Crown director. Networking is also the name of the high roller game across Asia, and Packer's interests in Macau in partnership with Hong Kong-based tycoon Lawrence Ho provides a handy conduit for introducing more high rollers to his plush Australian salons. Their business is becoming increasingly vital as growth in the domestic gaming market tails off. While local punters contribute more in terms of profits, the high roller market (despite its skinny margins and greater risk) is growing more strongly, demonstrated by Crown's figures. In the latest corporate reporting period, revenues from local gaming in Melbourne grew by 5 per cent while those from its VIP program were 34 per cent stronger, albeit from a lower base.
Tourism chiefs recognise the potential should this trend be replicated in Sydney, drawing ever greater numbers of big spenders willingly pumping money into the local economy. The boss of the Tourism & Transport Forum, John Lee, sees the Bangararoo development as upping the ante in Sydney's claim for higher tourist numbers, just as Singapore's so-called "integrated resorts" have pulled a flood of new visitors to the city-state. He says the Packer plan has merit and would add to the harbour precinct's "tourism offering". But intensifying competition for VIP punters has not just triggered a casino "arms race" in Australia, but one that is region-wide.
At its epicentre is Macau, the only city in a country of more than 1 billion people permitted to run casinos and the site of several billion-dollar developments.
Having already eclipsed Las Vegas, the island's 30 casinos are expected to rake in revenues of more than $US40 billion in 2012 (about 10 times the gaming revenues of Australia's 13 casinos), of which high rollers can be expected to account for 70 per cent.
Singapore is fast establishing itself, too, as a key high-roller destination. The 31 VIP salons of the $5 billion Marina Bay Sands, for example, already draw 60 per cent of that complex's gaming revenues.
The widespread assumption is that - notwithstanding the Chinese economy's recent slowing - the premium gambling pie has years of expansion ahead, and the chairman of Marina Bay's Las Vegas parent company, the US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, identifies a growing new class of gambler.
"We are constantly surprised at who they are, the number of people, how they come out of the woodwork and how many there are in the world," he recently told Singapore's Straits Times.
"There was a time, 10, 15 years ago, that people thought that in the entire world, there were as few as 150 VIP players. We sometimes get that in a few days, a week or two weeks. So the word plateau, in terms of Asia, is not in our vocabulary."
But the breadth of competition is likely to demand more creative ways for luring gamblers farther south than Singapore, a fact that could affect the sort of inducements offered to "whales" by local operators, such as the extent of "loss rebates", where casinos cover a portion of a high roller's losses.
Packer's remedy of a united front also calls for better support from governments to maintain tax and other advantages, which could be extended to faster visa and customs clearances for high rollers to match the efficiency of Singapore.
The Star's "fate", meanwhile, may not be determined for some time, with no guarantee that a takeover bid will materialise to unlock the stalemate.
But some ponder a deal that would see some of Crown's interests in Macau passed to Genting, providing Packer with the financial muscle to swallow Echo. At the moment, its link to the Ho Group demands exclusivity in Asia and, as one analyst noted: "Who would want to rock that boat?"
But another gaming expert based overseas thinks otherwise, wondering if Packer might, in fact, prefer to be the big fish in the smaller pond. "If I was Packer, and if I had the option of cornering the Australian market or keeping a 30 per cent stake in one of six operators in Macau, I'd probably corner the Australian market. It's as simple as that."
Echo Entertainment (owner of The Star and three Queensland casinos) said on Friday that statutory earnings for the six months to June would be 40 per cent lower than the $217 million reported in the first half.
Echo asked investors for $454 million in new capital.
Net debt is said to be three times earnings, making it one of the highest geared casino companies in the world.
Last week James Packer was successful in ousting the Echo chairman, John Story.