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Paul Barry: James Packer’s greatest hits … and misses

Speculation is rife this morning that James Packer will continue his retreat from media ownership by selling out of Foxtel.

They say the mark of a successful businessman is that your successes outnumber your failures. If that’s right, then Packer is sitting pretty.

He’s no longer Australia’s richest man, and he may never shake off the stain of One.Tel, where he lost around $400 million of his shareholders’ money. But he’s chalked up a lot of successes over the years, with smart investments like PC Tools, Seek, Carsales and Jurlique bringing in at least $600 million in profit for his private companies. And he has made a couple of hugely important strategic decisions.

Best of these was to sell 75% of Channel Nine and ACP Magazines near the top of the market in October 2006 and pocket a whopping $4.6 billion in cash from the deal. He followed that up by selling the balance three years later for another $500 million. People who held onto their media assets, like the mugs from CVC who bought James out, or the saps who owned Fairfax and Channel 10, have watched most of their money disappear.

James’s fortune has also shrunk: he’s now worth around $4.7 billion, according to¬†James Thomson at Smart Company, compared to more than $6 billion at the height of the market in 2007. But he’d have done far worse if he’d stayed in the media.

The flipside of his escape, of course, was that he used the cash from selling Channel Nine to make a $3 billion punt on casinos in Las Vegas, and ended up losing $1.7 billon in a series of disastrous purchases that were also made at the top of the market. Had he not wriggled out of the $1.7 billion Cannery Casinos deal — his sister Gretel refused to go through the intrusive process of being vetted for a licence — he would have dropped even more of his dough.

But most of James’s other big bets have been good ones. The investment in casinos in Macau in late 2004, which looked like a dog for several years, is finally paying off handsomely. And the decision to buy Crown Casino back in 1998-9 has been an unmitigated triumph.

Crown cost the Packers $1.8 billion — paid for in PBL shares — and is now worth close to $7 billion, churning out $335 million profit after tax a year.

It’s worth noting that the purchase was made in the face of concerted opposition from Kerry, who thought James was paying too much, and who believed casinos to be a dud investment because big, smart punters (like him) could beat the house. (That, of course, was complete nonsense: Kerry lost fortunes at the tables).

But there are two other big decisions James took in the 1990s (or pushed Kerry into) that have paid huge dividends. First was the decision to fight the Murdochs on Super League in 1995, when Kerry wanted to fold. Sure, Geoff Cousins and others provided the muscle to make that happen, but James was a believer in pay-TV (which is what that fight was all about) when Kerry was not.

*Read the full story at The Power Index

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