Macau casino magnate Lawrence Ho bets big on Japan gambling venture

Macau casino scion squaring up to crack into Japan’s gaming industry after strict bars on casinos were lifted last year

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 3:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 10:02am

Casino magnate Lawrence Ho – son of Macau gaming legend Stanley Ho Hung-sun – is eyeing a major foray into Japan as he seeks to broaden his family’s reach beyond the world’s biggest gambling hub.

His father was credited with transforming Macau from a sleepy Portuguese outpost to a gaming boomtown boasting revenues surpassing Las Vegas.

But the younger Ho, whose casino-to-resorts firm Melco International rivals his father’s gaming empire, is keen to strike out beyond familiar family turf, with plans for a major investment in Japan’s untapped casino market.

The 40-year-old, with a net worth put at US$2.6 billion by Forbes earlier this year, has already broadened the firm’s international footprint, with casino resorts ventures in the Philippines and Russia.

He is now squaring up to crack into Japan’s gaming industry after strict bars on casinos were lifted last year.

“Nothing will hold me back there,” he said.

Japan already has an appetite for other forms of gambling, including horse and boat racing and pachinko, a slot machine-style game that is played in thousands of smoky parlours and is a huge revenue generator.

Fears over gambling addiction and organised crime were swept aside as the country passed a controversial bill to legalise casinos in 2016, a move seen likely to ignite the gaming market in the world’s third biggest economy.

Ho promised an ambitious pitch for the coveted casino licence.

He has already sought to diversify his Macau offerings in recent years as the industry came under pressure from a slowdown in the Chinese economy and a corruption crackdown by President Xi Jinping that curbed high spenders.

Operators scrambled to bolster their mass market appeal to offset a dramatic drop in revenues from the VIP sector.

Ho’s Studio City built the world’s first and highest figure-of-eight Ferris wheel and launched with a star-studded fanfare in 2015 featuring actors Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Other attractions in Melco’s City of Dreams include a theatre that holds millions of litres of water for aquatic-themed performances and a now-cancelled cabaret show which he “personally loved” but “wasn’t well understood” by mainland customers.

Stanley Ho, 95, is largely retired since a serious fall in 2009 that left him requiring brain surgery.

At the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Hong Kong Wednesday his son lauded the elder businessman for having “revolutionised” the industry.

But Lawrence Ho said his father lacked the motivation to keep growing – an aspect where their philosophies diverge.

“My father was super lucky to have a monopoly for forty years, but the Macau government wanted to open it up to competition. It was the right decision,” he said.

Macau has seen a recovery in casino revenue in the last year, with a strong VIP-sector, propped up by mainland high rollers.

But Macau is under pressure from Beijing to diversify away from gambling.

China has halved the cash machine limit for UnionPay cardholders visiting the gambling enclave, in an effort to curb massive capital outflows caused by the falling yuan.

Ho said he was confident that his casino licence, set to expire in 2022 along with other operators’, would be renewed.

Melco International is now worth US$4.36 billion in market capitalisation and Ho said that Macau would continue to be the linchpin of his business.

“Macau will always be the best integrated resort gaming market in the world because it’s on the doorstep of China,” he said.