By Byron Kaye and Shashwat Awasthi
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Crown Resorts Ltd backed a $6.3 billion buyout from private equity giant Blackstone Inc on Monday, giving billionaire James Packer an exit route from the Australian casino firm beset by scandals and regulatory setbacks.
Packer will cash in his chips a decade and a half after he created Crown to shift away from the Packer family’s media empire in a bid to reinvent the dynasty as a gambling business.
The A$13.10 cash offer values Crown below its share price in 2019, before COVID-19 restrictions and damaging regulatory inquiries in the three states it operates, but Chief Executive Steve McCann said it provides much-needed certainty for shareholders.
Crown shares rose 2% to A$12.65 on Monday.
“When you’re looking at a change of control, it’s not today’s trading price and today’s earnings,” McCann told analysts on a call, responding to a question about whether the company’s decision factored in post-pandemic trading and intense regulatory scrutiny.
“It’s a much broader assessment. This is a pretty fair price.”
Blackstone, which already holds around 10% of Crown, will take over a company facing regulator scrutiny after official investigations found it had knowingly dealt with criminal organisations then misled the authorities about it.
The gambling licence for Crown’s flagship A$2.2 billion casino skyscraper in Sydney remains suspended, more than a year after it was due to open. Crown’s main earner, its Melbourne casino, must operate with a government-appointed supervisor for two years.
“Moving towards a new ownership structure is an important initial step forward in resolving the many regulatory concerns that have been highlighted,” said Angus Gluskie, managing director of White Funds Management, which has Crown shares.
John Ayoub, a portfolio manager at Wilson Asset Management, which also holds Crown shares, supported the decision to back the deal – Blackstone’s fourth attempt.
“In light of what’s transpired over the past few years this is a good outcome for all parties involved,” Ayoub said.
As Crown’s biggest shareholder with 37% of the company, Packer’s vote will be pivotal to reach the 75% shareholder approval threshold. A spokesperson for Packer, who would walk away with about A$3.3 billion, declined to comment.
Chris Tynan, senior managing director and head of real estate at Blackstone Australia, said in a statement the company was “very pleased to have entered into a binding implementation agreement with Crown.”
END OF AN ERA
Packer has been pulling back from corporate life for years and a decision to support the deal would effectively end one of Australia’s most storied business dynasties.
Packer’s journalist grandfather Frank Packer in 1936 started Australian Consolidated Press, a newspaper and magazine juggernaut that would dominate the country’s media landscape for more than half a century.
The outsize influence of the media empire was reinforced under the control of Kerry Packer, Frank’s son and James’ father, until Kerry’s death in 2005.
James, however, took the family business in a new direction, splitting the parent company Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd into Consolidated Media Holdings to retain the traditional assets and Crown Ltd, which spearheaded his gambling industry ambitions. He promptly sold the media assets.
But Crown was in serious difficulty within a decade. As it pushed ahead with rapid expansion plans in Macau, Las Vegas and Australia, 19 of the company’s staff were jailed in China for breaking that country’s laws banning the marketing of gambling.
That prompted an abrupt retreat from all dealings abroad, while Packer himself began to step away from corporate life, quitting the boards of Crown and his private investment vehicle, CPH Holdings.
The Blackstone deal still needs regulatory approval. A shareholder meeting to vote on it is expected in the June quarter.
($1 = 1.4025 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Shashwat Awasthi; editing by Grant McCool, Stephen Coates and Jane Wardell)