Always ready to interview a member of the billionaire’s club

I wanted bragging rights that I’d been hanging with a billionaire. Trouble is, the billionaire never showed.

Presuming that sitting in the same room constitutes hobnobbing, I was ready to hobnob with James Packer. The 41-year-old Australian billionaire had showed up Jan. 7 at the Gaming Control Board meeting, seeking licensing to buy Cannery Casino Resorts in an all-cash deal valued at $1.8 billion. He said very little, appearing only because he had to, and wasn’t required to be at Thursday’s Nevada Gaming Commission meeting where I waited. Drat.

A couple of guys I respect who have met him but don’t claim to be close said he was very engaging and down to earth.

“In meetings, he’s the dominant figure in the room,” said one.

“He has people skills I’d like to have, he’s very personable,” said the other. “He wasn’t full of himself. … If I had not had knowledge who he was and not known about his wealth, I’d be happy having a beer with him.”

Sadly, like most of us, Packer’s net worth has plummeted.

In the Forbes March 2008 list of billionaires, Packer was valued at $5.7 billion, the 173rd richest man in the world. Supposedly, he’s worth half that now, and is selling a few baubles, including his $425 million cattle ranch in Australia, his $50 million yacht and having second thoughts about buying a new $60 million jet. Times are tough.

Packer inherited his wealth, courtesy of his father, the late media mogul and enthusiastic gambler Kerry Packer, who died in 2005 after creating the media empire Publishing & Broadcasting. Since taking over the family biz, Packer split his media interests into one publicly traded company and his casino interests are traded under the name Crown Ltd., where he’s the largest stockholder.

On a more gossipy note, Forbes said he was married to model-turned-singer/songwriter Erica Baxter “in a lavish ceremony on the French Riviera reportedly attended by friends Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.” Australian newspapers report he was once interested in Scientology, but no more.

Cannery Casino Resorts, the company started by Las Vegans Bill Paulos and Bill Wortman, provides Packer his first entry into Nevada gaming as he expands Crown’s worldwide gaming empire. Because Packer was a no-show, I focused on Rowen Craigie, Crown’s CEO, who many years ago worked for Paulos in Melbourne, Australia, and is the person who connected Packer with Paulos.

Would there be any mention of Crown’s gaming partner in Macau, Lawrence Ho? He’s the son of yet another self-made billionaire, Stanley Ho, whose questionable connections with the Chinese triads threw up roadblocks when MGM Mirage sought to partner in Macau with Ho’s daughters Pansy and Daisy. MGM Mirage won approval after a lengthy investigation.

No Ho name was mentioned Thursday, although Craigie did say, “Our local partner in Macau brings a wealth of experience.”

Afterward, Gaming Control Board member Randy Sayre explained that when Pansy and Daisy Ho were up as partners of MGM Mirage, the control board looked closely at the family. After looking at Lawrence Ho specifically, Nevada didn’t see Lawrence Ho as posing a problem to Packer’s licensing here.

Over the years, I’ve not exactly hung with billionaires, but I’ve lived in the same state with three and interviewed a few.

When I was a sweet young thing in my 20s living in Arkansas in the 1970s, the state seemed to have a disproportionate number of older billionaires. The late Don Reynolds was a billionaire who owned the Las Vegas Review-Journal. (Met him when he got locked in one part of the newspaper building after hours and I let him out. The way I tell it, I saved his life.)

The late investment banker Jackson Stephens of Little Rock bought the newspaper and yep, he was a billionaire. Then there was Arkie billionaire Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame. All three men were the best kind of billionaires, the self-made ones.

I went to a charity function once in Bill Gates’ backyard, but that seems like a stretch, even for me. But I’ve interviewed Kirk Kerkorian, Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson — all billionaires who made their money the hard way.

Then again, what’s wrong with having a daddy who’s a billionaire?

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison/.

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