James Packer had a dream: to build something special, and to build it in Sydney.
“In a funny way,” he once said, it would “tick the final box in me.”
The billionaire casino magnate has long had a complicated relationship with Sydney: it’s where he grew up under the gaze of his larger-than-life father, Kerry; it’s where he went to school; it’s where his family had built sprawling media empires.
But it’s a city Packer has been largely absent from for many years, instead choosing to live in far-flung Israel, the US cities of Los Angeles and Aspen, on his ranch in Argentina or at sea aboard his mega yacht.
The last time he was in Australia, in February, was for an administrative visit – to renew his passport. In Sydney he barely left the airport, spending most of his time in Melbourne.
Packer has, however, always dreamed of a triumphant return to his hometown one day. In 2021 he hoped to be able to unveil his newest project, a $2.2 billion high-end Crown hotel and casino complex in Barangaroo, while his mega yacht sailed victoriously into Sydney Harbour.
Whether that dream can be fulfilled now remains to be seen, as news emerged this week that Packer and his casino company, Crown Resorts, were weighing a $10 billion takeover bid.
How a lot can change in four short years – especially in the high-stakes game of casinos and gambling.
Life at the top
On a cloudless day in back in 2013, James Packer was on a hot streak and on top of the world. Ahead of an interview on Channel Seven’s Sunday Night, he was being filmed on a balcony above Sydney Harbour, looking into the middle distance, over postcard views and passing ferries. Packer was 45, lean and fit, and looked like a different man. People familiar with him at the time describe him as brimming with ambition and a “what’s next” attitude.
James Douglas Packer – “Australia’s $6 billion dollar man” as interviewer Mike Willesee described him on air – had been rolling the dice and betting big. Since divesting his family’s media assets in 2007, he had been focusing on growing his majority-owned Crown Resorts ever larger into what he believed could emerge as a truly global gambling empire.
In a short space of time, he’d opened a major casino in Macau, snapped up a large stake in gaming giant Caesars, and acquired a site on the world-famous Las Vegas Boulevard that he was planning to develop. Next, Packer had his sights on even loftier ambitions – a Crown expansion into one of the world’s largest untapped gambling markets, Japan, which was lifting a ban on casinos.
“It was all spend, spend, spend,” as one casino executive recently put it. “And then it was a complete 180-degree switch.”