|By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 11, 2005 - ATLANTIC CITY -- James Perry has the money, a new management team and Donald J. Trump's support, but turning around the developer's ailing Atlantic City casinos will require something more.
"You need the patience of Job because it always takes longer than you think," said Perry, who was plucked out of retirement over the summer to become chief executive officer of the Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza and Trump Marina casinos. "This is not going to happen overnight."
Perry and chief financial officer Mark Juliano face the daunting task of reversing a decade of decline for Trump's casinos in a fiercely competitive gambling market.
As customers' tastes and Atlantic City have changed, the Trump properties, two of which opened in the mid-'80s, did not. As a result, they lagged not only in having new attractions, but in appearance.
October revenue figures released yesterday by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission showed how far they have to go.
Overall, the 12 Atlantic City casinos reported $428 million in revenue, up 10.2 percent from October 2004. All three Trump casinos reported a total of $86.3 million in revenue for October, down 11.6 percent from the same month last year.
So far this year, of the three Trump casinos, only the Trump Taj Mahal is seeing growing revenue. Year-to-date revenue at the Taj is up 2.2 percent from a year ago, while Trump Plaza and Trump Marina are both down, 3.9 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively.
The 2 1/2 year old Borgata was again the city's top grossing casino, taking in $63.3 million in total revenue last month. The Taj Mahal was fourth with $43.1 million. Trump Plaza finished ninth among 12 casinos with $25 million, while Trump Marina was second to last with $18.2 million.
"The company needs credibility," Perry said in a recent interview at the Taj Mahal, Trump's flagship property that opened in April 1990, and the source of many of his financial problems in Atlantic City. "The company has to reenergize itself as an operator."
In May, Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. emerged from bankruptcy with a $500 million line of credit from Morgan Stanley to make much needed upgrades to its Atlantic City casinos and expand into other gambling markets, including Pennsylvania.
"Going from cash conservation and cobbling sufficient funds to pay the bills, to a growth and rejuvenation mode is difficult," said Barbara J. Cappaert at KDP Investment Advisors, a high-yield debt research firm based in Montpelier, Vt. "It's going to take time."
Trump said by teaming Perry, known in the industry for cleaning up balance sheets, with Juliano, who's known for capital reinvestment moves, he's hoping to give his casinos a one-two punch.
"This is a great team," said Trump yesterday. "They are going to bring those properties up to a level that they've never seen before."
Perry, 58, has candidly told Trump it will take at least three years for a turnaround. He said Trump gave him a mandate.
"Mr. Trump said three things to me, 'No. 1, I want to be proud of these properties. No. 2, I want the properties and the people in them to be successful. No. 3, I want to de-lever the company,' " Perry said.
As a condition of the reorganization plan that the Bankruptcy Court approved earlier this year, Trump had to step aside as CEO of Trump Entertainment, the company that runs his casinos. He retained his role as chairman.
Trump had blamed onerous interest payments on junk bonds used to finance his crown jewel -- the Taj Mahal -- for his inability to reinvest in the properties.
This summer his casinos finally got new carpeting and slot machines. Hotel rooms and suites have been refurbished. Public areas are being redesigned. A new $150 million hotel tower is in the works for the Taj Mahal.
"We need to bring the hotels up to speed physically, and go from what we like to call survival mode into growth mode," said Juliano, 50, who was previously president of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, a property known for its elegance and ability to attract high rollers. He shares Perry's pragmatic approach.
"These are no different than any other hotel," he said. "People have expectations. If you meet them or exceed them, you build brand loyalty and repeat visitation."
But to get there, Cappaert said the Trump casinos needed to lessen their dependence on the day-tripper bus crowd -- typically made up of lower-end slots players who don't spend the night -- and on cash promotions, such as free coins or slot cards.
"It doesn't build loyalty," she said.
While other casino operators, like Harrah's Entertainment Inc., use sophisticated computer systems to track customers and encourage repeat business, the Trump casinos are only now looking to purchase software to better manage customer data.
Argosy Gaming Co., a riverboat casino operator based in Alton, Ill., was highly leveraged and almost bankrupt -- much like the Trump casinos -- when Perry came in and turned things around. In 2000, Argosy was named gambling company of the year, and Perry CEO of the year. He retired from Argosy in 2002.
"He has such a vision and has the ability to articulate what needs to be done," said Virginia McDowell, who started last week as Trump executive vice president and chief information officer. She is one of a handful of former Argosy executives that Perry has brought to Trump.
Argosy was recently acquired by Wyomissing, Pa.-based Penn National Gaming Inc., which is rumored to be interested in buying one of the Trump casinos. Neither Penn National nor Trump officials deny that interest.
"If somebody comes in and offers more than what you think you can earn, as a publicly held company, you have a responsibility to check it out," Perry said.
Last week, Trump Entertainment finalized a deal to sell its riverboat casino in Gary, Ind. Perry said the $227 million in net proceeds from the sale will go toward improvements at the Atlantic City casinos and expansion projects, including a potential Trump casino in Philadelphia.
Juliano said the Trump brand is at a premium because of the success of Trump's TV show, The Apprentice.
"It's very difficult to separate their identity from Trump, if not impossible," he said of the casinos. "They're still, because of the Trump name, must-see attractions in Atlantic City. All they need to do is get brought into the next century."
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