Monday, February 21, 2011

Guest Post - Michele Hewitson Interview: Nigel Morrison

I have done a few interviews (1, 2, 3) with Nigel Morrison from Sky City Entertainment Group Ltd [SKC.NZX] but Nigel has been raising his profile of late with bold statements to the media and a general interview with Michele Hewitson from the NZ Herald (see below for the full interview)about himself.

He has kept a low profile over the last few years, preferring to let results do the talking so the move to raising his own personal profile and the aggressiveness of his previous neutral stance on the politics of gambling have me scratching my head a little.

There will be an interview with Auckland Airport CEO Simon Moutter coming up over the next few weeks.

Here is the Michele Hewitson Interview:

The idea was to have breakfast with SkyCity chief executive Nigel Morrison at SkyCity Grand.

Good, I thought, greedily, because I do like a posh hotel breakfast, even when it is to be taken with an accountant. He is a grand sort of accountant, of course - which is what he started his ladder-climbing corporate career as - and the big boss, but nobody knew he was coming for breakfast.

This caused a tremendous fuss involving much bustling about, many staff and the transformation of the boardroom into a breakfast room with pitchers of water and butter curls and a la carte menus.

I carried out a thorough examination of the breakfast buffet while waiting and later told him, a little sourly, that his toaster didn't work (it is one of those silly revolving ones they always have in hotel breakfast rooms and which never work properly). He seemed not remotely interested but I wouldn't be surprised if an investigation is carried out.

We didn't have any breakfast, which is why I was sour on his toaster: hunger can make you mean. We had a cup of coffee. We didn't even sit at that perfectly laid table. An hour later I said,
"You sent them into an enormous flurry and you didn't even have breakfast." He said, dismissively, that his communications manager "wasn't organised".

Honestly, he could have just said, "Oh, well, I was busy and forgot to tell anyone', and taken the blame, but I suppose you don't get to be the CEO of a big casino by sweating the small stuff, like not bagging your staff in front of a journalist. I think he belatedly realised that he was supposed to have given me breakfast, although what did he think the laying of the table was for? He said, brusquely, "Would you like something?", but too late.

This tells you about all you need to know about his style. He says he's English but he arrived in Australia when he was 10 and I'd say he took to it, and it to him, rather well.

His father was from the industrial town of Gainsborough and one of 10 children. He left school at 14 to work in a steel mill and, his son the CEO, told me proudly, went on to became "one of the youngest professionally qualified mechanical engineers in the UK".

So being competitive and wanting to succeed is likely both nature and nurture. The move to Australia was to create "an opportunity for us, my brother and I, to have, I think, relatively successful lives".
His brother is a property developer who has "probably got a lot more!" money than he does.

"Relatively successful" is relative then, because he makes about $2 million a year. When I asked how much he made, he said, "Oh, not a lot".

I said, "Two million", and he said, "A couple of million", and I said, "More than two million", and that went on for a bit. Anyway it is about two million (made up of bonuses and shares and so on), but: is that a lot? "Well, it is a lot of money. It's not a lot when you compare it ... I'm probably the lowest paid of any of the top senior executives in Australasian gaming companies." This doesn't bother him, at least, "not really". So perhaps a bit.

Well, what is his job? He runs the show, obviously, but what is the show? There are three SkyCity-owned casinos in NZ and two in Australia. But a casino is not just a place you go to gamble any more; they are mini, or not so mini-empires. I referred to these as his not so little fiefdoms and he didn't disagree.

He says he has to have some sort of profile, but: "Why have you come to see me?" He meant that the interest is only in his title, not in him. He once said he had lots of friends who turned out to be friends only because he could get them into flash dos.

He does meet celebrities and in answer to my question about whether he was impressed by celebrity, he said: "Oh, look! I'll tell you, you're talking about the joys of this industry ... I got to meet Bob Geldof! ... [He] has the capacity to make you feel like you're the only person in the room and that really is engaging."

He was so interested in this, I think, because he told me that the schmoozing side of his job hasn't come naturally and that it took him until he was in his 30s (he is 52) to feel comfortable with the hobnobbing. "I had to learn it."
He has just been named on an Auckland 1st XV list of ambassadors for the Rugby World Cup. Some of the other people on this list: John Walker, Carol Hirschfeld, Simon Gault. It's fair to say he's the least-known person. "Probably. Ha, ha. I'm certainly not a celebrity and most of those others are, but I think it reflects the significance of SkyCity ..."

