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Caesars’ CEO is bullish on Suffolk bid

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / July 2, 2012
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Caesars Entertainment’s chief executive Gary Loveman glibly defends his business as a service industry for risk-takers who want to place “a modest bit of consideration” on an uncertain outcome.

That was what the gambling giant did at Suffolk Downs, when it partnered in 2011 with a Depression-era racetrack that was well positioned to pursue casino development rights.

A year later, Loveman likes his prospects: He boldly says he foresees no other competitors for the Greater Boston casino license, likely to be the most lucrative license in the emerging Massachusetts gambling market.

“I think it’s unlikely [another bidder will surface] because the cost of now mounting a bid is substantial,” said Loveman, in his first extensive interview since plans for a $1 billion Suffolk Downs casino were released last month.

It is exactly the kind of audacious public prediction the cautious local management at Suffolk Downs would never make.

But Loveman, 52, a former Harvard Business School professor, boasts about being data-driven. And the data, as he sees it, suggest that no other developers are planning to get into the game.

“There’s lots of ways you’d hear about it,” Loveman said. “People hire lobbyists. They’re shopping for real estate. They’re looking for financing. There are so many things you have to do. This is not something for the faint-hearted. You have to be in to do this in a big way. You’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars to present something to the gaming commission and it’s hard to do that quietly.”

The blunt-speaking chief executive dismissed the casino aspirations of developer David Nunes, who has proposed a $700 million gambling resort in Milford but has yet to announce a financing partner. “We hear Mr. Nunes’s remarks, but I don’t think it’s likely that is going to be successful,” said Loveman.

Nunes fired back: “Ridiculous prognostications by CEOs with $20 billion debt problems are not things that I have to worry about.”

It was an easy shot at Loveman’s Achilles heel. His debt-heavy company is hustling to open new streams of revenue before a large chunk of the $20 billion it owes comes due in 2015.

Michael Paladino, a casino analyst for Fitch Ratings, said the trajectory of the company’s business over the next several years will determine “whether or not they can refinance at reasonable terms.” Fitch maintains a CCC rating on Caesars, which indicates that the company has substantial credit risk.

Caesars is a big name in the industry, but one of the smaller partners in Suffolk Downs. It holds a 4.2 percent stake in the project, according to paperwork filed with state racing authorities. Richard Fields, a former Donald Trump associate, holds about 41 percent of the venture. Joseph O’Donnell, founder of Boston Culinary Group, holds about 31 percent. A New York property investment company, Vornado Realty Trust, has 19.9 percent. Several others hold minuscule shares.

The arrangement is a new development model for Caesars, which is joining casino projects as a minority partner, while arranging to collect fees to manage the properties. The company opened a new casino in Cleveland in May under its Horseshoe brand. Caesars owns 20 percent of that project.

“It’s not as lucrative” as owning a casino outright “but nor is it as expensive,” said Loveman, who oversees more than 50 gambling properties.

Though Caesars holds a small stake in Suffolk Downs, Loveman said his team was intimately involved in the design of the gambling resort proposal. The partners are still discussing a name for the resort, but Loveman wants “Caesars” in the title.

Paladino said Caesars likes the fee-for-management business because it is an efficient use of capital. “They also just have limited financial flexibility to invest the capital if they did want to own it outright,” he said.

Caesars’ debt is from a leveraged buyout of the company in 2008, just as the recession took hold and gambling revenues plummeted, experts say.

Loveman said his company is “mindful of the maturities in the debt. . . . We work on this issue, we certainly think about it and deliberate on it all the time. And I am quite confident we will address it successfully.”

The Suffolk Downs partners will seek project financing to help pay for the East Boston development. The resort will not be financed off Caesars’ balance sheet. “This is not a case where the company is going to be required to write a billion-dollar check to build this facility,” said Loveman.

Loveman’s unlikely rise to the top of his business is Las Vegas legend. The story begins in 1998, when the boss of the national mid-market casino chain Harrah’s Entertainment had the crazy idea to hire a Harvard egghead to revitalize the business. Professor Loveman took a sabbatical, and came to Harrah’s with a bunch of business school theories about the power of branding to influence consumers, but no experience running a gambling hall.

Many expected disaster, but Loveman pioneered new ways to exploit customer data to grow revenue, and five years later he ascended to chief executive.

“He made them the most technologically sophisticated casino company and helped them build the largest customer database,” said Dennis Forst, casino industry analyst for KeyBanc Capital Markets.

Since becoming chief executive, Loveman has expanded the kingdom. Harrah’s gobbled up Caesars in 2005, giving the chain some marquee properties, including iconic Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip, the theme resort where daredevil Evel Knievel famously crashed his motorcycle trying to jump the hotel fountains. Harrah’s changed its name to Caesars Entertainment in 2010.

At Suffolk Downs, Loveman proposes a two-phase construction. In the first phase, taking about one year, “You’d see casino, slots and tables, the usual casino services, and some restaurant services,” he said. “And then you’d get the hotel, spa, more restaurants, and retail in the second phase.” He said the second phase would take an additional year.

For all his talk, Loveman keeps a much lower profile than neighboring CEOs on the Las Vegas Strip, such as Steve Wynn, the showman who trades Picasso masterpieces like baseball cards. Or Sheldon Adelson, the Boston-born billionaire who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s run for the Republican presidential nomination and is reportedly spending millions to put Mitt Romney in office.

Loveman is known for his striking deep voice, expansive vocabulary, and elegant diction. Most Bostonians complain about their commute; few travel as far as Loveman, who never left the Boston area after taking his casino job. His main office is at the company’s flagship resort in Las Vegas. When working he lives at the hotel or on the road; he comes home on weekends.

“My wife is a Bostonian who doesn’t want to live anywhere else, so that’s just the way we’ve continued,” said Loveman.

His local connections are a big part of the reason O’Donnell, who knew Loveman through Harvard, turned to him when Suffolk Downs needed a partner with casino expertise. In a parochial city, people already knew Loveman. O’Donnell also liked Loveman’s intelligence and his clean record, with no character blots or tabloid scandals to defend or explain away.

“I’m very, very comfortable with Gary,” said O’Donnell, in an interview.

Loveman said he is thrilled to be doing a deal with his old friend. “It’s a joy for me to try to have a business in my home state and a city that I feel very close to,” he said.

One of Loveman’s longtime foes suggests Suffolk Downs symbolically means even more to the casino boss.

“He has always wanted Boston to legitimize himself,” said Tom Grey, a former Illinois preacher dubbed the Riverboat Rambo for his 20-year campaign against a business he describes as predatory.

If Loveman can bring a casino to Boston, a city with national cultural significance and which does not need gambling, Grey said, “he thinks that would legitimize the industry as a product.”

“In his mind,” said Grey, “Boston is the big enchilada.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.

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