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Home / Business / Donaco’s plans for Cambodian and Vietnamese casinos have run into plenty of trouble

Donaco’s plans for Cambodian and Vietnamese casinos have run into plenty of trouble

"There is a whole strip of casinos, about 10 casinos, all serving the Thai market," says Benaco, executive director of Donaco. "Our property is the biggest and best quality casino – 100 gaming tables, 1200 slot machines … it's probably the same size as Sydney's The Star casino."

Wherever you go in the world, casinos are risky business; both for bettors who walk through doors and dream of returning home with full pockets, both for owners who spend the dollar to create the most luxurious settings, and whose fortunes can swing dramatically on a handful of lucky or unfortunate stripes . .

But with a wave of new casino licenses and the absence of any government regulation on the way they operate, casinos in Cambodia are probably as dangerous as they are.

"If you operate in Cambodia, you operate at your own risk," says Peter Cohen, a prominent advisor and former videogame regulator, who now works with the Agenda group and helped draft the casino laws in Cambodia that have yet to be introduced. "You are competing with other players who may not be fair."

The last 18 months have certainly been difficult for Donaco shareholders who are listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2013.

Less than a year ago, it had a market value of $ 290 million. Late Friday afternoon, it was worth $ 51 million, at a stock price of only 6.3 cents.

On the question of what went wrong, Reichel's answer is sincere: "We made an agreement with the wrong person, which is obvious in hindsight."

The agreement he is talking about is the 2015 purchase of Star Vegas by Donaco. At the time, the 385-floor, six-story resort and casino generated net profits of around $ 82 million a year.

The seller, the Thai business man Somboon Sukcharoenkraisri, also known as Lee Bug Leng, received 240 million dollars in cash, 147 million shares of Donaco (valued at $ 132 million at the , epoch) and two seats on the board of directors.

In return, Somboon would remain as managers and guaranteed gains of at least $ 60 million a year for two years, promising to offset any deficits.

  Joey Lim.

Joey Lim. Credit: Dom Lorrimer

Board posts went to his son and a business partner and Somboon was promised a quarter of the profits each year that reached the goal of profits.

"This acquisition is an irresistible opportunity for Donaco shareholders," said Joey Lim, Donaco's largest shareholder and grandson of casino billionaire Lim Goh Tong. He founded the company in 2001 with his famous grandfather.

"Shareholders will receive substantial benefits from the size and scale of the company and the diversification of our revenue streams."

This would be the second Donaco casino that integrates the Aristo International Hotel in northern Vietnam. Like Star Vegas, Aristo is on a border and is aimed at Chinese gamblers who are not allowed to play in their own country.

Shareholders will receive substantial benefits from an increase in the size and scale of the company.

Joey Lim

Aristo is designed for the rich middleweight Yunnan, as opposed to the super rich who travel to Macau or Australia, and their favorite game is baccarat.

The Vietnamese government, which forbids its citizens to play there, owns 5 percent of Aristo. But with just one casino, Donaco's annual earnings were only $ 15 million in 2014-15. The acquisition of Star Vegas would increase Donaco's earnings by 502% to $ 91 million, according to an investor presentation.

These benefits, however, did not have to be.

The death of the Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, in October 2016 has caused business to fail.

  The death of the Thai king has brought down Donaco's gains.

The death of the Thai king has brought down the gains of Donaco.

"Most Thais have never met any other sovereign," explains Reichel. "As a sign of respect, Thais stopped indulging and started grieving … they stopped coming to Poipet for about 100 days."

Subsequently, Star Vegas earnings fell 17% in the second half of 2016. He was also forced to cancel a partnership with Manchester United.

To compensate for the lack of Thai visitors, Donaco sought players from Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macao signing agreements with new junket operators. The junk is essential for Asian casinos and in particular for border casinos without other attractions. Junket hosts identify undefeated bettors and offer them an all-expenses trip to the casino for a few days. Sometimes junket operators lend money to gamblers.

