Malaysian billionaire Lim Kok Thay said he wants to raise his stake in Australia’s Echo Entertainment Group Ltd., and invest in Japan and Macau casinos if licenses become available.
Genting Hong Kong Ltd., one of the Asian gaming companies Lim controls, has applied to local regulators to increase its holding in the operator of Sydney’s only casino to above 10 percent and is now waiting for a decision, the executive said in an interview yesterday in Kuala Lumpur. Echo shares rose the most in six weeks.
“We are just patiently waiting” for regulators in New South Wales and Queensland states to make a decision, said Lim, Malaysia’s third-richest man according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. “My guess is it will go on for a while.”
The Genting group of companies has been expanding abroad, from the Bahamas to Manila, amid restrictions on gaming back home in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where it operates the country’s only casino on a hilltop. Gambling is forbidden for Muslims in the Southeast Asian nation as it is considered unethical under Islam.
Genting Malaysia Bhd., one of Lim’s five listed companies, will spend at least 3 billion ringgit ($937 million) over five years to upgrade the local resort, the 61-year-old Harvard University-educated businessman told reporters in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. It will add 1,300 hotel rooms and spend 400 million ringgit transforming its theme park after signing a licensing agreement with Fox, he said.
Echo Entertainment rose 2.7 percent in Sydney after earlier dropping as much 3.6 percent, the stock’s biggest rise since June 14. Australia’s benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index closed 0.1 percent higher yesterday.
Genting and Echo are Asia’s largest casino companies by sales that lack exposure to Macau, the world’s biggest gambling destination. Genting Hong Kong, a cruise ship company controlled by Lim, assembled a 6.6 percent stake in Brisbane-based Echo last year soon after billionaire James Packer’s Crown Ltd. bought 10 percent of the company.
Genting would “love” to operate in Macau “but the door’s closed,” Lim said. “When it next opens, we would be the first one knocking on that door and try our luck.”
Crown, which has a stake in Macau’s City of Dreams resort thanks to a 34 percent share in Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd., was allowed to breach the 10 percent cap on its stake in Echo in May. Packer has since sold Crown’s stake and won approval from New South Wales state to develop a rival casino at Sydney’s Barangaroo development site.
Lim said he hadn’t decided how many Echo shares Genting would like to own. Genting Hong Kong’s application to the Australian regulators last October was for a stake of as much as 25 percent. Companies taking more than a 20 percent share of listed businesses must offer to take over the whole company under Australian rules.
“We have not formed any views yet, especially now that Mr Packer has sold his shares for the reason that he is working on a competing casino,” Lim said. “We would cross that bridge after we’ve got our license.”
Lim said the Echo investment was done through the Hong Kong company after Genting Singapore Plc’s board said it wasn’t interested. It was originally seen as a portfolio investment, he said.
“This is the first time since Crown won the Sydney bid that Genting has come out and confirmed that they are still interested in increasing their stake,” Lafitani Sotiriou, a Melbourne-based analyst at Bell Potter Securities Ltd., said by phone yesterday.
In Malaysia, the revamped attraction will be Fox’s first fully-fledged movie theme park, Jeffrey Godsick, president of Twentieth Century Fox Consumer Products, said yesterday. “There is nothing specific beyond this first project, but this is the start of a relationship,” he said.
The redeveloped park is slated to reopen in 2016 and will feature brands from Fox films including the Ice Age, Rio, Alien and Night at the Museum in a bid to attract more visitors. It will cover 25 acres and feature more than 25 rides and attractions, the company said.
“This landmark development is our first response to the growing demand for theme parks with a cinematic nature,” said Lim. “We have a global footprint, so there are plenty of opportunities for future collaboration.”
Japan could be Genting’s next casino investment should Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government approve legislation, Lim said.
“With a new and stronger government in place, I think their focus would be to drive the Japanese economy,” he said. “Tourism certainly must be one of the factors that the government will be looking at.”
Genting Malaysia opened a 750-acre beach front resort on the Bimini islands in the Bahamas this month as part of its expansion in the Americas. The new destination comprising villas, restaurants, a fisherman’s village and gaming facilities, will be connected to Miami via twice-daily cruise ship services.
It has opened a casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in New York in October and agreed to buy Boyd Gaming Corp’s unfinished Echelon resort in Las Vegas.
In the U.S., the group is waiting to see if Florida will pass laws allowing Genting to open casino in Miami where it purchased a downtown building in 2011. In the meantime, the site will be developed in phases, Lim said.
The billionaire said he wasn’t concerned about a decline in casino takings in Singapore, where it is one of two gaming license holders, and planned no significant change in strategy to recoup its investment.
“I’m certainly not worried,” Lim said. “The economy around Asia is still pretty upbeat. There are very positive signs in the U.S. that it’s coming back.
“Europe is a bit slow, but all that growing activity around the world would certainly benefit Asia.”