Genting: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

By Daniel Cheng

Monopoly in Malaysia. Monopoly in the five boroughs of New York. Duopoly in Singapore. Oligopoly in Manila. What is there not to like? Sure, Genting has had its fair share of misses, but they are easily forgiven in the light of the big scores on the board. The Chinese immigrant with only a penny in his pocket and a dream made it good big time, and four years after sailing through its Golden Jubilee, the sky continues to be the limit with no signs of abating as the baton gets passed from one generation to the next. For most of the year 2010, the company’s new flagship resort in Singapore generated more profit than any other casino property in the world.

An unfancied entrant when it gatecrashed the alumni of the casino elite club, those of the Las Vegas pedigree had sniffed at them with haughty suspicion and some derision. Even as Genting cements its presence at the pinnacles of the sector with its untempered success over the past two decades, it had been unable to completely shed the gauche tenor amongst its peers.

Undeterred, the company quietly went about its business, building from the sole Malaysian hilltop casino resort that its founding patriarch, Lim Goh Tong, had fashioned brick by brick with his bare hands.

Genting is the only major gaming proponent whose stock-in-trade is not solely limited to casinos, but a conglomerate with diverse interests in plantations, oil and gas, real estate, shipbuilding, and a myriad of other businesses. While its contemporaries are all land-based casino companies, Genting comes closest to being the Gaia of gaming, a paragon of the natural elements of earth, water, and air. Besides its earthbound casinos in Asia, Europe and the United States, its casinos trawls the sea in Star Cruises and Crystal Cruises. In the United Kingdom, gentingcasinos.com offers live table games, poker, and slot games to customers in the comfort of their homes over the Internet.

Asian Juggernaut

Stanley Ho might own the sobriquet of “Casino King” in Asia, but his business and legend is limited solely within Macau. The real mark in the region was stamped by the long tendrils of the Lim family. Look under the covers, and they have Genting fingerprints written all over them.

The company’s incipient casino in Malaysia is notable for its best practices and efficient business operations that belies its monopoly status. In the process, it has over the years groomed and produced a steady number of strong, qualified casino professionals. As the market grew with more casinos, Genting became the de facto gaming “university” for the industry.

Walk into any casino property in Asia today and it will not be hard to find Genting alumni in the management and operations ranks. Many are familiar with the city of Perth in Western Australia and the popular Crown Burswood Casino there; but few today realize that it was Genting that had transformed the landfill it sits on, and built and operated the casino property in the 1980s.

The founder’s son, Lim Kok Thay, went on to start Star Cruises in the 1990s and make it into the biggest cruise operator in the Asia Pacific. A quarter century on, KT Lim’s affinity with the sea hasn’t sated; he continues to heed the call of the sea, acquiring an Italian yacht builder, a German shipyard, and dived into the luxury cruise segment with the purchase of Crystal Cruises even as he expanded Star Cruises with a new fleet under a new brand name of Dream Cruises. In April this year, Genting made headlines when the Malaysian government announced the sale of impounded superyacht of international fugitive, Low Taek Jho, to the company for US$126 million.

World Domination

With the second family generation firmly immersed in the business, father and son were ready to own the world. The next frontier… the West. On a car jaunt down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Goh Tong ruminated buying the Empire State Building, but instead struck gold when he became the unlikely white knight for the Mashantucket Pequot tribe of Connecticut.

At a time when the tribe was at a loss to seek funds to expand their reservation bingo hall into a casino, having been spurned by more than a dozen banks, billionaire Lim appeared with ready cash to help them realize their aspirations. With that, a Malaysian family unwittingly enters into the footnote in the history of US tribal gaming. The Pequots would open Foxwoods Casino in 1992, and was then the biggest casino in the world with over 7,000 slot machines. At its peak, Foxwoods generated over US$1 billion of gaming revenue annually.

That fall, the Lim’s found the rainbow’s end amidst the interspersing hues of maple reds, black birch, oak and hemlock. The pot of gold would continue to pour into the family’s coffers for the next twenty-odd years, as they collect a handsome percentage of the gaming revenue and interest on the loan. The phenomenal success of Foxwoods was the tipping point that propelled the US tribal gaming sector into the big leagues, and precipitated investments in other large tribal casinos, first emulated by the Pequot’s neighbors, the Mohegans, and then all across the country with the Pechanga and Morongo tribes in California, and the wildly successful Seminole-Hard Rock union in Florida.

Today, tribal gaming contributes almost half of all casino revenue in the United States. More success is to come for the Lim family stateside when in 2010, they crashed the party in New York to win the award to build and operate a VLT casino facility at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, beating out Hard Rock and Penn National. Genting’s Resorts World brand had officially landed in the United States.

It wasn’t all walks in the park for the family’s crusades. The company missed out on the biggest prize of all when they came up short in the contest for the highly-coveted Macau gaming licenses. They fluffed their lines again when they made an about-turn for an Integrated Resort development in South Korea, which resulted in a talent drain of executives to its former Chinese project partner.

Efforts to reprise the Foxwoods’ success playbook with the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe in Massachusetts had drained US$400 million in loans to the tribe over the last ten years, with only frustration in return thus far.

