Pansy Ho: $4.4bn queen of sex, sequins and seven-card stud

The opening of a second giant gaming den will elevate Pansy Ho, the only woman ever to run a casino empire, from the richest woman in Hong Kong to one of the wealthiest businesswomen in Asia.

"In casinos, men run the show and women are just for show," says The Sunday Times. Except, that is, if you are Pansy Ho. The only woman ever to run a casino empire, "the $4.4bn queen of sex, sequins and seven-card stud" runs MGM Macau, a $1.25bn gambling palace and luxury hotel. The opening of a second giant gaming den will elevate her from being the richest woman in Hong Kong to becoming one of the wealthiest businesswomen in Asia.

Ho was born with "a silver gambling chip in her mouth". She is the daughter of tycoon Stanley Ho, who for 40 years enjoyed a monopoly on gambling in Macau. One of 17 children by his four wives, she "shot into the spotlight" in 2008 when she opened the MGM Grand mega-casino in partnership with the American giant MGM Mirage, says The New York Times. The suspicion then was that she was a "daddy's girl", catapulted into the hot seat because Stanley Ho's alleged links with organised crime made him too hot for MGM to handle (see box). But Pansy has proved a shrewd operator, staging a successful $1.5bn initial public offering in 2011 and driving ahead with ambitious plans to transform the family fiefdom in Macau. Her siblings don't appear to get a look in.

Educated in America, studying marketing and business at Santa Clara University in California, Ho, 50, flirted with a TV acting career in Hong Kong before starting her own PR firm. She later cut her teeth in the family business running Shun Tak Holdings, a conglomerate owning vast swathes of property, transport businesses and hotels in Macau. She's clearly now "outgrown" that, says Forbes.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Yet in Hong Kong, Ho, a divorcee, has never shaken off her reputation as "a good-time girl", says The Sunday Times. Nightclub exploits with her sister Josie Ho, a film star and singer, earned her the nickname "Party Girl Pansy" and incurred her father's wrath. He threatened to disinherit her in 2000 when a boyfriend was arrested for drug possession. Pansy promptly dropped the boyfriend.

The truth is that Pansy Ho has more to lose from Stanley Ho's reputation than he has from hers, says The Independent. At 91 and frail, he's said no longer to play an active role in the business, but casts a long shadow. And he still has the power to cause his heir-apparent a problem or two when it comes to family politics. He recently accused his second wife's children including Pansy of colluding with his third wife to steal the holding company that controls the bulk of his assets. Pansy rolls her eyes when asked about the row. "Tell me, what big family does not have cat fights?"

She seems very capable of fighting her corner, says The Sunday Times. Renowned for her short temper and shouting fits, "all her staff seem terrified of her". So what, says Patsy. "My staff should be paying me for all my lectures. They benefit from that." She really is one mean casino queen.

Ho, Macau and the rise of a gambling dynasty

Pansy Ho's rise within the family owes everything to Stanley Ho's decline in power, which began in 2002 when China ended his monopoly on gambling in Macau "and invited in global players", says John Arlidge in The Sunday Times. As big Vegas rollers like Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn steamed in, he was desperate to expand to compete. A deal with MGM was nearly scuppered when US regulators judged Ho "an unsuitable partner for the company". Since establishing his first casino, the Lisboa, in 1961, he had been "dogged by claims of links to Chinese Triads" (always denied). Pansy's record was, in contrast, "spotless".

She insists Macau has cleaned up its act. But the island's reputation for "violence and money-laundering" has proved hard to shake off, says James Ashton in The Independent. It centres on "junket operators", unscrupulous financiers who recruit, transport and sometimes underwrite high-rollers from the Chinese mainland. The trade is facilitated by restrictions the Chinese government places on its citizens, who can only visit Macau (still the only place in China where gambling is legal) once every three months and bring in only limited cash.

This is the biggest threat facing Macau's casinos, says Li Jing on Having overtaken Las Vegas in 2007 as the world leader in gaming revenue (in 2011, it pulled in $34bn, six times the Las Vegas total), it faces stiff competition from Singapore, Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries, where these restrictions don't apply. Ho is pushing for the "reinvention" of the once sleepy Portuguese colony as "a leisure and tourism hub" along the lines of the glitzy centres of the Gulf.

If she succeeds, Macau's future looks bright, says Ashton. But it's quite a punt and Ho admits she's no gambler. "I don't play," she says. "I'm not patient enough to sit through hours of gaming." But whoever heard of a croupier with a gambling habit?