Covering the Sands Cotai Central opening on April 12 included attending the news conference with top executives of Sands China and its parent company Las Vegas Sands (LVS). That put me squarely in the sights of the billionaire chairman of both companies, Sheldon Adelson.
During the question and answer period, I introduced myself as Muhammad Cohen from Asia Times and Macau Business, then asked company executives whether they regretted their decision in the face of the 2008 credit crunch to continue building Marina Bay Sands in Singapore while mothballing Sands Cotai Central, initially slated to open in 2009. The Wall Street-led crisis drove LVS to the brink of bankruptcy, requiring a $2 billion lifeline from Adelson. Marina Bay Sands, which cost nearly $6 billion, has become the most profitable casino resort in the world in operating terms. With its delay, Sands Cotai Central has cost $4.4 billion, making it Macau’s most expensive resort to date.
LVS president and chief operating office Michael Leven explained that Marina Bay Sands was already fully financed before the crisis hit, while Sands Cotai Central was only partially funded, based on lenders preferences for the two projects. “I regret that we didn’t complete [Sands Cotai Central] two-and-a-half years ago, because Macau would now be further ahead,” Leven added. “We’re really happy to be able to open it today. This puts the exclamation point at the end of the sentence. It’s a game changer for MICE [meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions] in Macau.”
As I furiously scribbled what Leven had said, I heard Chairman Adelson say my name as he unloaded with both barrels.
“I’ve read what you’ve written, Muhammad, and it’s not true,” the 78 year old worth $24.9 billion said. “We didn’t take the money from Macau to Singapore. Not a single pataca, not a single penny went from here to Las Vegas, or from here to Singapore.”
There’s not much I could say in response to that kind of public shoot-down, particularly when it comes from the most powerful man in the global gaming industry, accompanied by his band of security guards. And especially since I never wrote what Adelson said I did.
The charge that LVS has used its Macau profits elsewhere has been raised. Macau Business made reference to that sentiment when it reported Adelson’s earlier “not one pataca” denial a couple of years ago, But I’ve certainly never written that LVS is taking money from Macau for projects elsewhere. The real issue, which neither Leven nor Adelson addressed, was the local political damage done. A lot of people remember that LVS continued work in Singapore while pausing in Cotai during Macau’s moment of crisis, the one time during the company’s Macau tenure when the city really needed the construction jobs and related commerce. Macau also presents a far more important long term opportunity than Singapore, where revenue growth has already shown signs of stagnation and government regulations restrict opportunities.
I spent the rest of Sands Cotai’s opening day basking my ill-gotten notoriety, refuting my culpability to all I met, from Sands China president and CEO Edward Tracy to analysts who suddenly recognized me. “At least he knows your name,” several consoled me.
Sipping champagne ahead of the black tie gala dinner (to which my invitation must have been lost), I managed to issue my denial to Dr Miriam Adelson, the chairman’s wife during the course of a delightful chat. I hope she passed the word to the next pillow.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. See his biography, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com.