Casino Canberra is set to change hands in a $32 million transaction, after signing a deal with a company owned and controlled by Michael Gu, who leads one of Australia's biggest hotel owners.
Aquis, owned by Hong Kong billionaire Tony Fung, bought Casino Canberra from Casinos Austria for $6.5 million in 2014. Now, four years later, he proposes selling his majority shareholding to Blue Whale Entertainment, in a complicated deal that involves a cash component, paying off a loan, and a three-year transition to buy remaining shares.
Mr Fung owns just under 90 per cent of shares in Aquis, which is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, and the deal will need shareholder approval, with full details expected to go to shareholders in January for a meeting in early March.
Blue Whale is owned by Mr Gu, who is also chief executive of iProsperity, which invests on behalf of high-worth Asian investors, according to the Australian Financial Review. Mr Gu is also a shareholder in SB&G; Group, owner of IHG and Crowne Plaza hotels.
One of those is the Crowne Plaza in Canberra, adjacent to the casino site on Glebe Park. In July, SB&G; announced plans to build a Holiday Inn Express brand hotel next to the Crowne Plaza.
Mr Gu does not have a casino licence and will need to be approved by the ACT government to hold one. A spokesman confirmed he has no other casino interests.
In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, he said Blue Whale was established for iProsperity's growing leisure and entertainment portfolio, and the casino deal would set the business "in the right trajectory".
"With our wealth of experience in hotels, we believe this presents the business with a unique opportunity to release this largely untapped market and provide Canberra with more world class experiences".
Blue Whale would upgrade the casino, including introducing "new world-class restaurants".
"We are hoping to create a brand-new entertainment hub for the nation’s capital and attract even greater numbers of visitors to Canberra,” he said.
A spokesman for ACT Gaming Minister Gordon Ramsay said the minister had not met with any representatives in relation to the acquisition of a casino license.
Under gaming laws, anyone who wants to buy the casino must undergo a probity assessment before the minister will approve the sale. In the case of a corporation, that assessment extends to each executive officer and influential person within the entity.
Asked whether the sale was a shock, he said the decision was a "matter entirely for the company", although Aquis had previously told the stock exchange that it had been engaging in a confidential bidding processes.
For its part, Aquis was frustrated by its inability to progress a $330 million redevelopment announced in late 2015, less than a year after Mr Fung took over. He planned swank hotels, brand retail and a grand new entrance on to Glebe Park, at one point also incorporating the nearby Canberra convention centre. But the plans got bogged down in the ACT government's lengthy unsolicited bids process and in the highly politicised environment that surrounds poker machine and gambling policy in Canberra.
The government agreed to allow the casino to have 200 poker machines in its gambling hall, breaking the stranglehold that the city's clubs have had on poker machines. But it imposed tough new bet limits and taxes on the machines and no final deal was reached.
Just this month, the ACT government finally quashed the bells and whistles redevelopment.
After that decision, chief executive Jessica Mellor told the Australian Stock Exchange that certain decisions taken by the ACT on electronic gaming machines and to not make certain land available meant it was difficult to continue with the original proposal.
However she said the casino would continue talks with the government about “development opportunities”.
Asked why Mr Fung decided to sell, a spokesman said Blue Whale's proposal had been unsolicited. Mr Fung's Australian focus would be on growing his racehorse breeding business, Aquis Farm.
Blue Whale Entertainment was previously i-Prosperity Global Wealth, with the name change to Blue Whale taking effect in late September this year.
Company records show Michael Gu, also known as Menghong Gu, 31, is Chinese born and lives in a Sydney harbourside suburb. Mr Gu's co-director in the firm (but not shareholder) is Chinese-born Zhou Xiang Huang, who also has a Sydney harbourside address, and was appointed on Wednesday December 19 this week. He replaces Fuyin Fan, of Singapore who was appointed as a director on Tuesday this week, but ceased the following day, according to company records.
The deal signed between Aquis and Blue Whale includes a $4 million cash component up front, plus Blue Whale paying $24 million of a $37 million debt that Aquis owns to Tony Fung. Part of the debt is being forgiven. Then, after three years, the rest of the Fung shares are to be bought by Blue Whale, leaving Blue Whale owning up to 87 per cent of the shares.
Also this morning, Friday, December 21, Aquis told the Australian Stock Exchange that the company's financial controller, Allison Gallaugher, would take over as acting chief executive on January 1. Ms Mellor foreshadowed her departure in August.
- with Katie Burgess