A concerted assault to push for gaming deregulation in the lucrative market of Florida was met by stern resistance not just by the Seminole Tribe, but also the Walt Disney Company, which avouches that the sacrosanct domain of their sunny state will not be defiled by commercial casinos. As if that wasn’t enough, Disney struck a second blow when they acquired most of the entertainment media assets of Fox; this resulted in Fox exiting from their theme park partnership with Genting Malaysia, leaving the almost completed attraction without a name.

Lim (Chinese: 林 , Pinyin: lín, Meaning: Forest/trees)

As the third generation of the family emerges, pundits are weighing in on what happens next, and the family is keeping them guessing. While the Lims are not as reclusive as say, Kirk Kerkorian, they are fiercely private. They are not active in politics like the Sands’ Adelsons, and even their not-insignificant philanthropic endeavors are kept fairly low key. Like every billionaire family, they do have their fancy toys — opulent mansions, the Lamborghinis and Ferraris, and heck, even fugitive Jho Low’s Equanimity superyacht.

But far from the archetypal super-rich clique, one will be hard pressed to pin “hedonistic” and “decadent” labels on them; instead, “unassuming” and “modest” would fit the bill better. The literal translation of the family name is forest or tree; and indeed, the late Lim Goh Tong and his son KT have proven to be astute businessmen with the rapid and unparalleled success of the Genting Group. So many things they touched had turned to gold. Some might call it lucky, but they can’t dispute the innate canny sense the founder and his scion seem to possess in seeing the forest for the trees.

Unfinished Business

Three years shy of septuagenarian status, KT is not done yet. To think that he was actually not the dauphin heir to the empire, and only got his opportunity because his elder brother blew his chance at running the company. Now with his eldest son and successor still only half his age, he hasn’t been able to grant himself the earlier retirement he yearned for.

Lim Keong Hui now bears the weight of the world on his shoulders as he understudies his father in preparation to ascend into the driving seat. A millennial, he goes simply by “Huey” to those who knows him. Affable and outgoing, he is going to step into very big shoes which his grandfather had left for his father, and his father is now ceding to him.

Huey’s debut onto the big stage comes in a tumultuous industry period on the cusp of major changes. In a time when Wynn Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, and Crown Resorts teeter precariously amidst swirling takeover rumors, the founders of both Las Vegas Sands and SJM ailing in health; opportunities are ripe to present Huey a baptism of fire and prove his mettle to his dad and the world.

2020 is the year of the Tokyo Olympics as well as the bid contest for three priceless Japanese casino licenses; and 2022 lies the chance for Huey to achieve what his father couldn’t: capture a Macau gaming concession in the rebidding exercise, and earn a famous redemption for their painful loss in 2002. For young Huey, a tall order and an unenviable task. Richie Rich has to turn into an inventive Tony Stark overnight.

Doubtless too on KT’s bucket list is to put to bed one of his pet peeves; that his Resorts World brand has still be unable to resonate as much as those of his peers across the Pacific in spite of all the successes he had achieved. That mission may prove to be a bridge too far for him if he wants to hang up his boots before he turns 70, and likely have to entrust his son to complete the task.

Of Shirtsleeves and Generations

Huey and his two siblings are going to have to vanquish the age-old aphorism of “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” premised upon a wonted pattern of family generational wealth. A basic truism that exists across all cultures, the Chinese proverbial equivalent is fù bù gùo sān dài (富不过三代). It is a universal adage inferring a family’s material wealth accrued by the first generation are dissipated within the next three generations.

The name Genting comes from the name of the area where Lim Goh Tong built his first resort and fortunes over half a century ago. It is a Malay word which means ‘mountain pass’ at which the resort sits 6,000 feet above sea level. When the company translated the name phonetically into Chinese, it became yún dǐng (云顶) or ‘above the clouds’. The millennial Lims will have to personify the epithet in the spirit of the Chinese idiom chì zhà fēng yún (叱咤风云); defy and rebuke the will (wind) of heaven (in the clouds), and chart their own fates.

Finding Hayward

In a sandy clearing framed by towering bare conifers on a crisp autumn day in 1990, the Lim founding patriarch shook hands firmly with Skip Hayward, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe. It marked the birth of Foxwoods Casino, and heralded the Lim family into the big boys’ club of the gaming alumni.

Exactly twenty years on, with snow arriving early in New York in the fall of 2010, some 140 miles southwest of where the first landmark handshake had happened, the elder Lim’s son and successor to the Genting empire too extended his hand in handshake inside a dilapidated building within the borough of Queens; it was warmly grasped by yet another but unrelated Hayward. The President and CEO of New York Racing Association, Charles Hayward, congratulated KT Lim for being the last one standing in the race for the casino license of the Aqueduct Racetrack. One year later, the first Resorts World casino property in America would open its doors to welcome its first customers.

Unbeknownst to all the four actors — the two unrelated Haywards and the Lim father and son, the Hayward name bears a genealogical root which traces back to medieval England to a lineage entrusted as keepers and guardians of the forest. In crossing paths with the Lims, Skip and Charles Hayward had unwittingly fulfilled the charter of the millennium-old order of their forefathers. A thousand years on, these Haywards had each played pivotal roles in protecting the interests of the house of (forest 林) Lim. The chairman-elect, Lim Keong Hui, too will need to find and encounter his own faithful “Hayward” who will raise the horn and vigilantly watch over his fiefdom as he assumes the mantle of the Genting family empire.