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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz
 

Inside gaming: Herbst Gaming exploring all options

25 August 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada --- The clock is ticking on Herbst Gaming.

The Las Vegas-based casino and slot machine-route operator is facing a Sept. 30 deadline to come up with a financial restructuring plan covering nearly $1.2 billion in debt. In March, Herbst said it was looking at a possible bankruptcy filing.

Herbst, which is privately held by brothers Ed, Tim and Troy Herbst, has Goldman Sachs exploring alternatives. The company's two outside board members are evaluating the restructuring proposals.

Everything from selling the company to disposing of assets -- Herbst has 15 casinos in Nevada and the Midwest and a 7,200-machine Nevada slot route operation -- is on the table.

"The tie-up seems to be an equity situation," Wachovia analyst Dennis Farrell said. "Who will have majority stake? What role will people play? Those questions still need to be answered."

Collapsed credit markets, declining casino values and the diminished local and national economies have eliminated talk of asset sales. The focus is on easing the company's debt burden.

"The options have faded," Farrell said. "If there is a resolution between bond holders, banks and the Herbst family, the company will come out with a much cleaner balance sheet."

Since April, Herbst executives have gone radio silent. The company announced second-quarter earnings through a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, without a conference call or statement.

A confluence of bad economic news has engulfed Herbst Gaming. In the first half of this year, Herbst lost more than $78.8 million.

A statewide smoking ban in restaurants and taverns has decimated the company's slot machine route operation. Revenues are down almost 12 percent in 2008 following a 20 percent decline in 2007.

High gasoline costs and expanding Indian casinos have cut into visitation by Southern California customers to Herbst's three Primm casinos.

Herbst paid MGM Mirage $394 million for the casinos last year, a price the company would be hard-pressed to recoup in today's economy.

"A fire sale doesn't make sense in the middle of the restructuring," Farrell said.

So what's next? The Herbst brothers may have to relinquish control to outside influences. In March, Herbst Chief Operating Officer and veteran casino executive Ferenc Szony took an expanded role over the company's gaming operations.

***

Give the Golden Nugget an A for effort. The downtown casino continues to try and find a home for televised poker on Fremont Street.

The Golden Nugget has landed the 2009 season of NBC's late night "Poker After Dark" series. Episodes will be taped Oct. 26 through Nov. 5.