IN A region where rags to riches stories populate the biographies of the wealthiest men in Asia, the epic of Dr. Jack Lam Yin Lok is certainly one of the more interesting. The rise of the Godfather of Gaming, as “Global Gaming Magazine”? refers to the Jimei Group Chairman, was nothing less than meteoric in an industry known for its rough-and-tumble nature and billion-dollar casino gambles. It is on this glittering stage, with its flashing neon lights and mega-high rollers, that Lam made his name through a mix of ritzy developments, listed companies and travel services coupled with a driving desire to play a role in Asia’s economic development.
Lam was relaxed and talkative over a simple breakfast of congee and dim sum with the publisher of SBR, hosted at his Fontana Hot Spring Leisure Parks and Casino Resort in Clark Freeport Zone in the Philippines. Once the former Asian bastion of US military, Clark is now a high-end, manicured, tree-lined residential, resort and golfing community. During the conversation, Lam pulled out a slick granite-grey property brochure with a mock up of his dream project, a 108-story International Port Complex in Hengqing, an island off Zhuhai not more than a stone’s throw from the gambling Mecca of Macau.
Hengqing is the latest battlefield for the South China tycoons, and Lam is making a statement with this landmark development. Since 2009 when the China State Council designated Hengqing as a Special Economic Zone similar to the Pudong New Area, and leased parts of the small island to Macau, tens of billions of dollars of investment have flowed into projects. “Our tower will be taller than anything in Hong Kong,? Lam notes proudly, pointing to the helicopter pad on the roof of 640,000 sq. m. building, resting nearly 470 m. above the ground. “It will be the centrepiece of one of China’s fastest growing new development zones.?
However, it is the pending role that Fontana will play in the November 2015 APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit and in the associated ministerial meetings that excites Lam most. Driving through the vast Fontana estate in his golf cart, Lam passes hundreds of bungalows and three-story mansions, along with waterparks and hot springs. Lam heads straight for his new conference hall. “We are working day and night to prepare this building for the APEC January ministerial meetings,? he says, pointing to a building in progress that looks like a mini-palace, all sweeping porticos and columns, ready to receive world leaders.
It will be Lam’s party and his greatest moment in the spotlight to date. The stellar guest list will include the likes of Xi Jinping, Barrack Obama and a slew of leaders from around the Pacific Rim region. For the 53-year old man who has everything, the halls of power are an attractive next step and there are few political stages bigger in this part of the world than an APEC Summit. “Playing even a small part in such grand world affairs makes one humble,? adds Lam, who already has close connections with many of the Asian leaders coming to the Fontana grand ballroom.
Spin of the Wheel
Born in the bustling provincial capital of Guangdong, Lam moved from the city of Guangzhou to Hong Kong in 1979 to work with his factory-owner uncle as a bookkeeper. With a salary of just HKD1000 (USD128) a month, Lam could do little but watch his elder uncle play the tables on frequent trips to Macau. However, sitting in the glitzy casinos watching his uncle test lady luck, Lam knew one thing, this was the industry for him. It was here that he felt at home and it was here where his fortune would be made.
Lam nuzzled into the gambling world as a teenage sub-agent in 1981, working to bring junkets of high rollers through Hong Kong to Macau. It soon became clear that Lam had a natural manner with the richest gamblers in the region. He well understood their motivations and catered to their every whim, allowing him to reach the top of the ultimate service industry. With this unique talent for forming relationships, Lam built a billion-dollar empire that spans many of the capitals of Southeast Asia. Along the road to success, Lam partnered with the likes of Stanley Ho, Stephen Adelson and Jimmy Wynn, all legendary kingpins in the world of gambling and instrumental in Macau’s rise.
In the Macau junket sector, which still accounts for much of the turnover of the Jimei Group gaming portfolio, Lam ranks among the top five operators by rolling chip turnover. As a measure of his prominence in the industry, Lam is one of the few junketeers to run a gaming property in his own right, having taken over Casino Oriental at the then Mandarin Oriental in 2009 with the blessing of Stanley Ho’s Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM). Located under the roof of the renamed Grand Lapa, the refurbished Jimei Casino operates as a “satellite? of SJM in exchange for a revenue share.
Today, Lam manages his growing casino empire from his Jimei Group offices in COSCO Tower in Central Hong Kong. In recent years, he has reduced some of his overall exposure to Macau by diversifying his business. Lam now sits atop of a conglomerate that boasts a portfolio of investments in casino properties, financial services, travel, casino cruises, as well as the flagship Fontana Resort, a junket room in one of Seven Luck’s popular foreigners-only casinos in Seoul and the recent addition of a VIP operation at Manila’s new Solaire Resort & Casino.
Analysts state the Philippines remains Lam’s most adventuress investment. Fontana, a sprawling holiday getaway assembled across 300 hectares, is certainly the most imaginative Lam project completed to date. From his Fontana throne, Lam has operated gaming packages to the Philippines from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea for years. Along the way he has cultivated relationships with politicians and government officials that brought him VIP rooms in Pasay City and Cebu casinos and an interest in the Fort Llocandia Resort and Hotel on the South China Sea.
