Some of Steve Wynn's earliest advice on how to succeed in China came from former United States president George H. W. Bush. It was back in 2002 and the billionaire casino developer had recently made a successful bid for one of three new gaming licences in Macau. Bush senior and his wife Barbara, whose son was then the incumbent US president, were friends of the Wynns and had come to stay at their golf course residence outside Las Vegas. 'George sat me down and he said: 'Okay Steve, I'm going to explain it to you and I know some of this may be counter-intuitive',' Wynn recalled in an interview. This is what he told Wynn: 'Americans pay a lot of attention to contracts and papers, because if you mean what you say and you say what you mean you will sign your name to it ... that's the way we think here, it's a European tradition.' So said Bush, who moved to Beijing in the early 1970s as America's first envoy to China following the communists' rise to power. 'In China, the tradition is relationship-driven. What people say to one another matters a great deal. And the Chinese people are very organised and methodical in their approach. They love planning, they love thinking things out and having a programme ... So the art form in China, Steve, is to know what the plan is and how you fit into it. 'And another thing: that programme changes from time to time,' Bush said. So began the Sinification of Stephen Alan Wynn. In the eight years since that first lesson, the 68-year-old has started learning Mandarin, listed his Macau business on the Hong Kong stock market and invested US$1.8 billion building two casino hotels in Macau (the second one opens this week). Last year, Macau accounted for 60 per cent of revenue and 67 per cent of core earnings at his Nasdaq-listed Wynn Resorts. Learning how to fit into the Chinese plan has paid off in spades. Since opening in September 2006, the US$1.2 billion Wynn Macau has generated US$1.4 billion in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda) on US$5.4 billion in sales. Wynn also scooped up US$900 million selling a 'subconcession', or casino licence, in Macau. And the stock market listing raised another HK$14.49 billion. 'Macau has been very good to me,' says Wynn. 'And we're trying to figure out more ways to be good to Macau.' As many foreign investors in China have discovered, surprises abound. A year after the original three casino licences were awarded Macau then created a fourth, a 'subconcession' for Las Vegas Sands, which had fallen out with original partner Galaxy Entertainment. Wynn says his contract with the government stipulated that an increase in the number of licences would be matched by a proportionate tax reduction, which stood (and still stands) at a hefty 39 per cent of casino revenue. '[Macau chief executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah] says to me: 'Steve, I need your co-operation in this matter. I can't be lowering taxes when none of the new casinos are even open',' Wynn recalled. 'I said to Edmund: 'Anything that is good for Macau is good for Wynn'. 'I shut up and I didn't care what the goddamn contract said because this was about a relationship,' Wynn says, citing his lesson from Bush. 'I can say I have a contract and I'm a publicly-listed company and so on ... but I'm in China and that doesn't mean poop.' Few people have been more intertwined with Las Vegas' modern history than Wynn. The son of an east coast bingo parlour operator, he went to Sin City in the late 1960s and ran a liquor distribution business before buying a minority stake in the Frontier casino. He acquired his first piece of land on the Las Vegas Strip in 1971 from Howard Hughes. He not only shook Frank Sinatra's hand but had him star in commercials for his casino hotels. After running the downtown Golden Nugget casino for years, Wynn opened the Strip's first modern mega-resort, the Mirage, in 1989, financing it with junk bonds issued by Michael Milken. In the 1990s, his Mirage Resorts cemented Wynn's reputation for innovation by building the themed Treasure Island resort and the upscale Bellagio hotel. Then, in 2000, he was bought out. Long-time Las Vegas developer and US investor Kirk Kerkorian mounted a US$6.7 billion takeover of Wynn's company to form MGM Mirage, a corporate titan. 'Wynn's exit could end era of mavericks,' ran a headline in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. For the first time in more than 20 years, Wynn was a casino operator without a casino. But he was flush with cash, and quickly managed to acquire the Desert Inn, a 50-year-old property at the less-developed north end of the Las Vegas Strip. By the time his new company, Wynn Resorts, listed on the US stock market in the summer of 2002, Wynn had torn down the Desert Inn and was planning to build a US$2.7 billion resort on the site. Perhaps more intriguing, if less quantifiable, the company was one of three awarded a 'provisional concession' to operate casinos in Macau. But Wynn still needed to finalise terms of the gaming licence and to acquire land. 'I went to Edmund [Ho] to help me get the land,' says Wynn. The site he was eyeing - where the Wynn Macau sits today - was divided over six lots: four owned by the government and two by Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM) managing director Stanley Ho Hung-sun. '[SJM director] Ambrose [So Shu-fai] and Stanley came to Las Vegas to lunch at the old Desert Inn before I ripped it down and I told them I would like to buy their land. And Stanley said: 'Let us think about it',' Wynn recalled. 'The next day Ambrose called me and said: 'I want US$100 million.' They had just got the property and they paid nothing for it! I called Edmund and said Ambrose So wants a hundred million dollars and I hear this from Edmund: 'Tssk, ahh'.' 'It was like, 'Okay, you tried, leave it to me.' I think he went to Stanley and asked , 'Could you please co-operate? Everything you own is going to be worth twice as much. I don't want you to stop development here'.' In the end, Wynn says he paid about US$60 million for the whole site: US$42 million for the government lots and US$18 million for the other two. Asked what he thought of last month's decision by gaming regulators in New Jersey calling Stanley Ho an associate of organised crime and labelling him and daughter Pansy Ho Chiu-king as 'unsuitable' associates for MGM Mirage, Wynn did not pull punches. 