I said surely his inclusion reflected his significance as a successful lobbyist, for the significance of SkyCity, if you like. "No, it's the fact that we're investing $50 million before the Rugby World Cup, our commitment to the fact that we've got behind what we think is going to be a great event." This amounts to the same thing, I'd say.

He must be pretty good at lobbying. He has to get the council on-side and SkyCity's latest expansionist plan is the upgrade of Federal St: three new restaurants, an air bridge, and the makeover of the street into a place you might actually want to loiter. Currently, it's a dump; he wants glamour - although his idea of glamour also includes sports bars with giant screens.

That's the odd thing about casino empires: you have the pokies and the high rollers and the grand hotel and a girl on the escalator ahead of us as we went up to the gaming floor, who was wearing what you might charitably describe as hooker grunge - all in one empire.

A bingo game had just finished. Bingo! It's back in fashion, apparently. Three hundred people had turned up.

I asked whether he was interested in the psychology of gamblers and he said he had been "lucky enough to work for Kerry Packer" - the famously abrasive Australian businessman who owned casinos and, also famously, gambled millions. He gave Packer's definition of a gambler: "The thing about gamblers is that they know what they're doing is intrinsically wrong so they're always looking for an excuse to leave. I thought that was quite interesting."

I thought that he did think it was interesting might have meant that he has some reservations about the game he's in. By that definition it means that his job is preventing people who know what they're doing is wrong, from leaving his premises.

"So," he said, "you've got to look after them very, very well." He runs a joint which exists to take money off people. "To be honest, what business doesn't? You offer a service or goods. In our case, we offer a service."

When Morrison arrived at SkyCity in 2009, his appointment was announced like this: Casino Boss Brings some Packer Panache. Does he have panache? You wouldn't think so from his assessment which is this: Many at the top of the gaming industry, he says, "have a numerical background, because our business is all about probability. So you've got to understand normal distribution, you need to understand standard deviations, you know, so you can set your risk and return rates".

Did I mention that he's an accountant? You have to have other skills. "Yeah, that's exactly right. You need some sort of people skills." Which some accountants might not have? "Well, you said it."

As for panache, he has bright pink silk lining his suit jacket and shirt cuffs monogrammed with his initials: NBW. The B is for Barclay. I was trying to think of what sort of person has monogrammed shirt cuffs. Unless you are a minor toff with pretensions, all I came up with was foppish.

He said he didn't know what that meant. A bit dandyish. "I wouldn't have said dandyish!" "I don't know. It's probably a bit arrogant." Is he arrogant? "Look, I don't think I really am arrogant. I've probably got a bit of an ego."

His friends, he once said, used to tell him he was too ambitious - which might amount to much the same thing as arrogance. "Where do you get this stuff from? Bloody hell." From what he's said in the past, and now he tells me that he has, in the past been accused of being arrogant. This is a funny thing to admit. "Yeah, hard to believe, isn't it!"

He says his friends probably wouldn't accuse him of overarching ambition these days because he has now achieved a "reasonably balanced life". This means that he only works about 60 hours a week, and sometimes leaves the casino.

He doesn't own a house here but rents "a small, modest house", in St Marys Bay. He showed me the label on his suit, to prove, presumably, that he doesn't splash it about: "Charlie Chang. He's a good tailor. A cheap tailor." He wears a Cartier watch, but a stainless steel one, he was at pains to point out. He denies he's mean with money but - thinking of the savings he made on my breakfast - I think he's cautious, which is what you'd want in a geezer who runs a gaming house.

In a gaming house, the house always wins. He does like to win. He scoffed when I asked if it was true that casinos didn't have clocks. We went over to the casino and I said: Right. Where are the clocks? He eventually located a couple, hidden in dark corners. Nobody could read those! I said.

He said, "Haven't you got a watch?", and looked very pleased with himself. I idiotically said that having his picture taken with the pokies wouldn't be good for his image. That was to pay him back for the win over the clocks, but he took this seriously, and then refused to have his picture taken by the pokies.

He is often described as hard-bitten. He claimed not to know what hard-bitten means. It means a tough bastard. He said, "I don't think I'm that tough to be honest." Oh well, if he says so but I wouldn't want to be the person responsible for not making the breakfast booking.

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  1. He came across very badly in that interview. In fact embarrassingly so.

  2. It is hard to tell from this kind of interview.

    Which is why I prefer the Q & A format where the interpretation of the questioner doesn't enter as much.

    Nigel is a nice bloke, a little shy but quite open to suggestion.

    Yeah the impression that I got from Michele's interview was that he was flaky.

    He isn't though.


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