There is a saying among Macau locals: “Stanley Ho is Macau.” And there is good reason for this. He sits on top of an enormous empire of wealth, including 17 casinos out of the city’s 35, numerous land holdings throughout Southeast Asia, not to mention a staggering amount of holdings and capital. Although it seems many are hesitant to estimate his real wealth, in 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported estimates that his company still accounted for 30% of Macau’s gambling revenue.
Ho enjoyed a complete monopoly on gambling rights on the island since the 1960’s, which placed him in a good position to cash in on the changes the city has undergone. Many of the stories of Ho’s rise, such as single-handedly fighting off pirates from a ship he was manning or making his first million as a middle-man for the Japanese army during the war are questionable. However what is known is that the first incarnation of his Casino Lisboa, a regular haunt for old-school triad types such as Broken Tooth, was both infamous and extremely profitable.
And cash in he did. Although it might seem at first glance that the break of his monopoly in 2002 would have been bad for his business, the entry of other gambling kingpins, such as Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson only helped to transform Macau from a somewhat backwater gambling spot to what it is today. Since then Stanley Ho’s kingdom has only thrived.
The trouble is that Ho is very much getting on in age and people are starting to wonder what will happen to this vast wealth once he no longer controls the chips, not least of all his progeny. With four wives and at least 16 surviving children, relatives are already vying for a piece of the pie. In fact, in 2011, when he seemed to be in declining health, he was forced to launch a lawsuit against the children of his second and third wives over how his assets would be split.
This was not just a family dispute; it caused uncertainty about the future of a multi-billion dollar industry that sent tremors through stock markets which was felt as far as Wall Street. Ho did recover, and his fourth wife, Angela Leong, also an executive in his gambling enterprise, seemed to come out on top.
Relations with organized crime?
It is apparent that Macau’s transformation is not over, and some of the continuing developments call into question whether Stanley Ho’s old-school, junket reliant business model will survive. Although Ho has adamantly denied any association with organized crime, it is widely known that junkets, those organizations that bring VIP players to the casinos, have ties to triads such as 14k and Sun Yee. And these junket operators have been essential to Ho’s empire. His fourth wife, Angela Leong is the head of the Association of Junket Operators. Such links have already led to some scandal. When MGM Mirage attempted a deal with his daughter, Pansy Ho, that would have given them access to Macau, the firm was taken to task by in New Jersey by the state’s casino enforcement agency, who accused the group of pursuing partnerships with persons they knew to be involved in organized crime. MGM Mirage’s own investigators reported that Stanley Ho had close links, not only with triads, but also with Russian organized crime units and North Korean authorities.
A compromised business model
This is all much more than a public relations problem for Ho and his sprawling business. It has caused speculation as to the viability of Stanley Ho’s entire business model of colluding with nefarious elements in order to attract big money from China. One wonders how his casinos will compete with large American groups like Sands if, as the Chinese government has signaled, Macau’s casino industry is forced to diversify into more entertainment-based, family-friendly tourism attractions in the Vegas style. American gaming groups are much more experienced in this area, but then again, Stanley Ho is playing on his own turf.
It remains to be seen how Ho, nicknamed “the Gambler” will come out on all his bets, but one thing is for certain; all eyes are on him. Perhaps the man has overplayed his hand, perhaps not. The real question for all those with a vested interest is, if Stanley Ho is Macau, what will Macau be without Stanley Ho?
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