Business

Aging Macau billionaire Ho splits up gambling empire

Stanley Ho
Image caption Stanley Ho was a trailblazer of Asia's gambling industry

Ageing Macau gambling billionaire Stanley Ho has given up almost all his share in the casino empire he built up over five decades.

The move follows a bitter family feud over who would inherit his business.

Mr Ho, who is estimated to have a personal fortune of $2bn, has 16 children from four wives, many of whom have key roles in his business.

But with Mr Ho now at 89 years of age and in fragile health, the succession issue has been worrying investors.

To solve the inheritance problem, Mr Ho has divided his $1.6bn controlling stake in Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM) among his relatives.

He has kept a tiny fraction for himself,according to a statement released late on Thursday.

Power struggle

The latest episode in the succession saga was triggered by a company statement on 24 January that Mr Ho had given his stake to the families of his second and third wives.

A series of conflicting claims and lawsuits by different family factions ensued, pitting Mr Ho against some of his own children.

At one point, a frail Mr Ho appeared on television in his wheelchair to say that the dispute was resolved, only for his lawyer to later say that he had been coerced into making the comments.

Already in poor health after undergoing brain surgery in 2009, a sudden hospital admission in the midst of the feud added to the sense of drama.

And shares in STDM's stock-market listed affiliate, SJM Holdings, slumped as shareholders feared the in-fighting would harm the company's future prospects.

Influence

The Ho family wields huge influence in Macau and has been behind its transformation from a colonial outpost administered by the Portuguese to a gambling centre that now dwarfs Las Vegas in profitability and scale.

It is almost impossible to set foot in the territory without putting money in Mr Ho's pockets.

In addition to 17 casinos, STDM owns a third of Macau's international airport and holds a stake in Air Macau.

And Shun Tak Holdings, another company controlled by Mr Ho, dominates the ferry and helicopter services that link the city to Hong Kong as well as operating the bus links to mainland China.

The loss of his four-decade monopoly on Macau's gambling business in 2001 and the arrival of slick Las Vegas rivals has done little to tarnish his success.

Profits almost quadrupled at his Macau gaming tables in 2010, figures released last week showed, as high-rollers continue to flock to the Asian gambling hotspot.

Lasting truce?

The current truce, which allowed the most recent deal to happen and started when Mr Ho dropped charges against some family members on March 10, appears to be convincing at least for investors.

Shares in SJM soared when Mr Ho said he had dropped the lawsuit.

But it remains to be seen whether the feud has been truly put to rest, especially as there is a lack of detail about Thursday's deal to split up Mr Ho's holdings.

Apart from his fourth wife Angela Leong, who gets a 6% share in STDM, no other family members are mentioned in the statement and questions will likely emerge over who will make major decisions now Mr Ho has bowed out.

"I think it is just the beginning," says Victor Zheng, an assistant professor specialising in inheritance and family businesses at the University of Hong Kong.

"If Mr Ho passes away, then the problems will come to the surface again," he says.

Chief beneficiary

Mr Zheng says Chinese tradition would have dictated that Mr Ho give the family of his first wife a greater share of the estate.

But in Mr Ho's case, his fourth wife seems to have been the chief beneficiary.

The saga has dominated tabloids and gossip pages in Hong Kong, with many locals eager for a glimpse into the private lives of one of Asia's biggest corporate dynasties.

For now, it seems the family tensions have eased or, at least, gone behind closed doors.

But if the octogenarian's flamboyant life story is anything to go by, it is unlikely that he, his wives and children will remain out of the limelight for long.

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