The Packer swagger is back

James Packer has come out on the other side of the GFC with a gambling empire and two messages – gambling is good and the Chinese middle class is a golden goose.

SmartCompany

A few weeks ago, when James Packer was rumoured to be selling his stake in Consolidated Media and effectively severing ties with the media industry, business commentator and long-time Packer watcher Stephen Mayne made an interesting argument.

If Packer were to become Australia’s casino king, Mayne said, then retaining some interest in the media would be a good idea as "political insurance”.

It’s an idea with plenty of merit, but as James Packer showed us last night in a very positive interview on 60 Minutes, perhaps a direct media stake is unnecessary. Anytime he wants to send a message to Australia, he only needs to call up Dad’s old firm – the Nine Network – and they’ll find a way to get him a run.

The video is well worth a look. It’s essentially part of Packer’s pitch to build a casino at the Barangaroo development in Sydney, a facility that would be aimed at Chinese tourists.

Of course, Packer is also circling casino operator Echo Entertainment, which owns Sydney’s sole casino, The Star.

Combined, these forays into Sydney would make Packer the undisputed king of casinos in Australia and cement his position as one of the biggest casino moguls in the world.

Packer essentially ran two messages.

Firstly, we need better tourism assets to attract Chinese tourists, and as the experiences of Macau and Singapore show, a casino is a very good way to do it.

The Chinese middle class, Packer argues, is a sort of golden goose for nations around the world.

"It may even be a bigger story than the internet… the Chinese middle class is going to change the world."

His second message was pretty basic: Gambling is actually not that bad.

"I am really sick of people looking at me as though I am running some sort of sinful business. I am hugely proud of our business,” Packer said, before explaining that his business pays twice as much tax as it had profit.

James even evoked the ghost of his late father Kerry Packer to emphasise just how much fun a spot of punting is.

"My dad was the smartest bloke in the room, but he loved being in a casino. It was the most fun thing he did.”

But, for a moment at least, let’s look past the casino pitch, which was pretty blatant.

What really got me was a segment of the interview where Packer spoke about his poor investments in Las Vegas, which ended up costing around $1.7 billion.

Packer freely admits he made mistakes with his North American foray, coming as it did just as the global financial crisis got into gear.

But he’s clearly laughing about it now. He and interviewer Karl Stefanovic giggle like old mates about the whole experience and the stress it placed on the organisation.

"It was scary times if you were in the middle of building $5 billion buildings,” Packer laughs, as only a billionaire can.

"I think I am the luckiest person in Australia. When Macau came good it made for a much better alternative than the alternative.”

A few minutes later, Packer delivers the killer line.

"We’re going to make a lot more money in China than we lost in America.”

While Packer was hardly subjected to tough questioning during his interview, I was struck by how relaxed, confident and even jovial Packer seemed. It was, all in all, a pretty impressive presentation.

The fact that Packer can now laugh off what seemed like desperate days during the Las Vegas disaster – and who can forget the stories that he was depressed and sinking – shows that a fair chunk of the Packer swagger is back.

He’s been through that hell, reshaped his father’s business, stayed patient in the face of early problems in Macau and emerged with a gambling empire.

Packer says at the end of the segment that Kerry would approve of some things about this new empire, and he wouldn’t like others.

But the point is that it’s James’ empire now. And it’s an impressive empire at that.

This article first appeared on SmartCompany on May 14. Republished with permission.

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