By Farah Master
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Pansy Ho, Hong Kong's richest woman and the daughter of Macau gambling godfather Stanley Ho, is lining up her chips for a new era in the world's casino capital that promises much more than gambling.
Born into a family that developed a flourishing gambling culture in the southern Chinese territory more than 50 years ago, Ho is now a key player spearheading a move to diversify Macau into an arts, culture and entertainment hub, and away from the gaudy casino halls which raked in $38 billion last year.
Co-chair of U.S. casino MGM China and managing director of property to transport conglomerate Shun Tak, Ho is positioning her sprawling business empire to capitalize on Macau's new generation of growth, boosted by the influx of affluent Chinese holiday makers.
"Macau has become an entirely different destination," the petite 50-year-old said in an interview at one of her several offices in Hong Kong's financial district, adamant that the world's casino capital can't rely just on gaming to fuel growth.
About a third the size of Manhattan, Macau is the only place in China where casinos are allowed, and it relies on casino taxes for more than 80 percent of its revenue. Beijing, which can control visitor numbers entering the former Portuguese colony, has made Macau's transformation into a global tourism destination part of its current 5-year plan.
"This is exactly where my job leads me in the future," said Ho, with neatly cropped black hair and dressed in a maroon collared blouse. Apart from her business interests, Ho sits on several political committees in China and the Macau government's tourism development committee.
Art galleries, music festivals, cultural shows and theatre are some of the initiatives Ho plans to bring to Macau. She is also positioning Shun Tak in hotel management, aviation and property, further expanding the family business's extensive footprint in the Pearl River Delta.
One of 17 children of Stanley Ho's four wives, Pansy Ho has emerged as the most prominent heir to her 91-year-old father's empire. As the sole license holder in Macau for more than four decades, Stanley Ho's influence has reigned strong through casino company SJM Holdings, which operates more than half of Macau's casinos, and privately-held STDM, which has investments in gaming, aviation, retail and property.
While Pansy is not involved in SJM, she has a strategic role at MGM and is in charge at Shun Tak, which her father established as a small ferry operator in the 1970s. Since joining Shun Tak over 15 years ago, she has helped grow it into a sprawling conglomerate worth HK$11 billion ($1.42 billion).
Forbes estimates Ho's net worth at $4.4 billion.
Educated at a Catholic girls' school in Hong Kong, Ho says she never intended to work in the family business. Passionate about the arts from a young age, particularly the stage and musicals, she was keen to study literature and drama at Vassar College in the United States, but her father disapproved.
"He said in this age and time, why would you want to take up something so passive?" she recalls, smiling.
Ho instead opted to study marketing and international business management at the University of Santa Clara in California before returning to Hong Kong where she ran her mother's jewelry company, did charity work and set up her own PR company, Occasions, which still operates today.
Ho was appointed managing director of Shun Tak during Macau's handover to China in 1999 and prior to the liberalization of the gaming industry, so she has seen first-hand how the market has been radically transformed.
"It was very much the local, traditional style, which is really just a lot of gaming parlors ... Now, throughout the past decade, because of the opening up of the market and the introduction of new operators, we all vie to get our own positioning and our own edge," she said.
Prior to the build-up of opulent multi-billion dollar resorts by the likes of Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts, Macau's casinos tended to be dark and dingy with few shopping or fine dining options.
The difference today is stark, says Pansy, noting that 10 years ago Macau had only one short street of high-end stores compared to hundreds of luxury outlets today. One Central, an up-market shopping arcade adjacent to MGM Macau, is testament to the change, with stores such as Louis Vuitton among the brand's largest in the world.
Alongside the growth of retail, Ho is betting on a long-term vision of integrated transport infrastructure in southern China. In June, Shun Tak paid $66 million for a one-third stake in budget carrier Jetstar. And last month, Shun Tak, which has one of the largest land banks in Macau and the biggest fleet of high-speed ferries in Asia, launched Artyzen Hospitality Group, a company focused on developing luxury hotel brands in China and internationally.
"We should be able to hit 12-15 ... properties under our management in three years," Ho said.
IN THE BLOOD
Ho, whose siblings include Lawrence Ho, co-chairman of Melco Crown Entertainment, a joint casino venture with Australian billionaire James Packer, has a reputation as a shrewd business executive, not unlike her father, who dabbled in trading, kerosene and construction, befriending the Portuguese and Hong Kong governments, prior to making his casino fortune.
Ho says she is tough and pragmatic.
"I almost always have a strong passion about the things I do. I wouldn't say aggressive, but I am always trying very hard to make sure that things will succeed," she said.
Ho says she still discusses business with her father, who has withdrawn from the day-to-day running of the family business, and benefits from his experience, "especially on the relationship side of things".
"We all respect Dr Ho's vision and this is still very much a core driving initiative for all of us. We really strongly believe in the future development of Macau and how it rests on ingenuity. This is what he brought to Macau 50 years ago and we need to continue to push the envelope."
(Additional reporting by Tara Joseph; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)