For the first time this year, Inside Asian Gaming’s Asian Gaming 50 includes a biography of a retiree rather than a current champion of the regional casino sector. That’s because it’s difficult to imagine the history of Macau in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of this one, without the presence of Dr Stanley Ho. For that reason, although 2010 marked the formal end of his leadership of the tourism investment and casino operating companies STDM and SJM, Dr Ho gets an honorary mention in the 2011 list.
It would not be ungracious to say that Dr Ho retired in instalments rather than in one gold-watch-presentation moment. The first instalment—and the point when effectively he ceased to exercise day-to-day control over the Macau casino and tourism businesses he helped to found nearly half a century ago—was when he was taken ill in late July 2009. That led to a long spell in hospital and a slow recuperation for the octogenarian gaming entrepreneur.
He re-emerged in public briefly in December 2009 for the ceremony to mark ten years of China’s resumed sovereignty over Macau. Then in March the following year, Dr Ho was formally discharged from hospital, but continued to need time to recuperate. In retrospect, his star appearance for a keynote speech and presentation of a lifetime achievement award at G2E Asia in June 2010 was merely a cameo role rather than a resumption of power.
It wasn’t until late December 2010 that there was an official announcement of what everyone had been expecting for many months—namely, that Dr Ho was formally stepping down from control of STDM and SJM. Even then, however, the process wasn’t over. Dr Ho had fathered four different families by four different consorts in his busy and successful life, causing complications in the succession process. After several decades as a traditional hands-on Chinese mogul— since the death or retirement of his original senior partners in STDM—it wasn’t possible simply to turn out the corporate lights and hand over the keys to a clearly nominated crown prince or princess.
Just how complex that transition process was became graphically evident earlier this year when a power struggle involving Dr Ho’s three surviving consorts and the children from those unions burst into the newspapers and onto the video- sharing Internet site YouTube. A bemused public and gaming investors were treated to more than a month of grimly fascinating dynastic warfare, with claims and counter claims made almost daily by the competing factions or their representatives.
In the end, as with most fights, a truce was called and a compromise deal brokered. Under it, one of Dr Ho’s daughters, Pansy, became a director of the Hong Kong-listed parent company STDM, and consort number four Angela Leong On-kei was named as Executive Director (in effect the boss) of SJM Holdings for at least the next six years.
Dr Ho was certainly not an entrepreneur in the classic Western model. He wasn’t given over to messianic visions, temper tantrums and a sense of his own right that might have caused him to make statements against local political leaders as a gesture of lèse-majesté. He was, and remained to the end of his business career, a team player in the classical Chinese sense—working cooperatively behind the scenes with other Macau community leaders and Chinese government politicians to achieve whatever commercial aim was in his sights. While not holding hard political power (his advisory and honorary role as a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference could be described as a form of soft power), he had the connections in Beijing and the Pearl River Delta region and a sufficient degree of political nous to anticipate the climate of opinion in Macau and mainland China. That enabled him to tailor his approach to business accordingly. In China, where the interests of the Communist Party and the interests of the state are one and the same thing, every business leader must be able to ‘do’ politics and do it in a Chinese way in order to be successful.
That means knowing when to lobby for a policy or commercial aim and when not to; when to speak in public and when to stay silent; how to make alliances, but in particular how to make the right alliances and when to make them. The lightness of foot and physical dexterity required by Dr Ho’s favourite pastime, ballroom dancing, is probably an apt metaphor to describe his approach to politics and business. An example of his political savvy is that when in 2008 Dr Ho called for the Macau government to raise the casino entry age from 18 to 21, he was pushing against an already part-opened door. He knew at that time the central government was already in favour of diversifying Macau’s economy and improving the skills and knowledge of the territory’s residents. Dr Ho’s intervention came a whole year before Chinese premier Wen Jiabao spelled out the policy in a speech during a visit to the territory.
The proof of the efficacy of Dr Ho’s approach is that nearly a decade after his Macau casino monopoly was ended and the market opened to competition, SJM—the casino operating entity he founded as a successor to STDM’s direct management—still has around one third of the market judged by gross gaming revenues. By contrast, it seems that the Macau market share of some of SJM’s foreign competitors has been achieved despite, rather than because of, their approach to local politics.
As Dr Ho continues in the final phase of his long life and makes the journey from mere mortal to an historical, semi-mythical personage (don’t be surprised if one day Macau’s airport is named after him), it’s not always easy to get a balanced view on his contribution to Macau. Some think he was lucky—essentially a man who was in the right place at the right time, with the right friends who had the right political connections. Others note that Dr Ho has said many times that he doesn’t gamble. His supporters argue that the harder a person works the luckier they get. Anyone who has ever met Dr Ho or seen him working a room in his prime would find it hard to argue against that analysis.