Vietnam’s MGM Grand Ho Tram Resort

What do Wall Street money men, an ex-MGM hotshot, ?a former prime minister and an upstart Vancouver developer have in common? A multibillion-dollar Vietnamese resort, ?of course.

Vietnam’s MGM Grand Ho Tram Resort
There’s a Vancouver connection to Vietnam’s mega-project in the making, the MGM Grand Ho Tram Resort.

What do Wall Street money men, an ex-MGM hotshot, 
a former prime minister and an upstart Vancouver developer have in common? A multibillion-dollar Vietnamese resort, 
of course.

Laid-back Vancouverites aren’t known for talking a big game, so when a news report put Vancouver at the centre of a plan involving a New York hedge fund, a Las Vegas executive, former prime minister Jean Chrétien and a $4.2-billion resort development in Vietnam, one can be forgiven for giving one’s head a shake. But sure enough, Vancouver’s Asian Coast Development Ltd. issued a press release in April this year announcing it had hired Lloyd Nathan, former president of MGM Mirage Global Gaming Development, to take its Vietnam mega-resort development to the next level.

Asian Coast secured permission from Vietnam in March 2008 to build that country’s first mega-casino, and New York hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners LP bought in early, taking an ownership stake in Asian Coast for an undisclosed sum. Former prime minister Chrétien – who these days hangs his shingle at law firm Heenan Blaikie LLP as an “international adviser” – was hired to help grease the wheels; he met with Vietnam’s Premier Nguyen Tan Dung on Asian Coast’s behalf first in May 2008 and again in April this year.

The ambitious plan calls for a mega-resort 130 kilometres south of Ho Chi Minh City, on an undeveloped beachfront once frequented by U.S. soldiers seeking R&R during the Vietnam War. (Sweeping for mines was the first order of business, according to Asian Coast founder Michael Aymong.) Plans call for the Ho Tram resort to be built in five stages, the first two of which will involve a 1,100-room hotel and casino to be managed by MGM Mirage. Stage 1, budgeted at $400 million and including 550 rooms, is scheduled to open in 2013.

The picture painted by the press release of a “world-class” resort featuring “chef-driven restaurants” and an “exclusive VIP area” is certainly impressive, but a number of questions come to mind, not the least of which is, What does this have to do with Vancouver?

The answer lies in the person of Michael Aymong, the man who claims to have dreamed up the plan while travelling in Vietnam sometime around 2006. It was then that he happened upon the “unspoilt beachfront waiting to be taken to greater heights,” as he would relate to the National Post two years later. (Aymong declined to be interviewed for this story.)

With partner David Subotic, a former vice-president at Haywood Securities Inc. who specializes in financing mineral exploration ventures, Aymong formed Asian Coast Development in 2006. Today the company shares office space with five investment firms in the Park Place office tower in downtown Vancouver. 

Originally from Toronto, and with an MBA from the University of Western Ontario, Aymong’s Vancouver connection dates back to April 2001, when he was named CEO of Starnet Communications International Inc., a Vancouver company that started out as a “provider of online adult entertainment,” according to its securities filings, and morphed into online gambling. The RCMP raided the Vancouver offices of Starnet in 1999, and Aymong steered the company through a guilty plea to one count of illegal gambling and a subsequent renaming and relocation to London, England.

For two years prior to taking the helm at Starnet, Aymong had been vice-president of sales and marketing of GT Group Telecom, a provider of fibre-optic networks for Canadian businesses. The company reported steadily mounting losses during Aymong’s tenure – $137.9 million in 2000 and $209.1 million in 2001 – before finally applying for creditor protection in 2002, with debts totalling $1.6 billion. (In a case of the weak eating the weaker, it would finally be snapped up in 2003 for $250 million by 360networks Corp. – itself emerging from creditor protection.)

Aymong was replaced as chair of Asian Coast in April this year, although he remains a shareholder and an adviser.

If Aymong explains how this international development scheme happens to be based in Vancouver, the next mystery is how MGM and Lloyd Nathan came into the picture. MGM Mirage signed on as a partner with Asian Coast in November 2008, agreeing to operate the planned Vietnam hotel and casino under the MGM Grand banner. Within a month, MGM had named Nathan president of its newly formed MGM Global Gaming division, with a mandate of expanding global operations. Nathan moved to Las Vegas from Hong Kong, where he had been managing director of MGM Mirage International.

Asia is a focal point of MGM’s global expansion strategy, centred on the MGM Macau, a 50-50 joint venture with Pansy Ho, daughter of Macau gambling kingpin Stanley Ho. That venture gave MGM a foothold in the explosive Asian gambling market. The Macau joint venture also forced MGM to make a difficult decision in March this year. After a four-year investigation into MGM’s Macau partnership, New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement determined Pansy Ho, nominally MGM’s joint-venture partner in Macau, to be “an unsuitable person . . . based on her dependence upon her father and her association with individuals connected to organized crime.” The commission concluded that it would not allow a company with any ties to Pansy Ho or to her father to operate a casino in its jurisdiction.

For MGM it came down to a choice between New Jersey or retaining its partnership with Ho in Macau – a partnership it had pursued after losing out to Las Vegas competitors Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Las Vegas Sands Corp. in its initial proposal to build a casino in Macau when China opened its doors to foreign casino operators in 2002. There was no contest: Macau is the fastest-growing gambling centre in the world, having eclipsed Las Vegas in gambling revenue in 2006. In New Jersey’s Atlantic City, on the other hand, gambling revenue fell 25 per cent between 2006 and 2009. In May of this year, MGM announced it would sell its 50 per cent stake in the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City in order to retain its foothold in Macau.

That same month, Nathan decided he’d rather focus exclusively on Asia, leaving MGM in order to take charge of Vancouver’s Asian Coast Development and its Ho Tram project in Vietnam. The company has no association with Stanley Ho, Nathan says, although he declined to comment on whether anyone in Ho’s family is involved in the MGM Grand Ho Tram. (Nathan was unavailable for an interview for this story, although his publicist provided Nathan’s responses to submitted questions via email.)

By coincidence, Pansy Ho, who holds a Canadian passport, had applied in 1996 to open a casino in Vancouver. At the time, her father had just finished building a $3.1-million private residence at the entrance to Stanley Park, and he had bought Vancouver’s Sutton Place Hotel three years earlier. Pansy Ho withdrew the casino application before a decision was rendered. The details of the application, and of any attendant Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch background checks, remain confidential because B.C., unlike New Jersey, does not make details of gaming-licence applications available to the public.

Almost forgotten in this web of intrigue is perhaps the most important question of all: where’s the money? Nathan remains tight-lipped as to how much capital Asian Coast has raised, saying only that the first phase – the $400-million, 550-room MGM Grand Ho Tram – is on track to open in early 2013. Citing “various securities regulations,” he would not specify how much of the estimated $4.2-billion cost of the entire project the company has raised, saying only that the support of Harbinger Capital, and his own appointment as CEO, “have created an appropriate platform to get our company to where we need to go.”