Then, just as things were returning to normal and the period of official mourning was over, other problems emerged. In 2017, Donaco decided it was time to take full control of Star Vegas from Somboon. Joey Lim met with him and the two Somboons remained as consultants, earning about $ 170,000 a year.

In mid-2017, Donaco discovered, in court documents, that rival casinos were installed on land connected to Somboon – including one behind the edge of a local supermarket – in what Donaco claims are violations of a clause no competition in the sales contract.

The company soon discovered, court documents continue, that the new casinos had also "drowned" the luxurious Vegas VIP junket, along with many members of the Star Vegas staff. Reichel claims that this has taken a substantial chunk of casino profits. In 2017-18, Star Vegas earnings were $ US30.4 million, down 54% from the previous year.

"There were four key junkets that worked with Star Vegas for probably 10 years or more, and they all got up and left in June 2017," says Reichel.

"With those four, a couple of them were relatively small, then there was a medium-sized junk and then a big junk that generated a huge volume of turnover and a huge chunk of that business's revenue. recruited other junkets, but they are not so large and do not generate the same revenue as the previous ones. "

  The StarCity casino of Donaco is just inside the Cambodian border with Thailand.

Donaco Casino Star Vegas is just inside the Cambodian border with Thailand.

Since then a storm of lawsuits broke out between the two parties. A Cambodian court issued an injunction to close the new Star Paradise with the help of video gaming tables hidden behind supermarket shelves.

In the main litigation of Donaco, in the court or arbitration of Singapore, the company is seeking 190 million US dollars damages from the seller. In the New South Wales Supreme Court, Donaco also obtained a freezing order against the company's 147 million shares, which are now worth $ 10.1 million

In retaliation Somboon attempted to terminate the Donaco rental contract on the land of Star Vegas and, according to court documents, made a series of threats against the company in an attempt to "interfere" with its rental rights.

"He threatened to terminate the lease on the property of Star Vegas, he is threatened to build a wall around him, he cut off electricity to a part of the property, he took one of our transformers," he says Reichel.

It is not pleasant to be threatened by a crime to comply with your legal obligations in Australia. [19659019] Donaco & # 39; s Ben Reichel

"All this, as you can see, has totally destroyed the stock price and is based on the seller's actions."

And to complete it all, Somboon believes that he has been defamed by ASX's Donaco statements.

"Because the ASX website is accessible in Thailand, it initiated libel proceedings and in fact threatened to accuse us of a criminal offense," says Reichel. "It is not pleasant to be threatened by a criminal offense to comply with your legal obligations in Australia."

According to court documents, on the afternoon of June 30, 2017, all the Star Vegas slot machines were turned off and the gaming tables closed.

Somboon allegedly took computers, kitchen equipment and recruited about 550 employees in the new casino.

At around 4:00 pm, an announcement was made on the speaker system inside the casino that Star Vegas had ceased to function and all players had to move to "Star Paradise", the new casino next door.

Somboon allegedly took out computers, kitchen equipment and commissioned about 550 employees in the new casino.

He also told jolly VIP operators that he would not extend credit to their customers and could not guarantee their safety unless they started visiting Star Paradise Casino.

It was said that these handcuffs were worth about $ 30 million a year for the company. Donaco is looking for $ 120 million in damages and believes he has a "very strong case".

Somboon declined to comment when contacted via his Australian lawyer.

Around the same time, with Star Vegas tied up in litigation, things also suddenly became very difficult for the first time at Aristo International in Vietnam.

Casino earnings were hugely successful between July and August 2017, mainly due to a single loss for a high-roller VIP player, who won $ 4.6 million. Then, in mid-2018, a longtime Yunnan VIP player was losing a lot of money one night and ended up arguing with another player at the table.

The VIP got very angry and decided to use his underworld connections to damage Aristo's business. The company told investors that the criminals have begun to meet Chinese players at the border and physically threaten them with protection.

