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Cool operator

Grace Cao

Monday, December 10, 2012


The glitzy towers of Macau's gaming skyline are said to hide a grubby secret - junket promoters who act as middlemen between casinos and rich gamblers.

Their job is to buy chips from the casinos and extend them to agents for distribution to VIP players.

But these promoters, or casino representatives, have a rather shady image, of being associated with gangs, weapons and crime.

Rumors even abound that junket promoters are involved in gray markets that conduct underground lending and laundering activities for small and medium-sized mainland enterprises.

But the idea is laughed off by the chief executive of a company that invests in such operators.

"It's ridiculous. That only happens in Hollywood movies," Nicholas J Niglio of Neptune Group (0070) says.

"They [the promoters] will not give up their credibility for such a small return from illegal activities."

Niglio, a 25-year veteran of the industry, also stressed that the sector and its operators are licensed and governed by the Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, Macau's casino regulatory body .

The SAR's VIP junket gaming business is a key industry that accounts for around 75 percent of Macau's entire gaming revenue.

And as of the middle of this year, Neptune controlled 51 VIP tables in all through its investments in junket operators, comprising those at The Venetian, Sands Macau and Galaxy StarWorld.

Around 2,000 licensed agents work for these tables, which can each generate revenue of HK$
250 million per month.

According to the profit-sharing deal that applies across the industry, casinos give junket promoters 0.4 percent of their chip turnover as a commission.

For its investment, Neptune earns 30 percent of the takings for its stake in the 12 tables in Sands Macau, 85 percent of the 16 tables at The Venetian, and 40 percent of the 23 tables in the Galaxy StarWorld.

Such a coverage makes Neptune the biggest publicly traded junket investor in the market. Profit for the year ended June 30 was HK$282.9 million, up by nearly 41 percent from a year back.

"Nothing is complicated about the VIP gaming market compared with the mass market," Niglio smiles.

"The only difference is that VIP players buy chips from agents, instead of casinos."

Sometimes, the chips are extended on credit, he said.

A strict credit system within the hierarchy means that junket operators - as the first tier - give only 30 days or less to agents to come up with the cash for the chips.

Agents - as the second tier - ask their clients, or the players, to pay back the chips in seven days, and the undistributed chips can be returned to casinos.

Asked "Who are your VIP players?" - Niglio pauses momentarily.

The pause brings to mind flashing images from the latest James Bond flick - dark-upholstered rooms, stocky guards covered in tattoos, waitresses in seductive qipao and man-eating lizards, as seen in Skyfall.

But his answer involved nothing of the sort.

"Mainlanders comprise 90 percent of the VIP players in Macau, and the rest are from Hong Kong, Taiwan and southeast Asia," comes his plain response.

Minimum spending for high rollers is around HK$500,000 at one go, and a single trip to the gaming hub may see spending averages of HK$1 million to HK$2 million.

The mainland punters are mostly entrepreneurs from various industries such as real estate and oil and gas, Niglio said.

Such a booming VIP gambling business naturally means competition is fierce, as no exclusive representation rights are given by casinos.

Niglio said it is a professional service-oriented business model that helps a junket promoter turn customers into loyal patrons.

"They [VIP players] usually prefer shopping for high-end brands. You have to take them to the duty-free outlets with the biggest discounts. You also take care of transport, food and recreation," he said, comparing agents to all-around nannies.

"But their [VIP customers'] requests are pretty reasonable."

The toughest customer he ever met was a mainlander - who demanded nothing more than a meal involving an ingredient that was unavailable in Macau.

Niglio says diversity is the key to attracting high-end customers and Neptune keeps searching for best- quality gaming venues to enrich its portfolio.

In September, it announced an acquisition of a 20 percent stake in 11 tables at Grand Lisboa - the flagship venue of Macau's biggest licensed casino operator SJM Holdings (0880).

A deal with the junket operator of Guangdong 31 Sky Club at the Grand Lisboa guarantees a pre-tax profit of HK$55 million to Neptune for each of the two years after the completion of the deal.

And it will take the number of VIP tables under Neptune's management up to 62 in the world's largest gaming hub.

Neptune's steady rise has been supported by solid partnerships. Among the hundreds of licensed junket operators in the SAR, Neptune Macau has cooperated with the Neptune Group since 2005.

The private firm, along with four other junket promoters, contributes around 55 to 60 percent of the total VIP rolling-chip volume in Macau.

"The top five had fantastic growth in past years," Niglio says.

"It is time for industry consolidation as small junket promoters are gradually absorbed by mid-sized ones."

But gaming growth has slowed this year as the global economic downturn lingers amid signs of a slowdown in the mainland economy.

This has been more apparent in the VIP gaming market, which contributes around 70 percent to the total gambling revenue, as gross revenue from high- rollers decreased on a quarterly basis from January to September.

But Niglio is optimistic about the future and says Macau's gaming penetration into the mainland - with its population of 1.3 billion - is too low compared with that of its US counterpart in Las Vegas, Nevada.

"In the United States, 15 percent of the population visit Las Vegas, while only 2-3 percent [of mainlanders] come to Macau," he said.

"Mainlanders represent a great opportunity."

The American entrepreneur has been in Macau for six years and praised the SAR as the best gambling and entertainment destination in the world.

He has no fear of competition from Singapore, Las Vegas or, perhaps later, Hainan as the Macau has three things going for it: abundant land, low construction cost and policy support.

"Three more years, and Cotai will be developed in a visionary style," he said.

But Niglio never bets on the outlook of his company. In order to focus more intently on VIP junket promotion, Neptune gradually divested its cruise ship, property development, and securities trading businesses.

Growing with the VIP gaming market, the firm aims to add 40 new VIP tables to take the total number to 110 within two years.

Niglio, an accountant by training, was enchanted by the fast-moving gaming and entertainment industry from a young age. But high-risk wagers are not for him.

"I only play recreational games such as slot machines," he says.

Even so, gaming still holds a rare allure for the 64-year-old.

"I never get bored working in this industry," he smiles.


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