Executive of the Year

The Sky Tower dominates Auckland’s sky line. “It was not
terribly popular at the outset,” observes Evan Davies, managing director of Sky City, but it is now potent symbol of the city.
Sky City embodies the excitement of Auckland, he says. It is bright, buzzy, loud, exciting place that demonstrates the multicultural nature of our community, place where people from every demographic can gather to play together. And it is not just about gambling. With seven restaurants, it is the biggest purveyor of food in New Zealand. successful hotel and the biggest commercial car park in Auckland also come under its umbrella.
The Sky Tower is the most visited tourist centre in New Zealand and almost one in two international arrivals comes to Sky City, says Davies. Of the 700,000 international tourists who visit annually, 500,000 stay to play.
It all started in 1992 when Davies, general manager of Brierley Properties at the time, applied for the first North Island casino licence in joint venture with Harrah’s, major American casino operator. The licence was awarded in 1994 and Sky City was open for business in February 1996.
“The turning point for us as business was when we took over the operation from Harrah’s in January 1997,” says Davies. The takeover was formally completed in June 1998 and the financial performance has improved dramatically since then.
“Watching what they got wrong was how we learned to get it right,” he says. “They tried to simply relocate the American experience to New Zealand, focusing on gaming rather than entertainment. In our view, this community wants much broader experience.” The theatre, which opened in late 1996 with cabaret and showgirls, did not initially offer what Aucklanders wanted and only became successful with an eclectic mix of shows from John Rowles to Shakespearean tragedy.
“We have to increase the level of attraction to broad group of people who say ?Where can we go to have fun?'” says Davies.
Davies observes that while many feel that casino is licence to print money, you succeed or fail according to the quality of management and capital decisions, as in other businesses, and points to some Australian casinos that have performed disastrously and lost huge amounts of money.
In December, Sky Alpine Queenstown Casino, boutique casino complex, will open. Because it will be focused on the tourist market, Davies feels that it can afford different approach to provide more extreme experience. When people come often they will become bored with strong theme. “It’s show that runs too long,” he says.
Sky City took over the Adelaide Casino in July and is making sure that the experience suits the Adelaide community. It is more conservative city – like Christchurch writ large, he laughs. Apart from learning how to shape the experience to the community, Davies sees the main challenge in growing the business as the sheer scale of the enterprise.
“We employ 2500 people in central Auckland. Trying to have that many people, many new to the business, understand what we are about and helping us grow through that process has been big job,” he says.
“We have group of relatively inexperienced people in this business who have made Sky City the outstanding gaming complex in Australasia.” He is proud that so many employees have been given extraordinary career opportunities, rising from grass roots level to senior management positions. In hard business that requires dedication from people, Sky City has tried to look after them and make them feel part of the enterprise. All staff who work above minimum hours share in the success of the business. If customers have good time, staff are financially rewarded. And they are given good opportunities in terms of training, growth and development.
“The way to make that diverse group committed to the business is to make it clear that you are committed, too,” says Davies. “I have strength in that I have been here from the beginning. I have been through it with them and it is my fault if something goes wrong. That involvement helps when you are asking them to commit and do things every hour of the day, 365 days year.” And like his employees, Davies does not gamble.
He responds to critics of gambling by conceding that those sectors of the community have to be taken seriously. He does not believe that gambling per se is either good or bad. It is just something people enjoy doing – like eating chocolate – but if customers abuse that entertainment, they can suffer. He emphasises that Sky City takes its responsibilities extremely seriously. He is committed to community support. Sky City is national sponsor of the Special Olympics Foundation. It has just launched the Safe and Sound Appeal for Starship Hospital and is about to launch Kids First in association with Middlemore Hospital. It donates $1.5 million annually to Community Trust and has helped St Matthew’s Church with its programme of refurbishment.

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