"Most of the usual VIP players and junkets from the Yunnan Province have been deterred from visiting the property in July and August due to threats from the Chinese criminal syndicate, the Vietnamese police now have all the members' documents of the Chinese criminal syndicate, and will not be admitted to Vietnam, "the company told shareholders in November of last year

5 percent of the Vietnamese government in Aristo motivated them to act quickly but not quickly enough to prevent a decline 93% of the gaming business in the four months to November 2018.

To compensate for the sudden decline in visitors from Yunnan, Donaco attracted junkets from Malaysia and traveled by bus from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Aristo should be back on track.

In addition to the difficulties of Donaco, in December 2018 Joey Lim resigned from his role as managing director and CEO, citing the need to deal with health and personal problems.

A year earlier, it sold 37.5 million shares for $ 15 million for "private and family reasons" to institutional investors. It still holds 230 million shares or 27% of the company.

His brother, Ben Lim, entered the role, but Donaco began the search for an operations manager and deputy general manager to "improve and strengthen the current management team in both of the company's casino properties" .

On the board of directors of Donaco there is a vast experience in the business and games sector. Reichel is a former general counsel of the betting company NS Limited Tab Limited (which was subsequently acquired by Tabcorp) and the Sky television broadcaster.

Another director, Rob Hines, has been CEO of Racing Victoria from 2008-2012. However, Hines resigned on December 21st, after five years as a non-executive director, and the company is looking for a replacement.

President Donaco Stuart McGregor has held top positions in the beer giants Carlton & United, Cascade and San Miguel.

With these critical issues to be addressed at the board level, there was "certainly no Christmas slowdown for us," says Reichel.

"We are concentrating very intensively on the management of the problems that await us." [19659002] With Joey Lim at the departure of Leave and Hines, Donaco has only three directors: McGregor, Reichel and Joey's brother, Ben Lim.

The executive team of Donaco insists on the prospects for society is not as sad as its dizzying trend suggests. Revenue in the major Star Vegas VIP business rose by 113%, according to the group's latest update.

He started attracting Chinese and Korean gamblers to Poipet to compensate for the junket lost in Thailand.

The company has moved to assure investors that the problems with the Chinese criminal syndicate at Aristo have now been dealt with by the authorities.

"Business is coming back very well," says Reichel.

Two more of Donaco The major institutional investors, Perpetual and Fidelity, have recently reduced their holdings in the company.

Perpetual cut its stake from 68 million shares to 26 million, while Fidelity rose from 120 million to 33 million shares. Donaco states that these cuts pushed his share price to "unrealistically" low levels that "do not reflect the value of our activities at all".

"We think that the market reaction to our commercial updating is enormously exaggerated," says Reichel. "We are confident we can overcome this goal with a better business in the new year."

He believes that the shares should be around 14.5 cents and has announced a strategic review that will end in March.

"There has been a lot of approaches to us, people have various ideas about buying one or both of the joint venture activities, buying part of the business. with our big bank, (Taiwan) Mega Bank, on the restructuring of the loan contract ($ US100 million) that we have with them, "he says.

Over the past few days, the Singapore-based OCP Asia-based hedge fund has taken a 9.3 percent stake in the company.

According to the Cambodian government, at the end of last year there were 150 active casino licenses, compared to less than 100 in 2017. The long casino regulations of Cambodia, if they pass this year, as some wait, it will introduce a tax on the gross revenue of the game, the license requirements and the rules and tests on the casino products.

One of the main objectives of the proposal, explains Cohen, is to encourage more foreign investment in the Cambodian gaming industry, favoring stronger players and squeezing less reliable businesses.

But in a country like Cambodia, questions remain about the effectiveness of each new regulation.

"The laws they promote are one thing," says Cohen, "Enforc is another."

Lucy Battersby has covered trends, technology and telecommunications since she joined The Age in 2008.

Business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

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