HONG KONG (Reuters) – Macau gambling king Stanley Ho, who built a business empire from scratch in the former Portuguese colony and became one of Asia’s richest men, died on Tuesday at the age of 98.
The flamboyant tycoon, who loved to dance and advised his nearest and dearest to shun gambling, headed one of the world’s most lucrative gaming businesses through his flagship firm, SJM Holdings <0880.HK>, valued at about $6 billion.
Shielded from challengers by a four-decade monopoly on gambling, Ho helped transform Macau from a sleepy peninsula dotted with seedy, windowless gambling dens into the world’s biggest casino centre.
But Ho’s interests in Macau, on the coast of southeast China across the mouth of the Pearl River opposite Hong Kong, were not limited to the roulette wheels and baccarat tables.
His privately held company, Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau, or STDM, has stakes in everything from luxury hotels to helicopters and horse racing.
Ho lost his gambling monopoly in 2002 when Macau was opened up to competition, three years after the enclave returned to Chinese rule. STDM’s main asset, SJM, is facing increasing competition from the other five licensed operators in Macau including U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s Sands China <1928.HK>.
U.S. regulators said Ho was linked to triads, or criminal gangs, which he denied. However, Ho earned the adoration of many Hong Kong and Macau residents for his swashbuckling business style and his philanthropic work.
He spearheaded what is known in Macau as the junket VIP system, whereby middlemen act on behalf of casinos by extending credit to gamblers and taking responsibility for collecting debts.
Flitting between Hong Kong and Macau by helicopter, the dapper Ho loved tennis and ballroom dancing – his fourth wife was a dance teacher – well into his 80s. He courted the limelight and frequently graced the celebrity gossip columns.
He had four wives and 17 known children, and was forced to restructure his business after a legal battle erupted within the family in 2012 over his fortune.
Born in Hong Kong in 1921 and related to the wealthy Ho Tung family of Chinese and European descent, Ho’s privileged upbringing was short-lived. At 13, his father lost everything in the stock market and fled to Vietnam, abandoning his wife and children.
Ho was determined to succeed and earned a place at the University of Hong Kong. Though World War Two intervened, his luck held. He left school and worked for seven days for the Air Raid Service Department before the Japanese captured Hong Kong.
“I earned HK$10 out of the seven days … then I went to Macau,” he once told Reuters in an interview.
“I was a very poor man,” he said. “I started with only HK$10. That was my capital.”
He got a job with the Macau government, bartering goods with the Japanese. The experience led to his own trading company and he became a millionaire.
In the early 1960s, he bid for the Macau gaming monopoly being offered by the Portuguese in its largely forgotten Asian outpost.
Ho won the concession, built a harbour, added high-speed boats to lure Hong Kong’s avid gamblers and created the cash cow that made his empire possible.
As a result of the company restructuring that followed the family legal battle, Ho dropped off the ranks of Hong Kong’s richest people for the first time in many years.
Angela Leong, his fourth wife and a co-chairperson at SJM, has seen her net worth jump to $4.1 billion, according to Forbes.
Some of Ho’s children have become successful gaming operators in their own right. Daughter Pansy is the co-chairperson of MGM Resorts’ <MGM.N> Macau unit <2282.HK>, while son Lawrence runs Melco Resorts & Entertainment <MLCO.O>.
Among his other children, Josie, born to Ho’s second wife, has forged a career as a movie star, appearing in the 2011 thriller “Contagion”.
SJM’s most lavish casino, the 12-year-old Grand Lisboa, a 48-story building shaped like a lotus flower, remains one of Macau’s most prominent destinations.
But, ironically, the casino king did not gamble.
“I have always told my children and my good friends: ‘For God’s sake, never gamble heavily and if you can avoid it, don’t ever gamble’,” he told the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1999.
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok; Editing by Stephen Coates, Anne Marie Roantree and Christian Schmollinger)