The ten year old Fontana complex, located about 80 kilometres from the nation’s capital, has rapidly grown to become the Jimei flagship with its collection of family-style holiday villas and time shares, hotel, water park, golf, fitness facilities, spa, restaurants, convention space and boutique casino. It is a leisure city within a city, catering both to locals and to a Chinese and Korean clientele that Jimei has come to know intimately over the years.
With intense competition in the Asian gaming sector and the challenge of China’s new anti-corruption practices policy, many of the movers and shakers in this world of roulette wheels and baccarat tables have shifted their attention to building war chests in an effort to establish capital strength. Central to this strategy is the ability to tap stock markets, and Hong Kong is the bastion of power for the South China players with many of the world’s leading gaming and entertainment stocks on its board.
Lam made his first step into the public market arena in September 2014 with Sinogreen Energy International Group Limited (stock code: 1159.HK). To compete with his gaming peers, Lam entered the high-stakes backdoor listings game on the HKE, the most expensive listings markets in the world, where Mainboard backdoor shell companies can go for as high as USD50 million. This important step into the Hong Kong capital market was a critical milestone for Lam and Jimei Group. As for the Hong Kong investors – they have appreciated the gains so far.
After it was announced that Lam, combined with two British Virgin Islands (BVI) entities, Creative Cosmo Ltd. and New Elect International Ltd., to buy 325 million new shares in Sinogreen, a firm trading in silicon rubber key-pads, for HKD113.8 million (USD14.7 million), shares in the company rose by nearly 80 per cent over a three day period. The purchase price of HKD0.35 (USD0.05) per share, 94.3 percent discount to a closing price of HKD6.15 per new share (taking into account capital adjustments) amounted to nearly two-thirds of Sinogreen’s enlarged share capital.
Yet, life in the listed world is not always easy, especially these days when regulators are vigilant on all fronts and the complexity of being a public company carries many responsibilies. Lam found out just how complex life could be when he and his partner were required under the Hong Kong Takeovers Code to make an unconditional mandatory cash offer to acquire all the outstanding shares of Sinogreen. This posed a problem, if the bid succeeded, Sinogreen would be forced to delist.
Lam had no choice but to proceed with the takeover bid. However, in a neat financial maneuver he managed to avoid a delisting. Reach Luck, Lam’s BVI investment entity at the time, made an offer of a less than generous HKD0.35 (USD0.05) in cash for each share. The bid was so low that the firm appointed to advise independent shareholders, Veda Capital Ltd., warned against the offer, saying it was at too deep a discount to the share closing price. Veda also noted the potential of a rise in prospects for Sinogreen with Dr. Jack Lam at the helm as Executive Chairman.
Not surprisingly, the public filing on the closure of the Sinogreen mandatory cash offer stated that the offer had only received valid acceptances from shareholders representing 0.005 per cent of Sinogreen issued capital. The filing document added: “…25.15 per cent of the total issued shares as at the date of this joint announcement remain in the hands of the public, and the company is in compliance with the public float requirement? of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Since then, the Sinogreen market capitalization has risen to over HKD2.2 billion (USD 280 million) and the share price peaked early this year at over HKD15 (USD 1.93) on the back of the Jimei Group casino and gaming story. And the time of this writing, the share price had pulled back from the peak, hovering around the HKD13 (USD1.68) level.
Yet, never one to receive a perceived snub lightly, in October 2014, Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission started legal proceedings against a former Sinogreen chairman, alleging he made an illicit USD1 million profit on disposal of a business unit at the expense of public shareholders. In a later filing it was noted that the person concerned had resigned in March 2009. So after a few bumps on the road, Sinogreen is back on the trading board and maintaining a stable stock price.
In just over three decades, Jack Lam has built a business empire that can be estimated to be worth in the billions of US dollars. Yet, we should not expect him to rest on his laurels any time soon. Still in his early 50s, Lam has plenty of time and desire to increase his presence in the business world of Asia, and make forays into farther flung domains like Australia.
The coming year will be one of many challenges for Lam nonetheless. A successful hosting of the APEC festivities is an important step for Fontana on the path towards recognition as a major resort. Meanwhile the ongoing development of the Hengqing mega-tower will be watched closely as the competition for Macau dominance shifts to a new playing field of massive new development projects. Meanwhile, anti-corruption policies will continue to have a negative effect on cash flow at gaming palaces around the region, though this is considered to be just a temporary phenomenon.
Parking his golf cart in front of the famous Fontana hot springs, Lam is non-plussed with the challenges ahead. “Look, this life has never been easy, everyone knows that,? he laughs. “Why should it be any easier now then when I was a bookkeeper making a small salary and dreaming of big things. Still, the region continues to grow and the prosperity of China looks set to continue, so we must look ahead to new horizons.?