FACE TO FACE : Nigel Morrison – Sky’s rocket?

Barely four months into his new role at the helm of SkyCity, Nigel Morrison has been busy injecting new sense of energy into what he sees as great company that has rather lost its edge over the past few years. The organisational structure has been rejigged, new management team appointed and business plan for the coming year finalised.
“As we sit here today we are 99.9 percent through that process. We have the new structure, we’ve put the new team in place and completed our forward plans so now we’re ready to really start running the business – and I like to think we’re well on track,” says Morrison.
While Sky’s gravity-afflicted share price and stagnant performance might have put some punters off, he is definitely up for the challenge. It’s what drew him from the gaming heartland of Macau where he was chief financial officer for the $5 billion Galaxy Entertainment Group to Auckland’s quieter (but cleaner) climes – and despite the economic downturn, he’s betting on brighter outlook for Sky.
“I think SkyCity has been great brand and one of the great casino companies in Australasia for many years. It just seemed to have lost its way in recent years and the challenge to come here and turn it around had great appeal.
“Having background in finance, my strength is more in turnaround than in managing great businesses that are mature – and I see this very much as turnaround business. I think that with my interest in people management, technology and in marketing as well, I can help turn it around and that’s very exciting.”
At 48, Morrison has notched up many years’ worth of knowledge in the gaming industry, initially in his home town of Melbourne. Trained as chartered accountant, he had joined what was then one of the world’s largest professional services firms, Arthur Young (later Ernst & Young), working in the audit division for about three years before moving into corporate finance and being made partner in 1991.
“I guess over that time I’d got involved in consulting with the gaming industry and worked on series of feasibility projects.”
He was key member of the bid by Kerry Packer and Las Vegas company Circus Circus to build Sydney’s new casino in 1993 and had earlier been instrumental in forming the Crown consortium – joint venture between Hudson Conway and the Federal Group.
“After Crown was formed, I worked on their bid for three years and when they eventually won the licence [to build Melbourne’s Crown Casino], I decided if I was ever going to get out of chartered accounting then this was the time. So I joined Crown [as chief financial officer] in 1993 and we got the temporary casino going at the World Trade Centre and then went on to build the new complex at Southbank. That was one of the largest civilian projects of the time – it cost about A$2 billion.”
The same year Melbourne’s Crown Casino was opened in 1997, Morrison became the first non-American to be made chief operating officer at Crown and was tasked with helping turn the company around after the Asian crisis had dented its fortunes. By the time he left in 2000, the company had reached A$1 billion revenue and much of the management team that still runs Crown today had been assembled.
Morrison recalls that when the casino bid got under way in the early 1990s, Melbourne had little in the way of growth or CBD investment going on and he credits the Premier at the time, Jeff Kennett, for taking some bold decisions that helped give the whole state kickstart.
“You couldn’t say that Victoria had casino-led recovery but that was one of the projects he supported that had flow-on benefits which gave the state new air of confidence.”
The buzz associated with that specific project was not the only attraction for Morrison.
“I think one of the exciting things about casinos is that they are huge people businesses. They have thousands, if not millions of customers and lot of staff. They’re also very numerate businesses so there is the opportunity to be very analytical, to pull the business apart and analyse the numbers – how many international customers do you have coming in and out, how to best set maximum bet limits and analyse the statistics so you’re not overly exposed through the volatility – having mathematical background is great for all that stuff.”
There’s also the appeal of breaking new technological ground. Crown, says Morrison, was instrumental in redeveloping gaming systems that have since been adopted worldwide. These include the gaming system pioneered by the industry technology doyen John Acres and workforce management and rostering system designed by John Mizzi (MizziSoft) both of which are now being used in casinos around the world.
The other exciting thing about casinos, says Morrison, is what is possible with architecture and design.
“You can do things with casinos that you can’t justify with any other public development because their revenue-generation capacity far exceeds that of any five-star hotels – so you can be really creative. If you look at some of the best examples around the world, the attraction elements built into their architecture are really quite spectacular and it allows you to dabble in an area of fantasy that is generally too expensive to justify.”
Creating more exciting destination is very much part of his plan for Sky.
“We’re little bit challenged by the floor area of this property but would certainly want to look at creating more great bars and more great restaurants and become more of destination in that regard.”
In his seven years at Crown, Morrison learned lot from its largest shareholder, Lloyd Williams.
“He taught me number of key things: never give up, don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer, attention to detail, leading from the front. It’s about having presence on the floor of facility like this, talking to front-line staff and to customers. One thing about Crown was the testimony it received for outstanding customer service and Lloyd drove that from the front.”
Working with Kerry and James Packer when PBL took over at Crown also provided some fascinating insights, says Morrison.
“Some of their philosophies – know what you don’t know, employ the best management you can afford – were also very formative.”
After leaving Crown in 2000, Morrison joined the Tasmanian-based Federal Group as CEO and played key role revitalising what is Australia’s largest private casino and gaming company. formative influence there was Federal’s main shareholder and managing director, Greg Farrell.
“He was great guy to work for, who also shaped my decision making and view of stakeholder management – working with politicians, working with people in the community generally.”
That aspect of the role is big one and he believes it’s an area where Sky has lost its edge and consequently some of its community support. There is perception here, he says, that the company is not very good at managing harm minimisation issues.
“In reality, we’re doing better job than any other casino in this part of the world in terms of the amount of commitment and resource we put into that. Regulators would readily acknowledge that the incidence of gambling per capita here is less than in Australia and harm minimisation strategies are stronger but the perception in the community and in the media is the converse – so we do need to do some work on correcting that.”
It’s very different climate than that in Macau where gambling is an accepted part of the culture and where gaming revenues are currently increasing by some 70 percent year on year. That, says Morrison, is pretty unbelievable and he’s optimistic that Sky’s expansion of its Darwin property will help the company tap into the lucrative Asian market.
“But I think with the people it is not so much about gambling as about luck – I feel lucky so I’ll try and win. It’s also about superstition.”
Learning different cultural attitudes was valuable aspe

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