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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston
 

Harrah's next move is up to the pros

27 December 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- There's more than one way to skin a casino.

If you're a multibillion-dollar private equity fund such as Texas Pacific Group or Apollo Management, you could buy up an entire company or just most of it, becoming a controlling shareholder and electing handpicked members to a company's board of directors.

You could buy a floundering business as Texas Pacific Group, a buyout and turnaround specialist, did with Continental Airlines, which avoided yet another bankruptcy under private ownership, and Burger King, which was improved and taken public by Texas Pacific and other partners this year.

Along the way, you could boost results by shaking up management and selling off underperforming assets, as Texas Pacific and Apollo have done.

You could also expand or take a company in a new direction, as Apollo did when it controlled Vail Resorts, a Colorado-based resort hotel company.

Under Apollo's majority ownership, Vail Resorts bought up resort hotels and other real estate and has been expanding its vacation empire ever since. Apollo took Vail public in 1997 and sold most of its stake in the company in 2004.

What direction the funds will take with Harrah's Entertainment isn't clear, although it's important to note that there's more to leveraged buyouts than a slash-and-burn approach to management.

For now, it's unclear how aggressively Harrah's will pursue dozens of potential growth opportunities in Las Vegas and beyond.

In an interview last week, Harrah's Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Halkyard said the company still plans to redevelop its Las Vegas casinos, work that has consumed the better part of nine months in brainstorming.

"This is an R&D exercise more than a construction drawing exercise at this point," Halkyard said, adding that the company has accumulated many conceptual drawings. Plans will be announced in phases over the course of 2007 and 2008 and will be built in stages, he said.

The first of those may take shape at the company's Caesars Palace flagship, which is further along than other properties in the planning process, Halkyard said.

The company wants to add a hotel tower behind Caesars' new Augustus Tower and replace its Strip-facing Roman Plaza with a building containing casino space, retail, restaurants and bars. The plans are expected to reach the Clark County Commission for a vote in January after being held over from a Dec . 20 meeting, although further delays are possible.

Top executives say private ownership won't alter the company's growth strategy, but they have acknowledged in employee meetings that paying down debt - estimated to nearly double after the deal consummates - will become their top priority.

In an attempt to allay concerns, the company is making presentations and distributing information to employees about Apollo and Texas Pacific, which are unknown entities in Nevada in spite of their recent rise to Wall Street fame as some of the largest buyout firms to take American companies private in recent years.

For instance, from one presentation: "Both firms have proven track records and strong reputations for partnering with companies to nurture and grow some of America's most recognized brands, including Continental Airlines, Neiman Marcus, Vail Resorts, Linens 'n Things, J. Crew, GNC Corp. and Bally Shoe. Of particular importance are their long-term perspective and willingness to help us in any way they can to deliver on our growth strategy and achieve our full potential."

Analysts are divided on whether Harrah's will choose to grow or scale back on spending, with some experts saying the company may choose a middle ground. Harrah's hasn't yet revealed many details of its plans in Las Vegas and abroad and therefore can reduce those plans somewhat without disappointing the public, they say.

News of the Harrah's buyout comes as many of the largest private equity firms, including Apollo, have formed their first-ever trade association to help legislators and regulators understand how buyout companies work.

The association would also help put a positive face on a business that has historically been associated, sometimes unfairly, with mass layoffs and asset sales to drive profits.

As the seventh-largest leveraged buyout in U.S. history and the largest in the gaming industry, the Harrah's deal is uncharted territory for all involved.

For now, Harrah's executives are bullish on growth.

The company is continuing its expansion of Harrah's Atlantic City, expected to be complete in 2008, and is acquiring London Clubs International, a British casino chain that also owns casinos in Egypt and South Africa, and is pursuing plans to build at least five casinos across the United Kingdom.

"Internationally we don't expect (the purchase) to influence any plans," Halkyard said of the company's stated goal of building Caesars casinos in the Bahamas, Spain and Slovenia.

Asia remains a key part of the company's growth plan, he added.

"At some point we want to have a Caesars in Macau," he said.

Harrah's next move is up to the pros is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.