Business Irish

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Macau bets on Irish 'Murphia'

For over a decade Macau has been the global capital for casino gambling far outstripping Las Vegas. Four Irishmen have been central to its success

Wynn’s Casino in Macau
Wynn’s Casino in Macau
Niall Murray
Ciaran Carruthers
Ian Coughlan

Simon Rowe

Maybe it's the luck of the Irish but two Dubliners, a Clare man and a Belfast businessman have been enjoying a 10-year winning streak in Macau's booming casino industry.

Known affectionately by locals as 'the Murphia', this quartet of Irish business managers run the region's massive casino resorts that, at last count, generated $44bn (€40bn) in annual gaming revenue - a whopping six times bigger than the entire high-kicking Las Vegas strip.

Macau has witnessed a building boom of epic proportions over the past decade as the former Portuguese colony exploited its special status as the only region of China where casino gambling is legal.

The pace of casino construction has been relentless and it shows no sign of slowing down, even amid growing concerns over a fall in gaming revenues and a dip in visitor numbers from mainland China.

It's a high-stakes game but Macau casino owners have gone 'all in' with $19bn worth of new projects slated for completion over the next few years.

One of those overseeing this gargantuan casino boom is Santry-born Ciaran Carruthers, who is senior vice president at Sands China and director of operations at the firm's Plaza and Venetian casinos.

Sands China operates four casino resorts in Macau, with another due to open next year.

The sheer scale of what Carruthers manages is jaw-dropping. Aside from the mega-casinos and the Venice-themed canals and gondolas, the five-star resorts owned by Sands China boast 9,277 hotel rooms and suites, 1,535 table games, 4,082 slot machines, 125 restaurants, 1.5 million square feet of retail and a 15,000-seater arena.

Carruthers is joined at the top table of Macau's casino industry by Clare native Ian Coughlan, a former student of the Shannon College of Hotel Management.

Coughlan has headed Wynn casino resort, one of the biggest in Macau, since 2007. He is currently overseeing a $4bn (€3.6bn) project to build a 1,700-room resort on the island's Cotai Strip.

Keeping the green flag flying alongside them both is Dubliner Niall Murray, who has been based in Macau for 12 years. He has earned a global reputation as the go-to-guy for casino project management and operations.

Murray has worked for casino giant SJM Holdings and MGM China and is advising MGM as it prepares to open a new $3bn (€2.7bn) resort in late 2016.

Belfast-born Frank McFadden, head of business development at SJM, completes the 'Irish Murphia' quartet.

SJM controls half of the city's 35 casinos. The listed company was founded by Macau gambling kingpin Stanley Ho who enjoyed a four-decade monopoly on gambling until 2001 when the door was opened to a new wave of casino firms.

Reflecting on the success of the Irish in Macau's casino industry, Ciaran Carruthers says: "To see people like Ian, Niall and Frank come out here and do so well in the industry is quite phenomenal considering there are no casinos in Ireland."

He attributes much of the success to good old-fashioned "Irish hospitality" and friendliness. "It's the hospitality side of the business that we specialise in and I think that's what makes us so successful here."

"I was one of the first guys from Ireland to arrive here in Macau in 2002," he recalls. "It's been fantastic to watch the place develop. But we're just scratching the surface in terms of the market we're tapping into."

Carruthers' next big project is The Parisian, a French-inspired luxury palace dedicated to bling and betting.

The $3bn casino resort will feature 3,000 rooms and suites, a mega casino, miles of retail malls, and even a replica Eiffel Tower, quelle surprise.

For Carruthers, it's a long way from his days as a trainee casino dealer in Luton earning just £100 per week.

His first big gamble was in 1989 when he decided to ditch a career in actuary and stake his future on the betting tables.

"I was studying applied mathematical sciences in the NIHE in Glasnevin because I thought for some reason that I wanted to be an actuary," he recalls.

"I've no idea why I ever thought that job was going to suit me, but I heard that they made good money."

When Carruthers was offered free transport to Luton (via ferry and bus) and £100 per week for eight weeks' training to be a casino dealer, he grabbed it.

"I said to myself, I'll take the money and when I'm over there for the eight weeks I'll try and find a real job with an insurance company and continue with my actuarial studies.

"Of course, when I got there I started chatting to lads who had travelled the world working in casinos in Las Vegas, the Middle East, South America and on cruise ships. I immediately thought: 'I'm only 20 years of age, that's a hell of a lifestyle. I want that'."

Carruthers now runs one of the biggest casinos in the world and earns significantly more than £100 per week, he assures me.

In fact, he earns enough to pay for a beautiful hill-top home on 60 acres in south Australia and his salary also allows him to indulge his passion for Japanese vintage motorbikes, of which he owns 25.

Fellow Dubliner Niall Murray arrived in Macau shortly after Carruthers, in 2004, "for six weeks" to help with a casino opening. A decade later, he is still there working as a consultant on casino start-ups.

He studied hotel management in Cathal Brugha Street college and went on to work for the likes of Disney in Paris, the Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons hotels in New York, and Caesar's Palace in Vegas.

Project management is Murray's specialty. "I do a critical path process for casino openings. I manage everything," he explains. "What you have to do between today and the day you cut the ribbon to be ready. We now have a sort of generic system but you have to modify it for every project based on the owner's preferences. You've got to keep it fresh and up to date."

There are storm clouds on Macau's horizon, however.

Macau's gaming revenues are down 37pc over the past 12 months. The fall is blamed on China's corruption crackdown.

High-roller VIPs from the mainland who last year contributed 60pc of the city's $44bn (€40bn) casino revenue are reluctant to travel as big spenders now attract greater scrutiny from Chinese authorities. Stricter visa rules and a smoking ban are adding to Macau's financial woes.

But Carruthers remains bullish. "This market has been the largest gaming market in the world for a long time," he said. "It was a $44bn dollar market last year and it'll probably come in around $35bn this year, which is obviously not where people were projecting.

"So it's not the strong market that we expected it to be but it's certainly not a weak market. It's still six times bigger than the Vegas market. So things have to be put in perspective."

Murray says Chinese President Xi Jinping's efforts to get Macau to diversify its economy away from gambling is impacting on plans to develop new casino resorts.

"Mainland China is anxious to ensure that there is not so many of these VIP high rollers coming to Macau so they want us to focus more on the mass market and to work on non-gaming options," he said.

Murray claims that in some instances developers have had their casino licences and planning applications for new schemes rejected because Macau's planners wanted to see "more theatres, more family friendly entertainment amenities, more retail space".

Macau, a special administrative region of China, like neighbouring Hong Kong, is continuing with its plan to open eight new casinos over the next three years, adding infrastructure including a 30km bridge connecting Macau, Hong Kong and the mainland and high-speed rail - all aimed at attracting millions of middle-class families who will offset the declining numbers of high-spending VIPs.

There is no doubt that Macau's 'build it and they will come' strategy is a big gamble, especially if casino revenues continue to freefall. But who's going to bet against the 'Irish Murphia' having an ace up their sleeve?

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