'Picking on Stanley Ho was a cheap shot,' he says. 'Stanley Ho has been there for 48 years or more trying to resolve the challenges that having a concession in Portuguese Macau presented, and that was no small thing. What did Stanley do? He accommodated people, he gave them VIP rooms, stuff like that. I think he has been resolving the historical tensions that are present in China and I think he had a long, long struggle doing that. 'And they don't run SJM today the way they did 20 years ago, either ... but the fact of the matter is, I don't think Stanley Ho is a gangster or an unsavoury character at all. And certainly Pansy as his daughter, who has run the transportation business, is guiltless under any interpretation no matter what you think of the history of Macau.' Wynn acknowledges that some elements of Macau's bad old days still linger, such as a number of VIP gambling junket operators who he cannot do business with - not least because regulators in the US would take issue with him. Junket agents are the middlemen who bring high rollers to casinos, issue them credit for gambling and collect their debts. 'A lot of these junket guys that came from this background became very legitimate and all they do now is that business and they have cleaned up their act,' says Wynn. 'But a lot of them have not and that has disqualified them from doing business, in my joint at least. 'Not everybody in the world has to be Jesus, but you sure as hell gotta know the difference between a guy who's a 10 on a scale and a guy who's a two in terms of exposure.' Within the industry, Wynn is probably best known for his hands-on approach to the striking interior designs that grace his luxury playpens. He studied literature in university and is a keen admirer and renowned collector of art. It is a cruel irony that he suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that often leads to night blindness and tunnel vision and is gradually eroding his ability to see. Wynn arrived in Macau last Sunday morning for his first visit since November. A series of lower back operations had kept him in Las Vegas during the final fitting-out stages of the US$600 million, 414-room Encore, a boutique casino hotel tower attached to the existing Wynn Macau that opens this week. 'This is the first time in 42 years where one of my buildings has been finished and I haven't been in it every day for the last four months,' he says. Dressed in a white polo shirt and seated in front of a cup of coffee at a table inside Encore's ritzy 24-hour cafe, he looks relaxed despite having stepped off the plane only hours before. The comforts of private jet travel and arriving to sample a 'four-handed massage' in one of Encore's spa suites appear to have taken the edge off of jetlag. 'The first Macau hotel was cross your fingers and hope you get it right,' says Wynn. 'But with this one we could express elegance in our own way. We didn't have to key off anything else but our own experience. 'You can see that I'm busting my buttons on this one,' says Wynn. 'For example, I wanted ours to be the best Chinese restaurant in the People's Republic of China ... I said: 'I don't care what it costs, let's get that chef and build that restaurant'.' Encore's standard rooms are an impressive 1,100 square feet, compared to 600 sq ft at the Wynn Macau. Colours explode in a palette of yellows, oranges, pinks and reds. 'Matisse is all over this place,' says Wynn. From the walls of the spa, which are clad in jute rope ('a very quiet, Zen and peaceful place'), to the bathrooms of the four 7,000 sq ft high-rollers' villas with their interiors dressed in mother-of-pearl tiles, Encore marks new levels of experimentation for Wynn and his in-house design team headed by Roger Thomas. 'We're finding our voice,' says Wynn. 'Roger and me have been trying to use this contemporary expression of classical, using colours and materials that are not expected.' For Wynn, the new Encore is an extension of his full-on embrace of the Chinese market, and its opening comes as Las Vegas continues to struggle under the biggest slowdown to hit gambling revenue on the Strip in at least two decades. 'It's definitely mushy. The central government in Washington is completely out of step with the country and not helpful and not responsive.' High-rolling baccarat players, mainly from China, have been the one bright spot for Strip casinos in the past year. But the domestic market that plies the slot machines and fills the 4,700 hotel rooms at the Wynn and Encore properties in Las Vegas remains soft. 'What am I supposed to do? Whine, go bankrupt, act stupid? You have to be prepared for moments like this,' Wynn says. That Wynn managed to weather the financial crisis with a balance sheet that's in better shape than many of his competitors is thanks in no small part to the Macau business. And this is where the Tao of Steve Wynn comes full circle. 'I am the luckiest guy in the world to be allowed to participate in Macau,' says Wynn. To show his gratitude, he relates how, a few years ago he paid US$10 million at auction for a Ming dynasty vase with a rare and pristine copper glaze. 'I bought it for the PRC on the condition that it stayed in Macau,' he says. 'That was part of the idea of my company trying to integrate itself into the fabric of the community. I keep looking for opportunities like that. They're not easy to find, you can't just throw money around - you've got to pick your shots.' Beyond Macau, Wynn sees a number of potential markets in Asia where he might like to expand. Going back decades, his biggest customers in Las Vegas have mainly been Asian, and his network runs deep. Wynn tendered for a casino licence in Singapore in 2006, but he says he pulled out because he was too busy trying to get his Macau property opened. Japan would be tempting if gaming is eventually legalised there (Wynn's Japanese partner, pachinko operator Kazuo Okada, holds the largest stake in Wynn Resorts). Taiwan, too, could be interesting, but also complicated. 'Listen, whatever I did in Asia, the first thing I would say is: 'Does this impair my relationship in China?'' 'That would be the first goddamn thing I would say to myself.'