February 24, 2010 / 9:30 PM / 8 years ago

At Sands, Adelson holds cards on succession

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When it comes to succession at Las Vegas Sands Corp (LVS.N), the casino operator run by 76-year-old billionaire Sheldon Adelson, all bets are off.

Chairman and Chief Executive Adelson isn’t close to retirement, according to his top lieutenant, and would probably prefer to work right up until the end of his life.

“Sheldon has commented that he will die in his chair,” Michael Leven, president and chief operating officer of Sands, said at the Reuters Travel and Leisure Summit in New York. “Probably not in his bed, because he spends two-thirds of his time in his chair.”

Adelson currently holds 52 percent of the company that owns the Palazzo and Venetian resorts on the Las Vegas Strip, two casinos in Macau and a casino in Pennsylvania. Its next gambling resort -- in Singapore -- will open shortly.

He has yet to name a successor, so what exactly happens to the business when Adelson steps aside remains to be seen.

One possibility is that the company could be sold, perhaps to an overseas interest given the crown jewel of its operations is Macau, the only place in China where gambling is legal.

Speaking at the summit, Leven said foreign ownership would be a possibility, or the company could relocate its headquarters abroad, but not until “Sheldon and myself retire.”

Leven added: “If Mr. Adelson decided to sell the business -- which I believe he would never do -- it would not be inconceivable that an Asian buyer would be the kind of buyer that would be waiting.”

As for a relocation, he said, “Things going the way they are going in the U.S., in terms of tax, it might drive a company’s headquarters to Asia. But Mr. Adelson is a great patriot and I don’t believe he would ever take the company’s headquarters outside the United States.”

Leven took his current job about a year ago, when Adelson split with long-time deputy Bill Weidner over a disagreement on how to steer Las Vegas Sands through a debt crisis.

Leven had already served on the company’s board, but his long career in the hotel industry appeared to be winding down when Adelson came calling. Indeed, at the time, Leven was working as the top executive at the Georgia Aquarium, where he would take his morning walk “to look at the whale sharks and say hello to the Beluga whales.”

Leven has no ambitions to take over from Adelson, he said.

“I‘m not heading any place,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be doing this at this stage of my life. This is an accidental job and I have no ambition other than to help Sheldon run the company as best as he can.”

Leven described his job as an advisor to Adelson, saying he concentrates on outlining various business risks to the billionaire. They agree about 99.9 percent of the time, he said.

“Every brilliant entrepreneur ... needs to have a person next to him that he can trust, that is not after his job, but is interested in helping the company be as successful as possible,” he said.

Adelson, the son of a taxi driver, made his fortune by starting up a massive computer trade show, known at COMDEX. In the late 1980s, he and partners purchased the Sands Hotel & Casino, and shortly thereafter developed Sands Expo and Convention Center. The business expanded from there.

Eventually, Adelson’s controlling interest in Las Vegas Sands will likely be passed to his wife, according to Leven.

“If something were to happen, that stock would be turned over to his wife, his family. At that point, his wife, with her advisors, would make the decision what to do. I don’t think at this point there is anybody in the family who would step into the chair.”

He added, “I don’t see anything happening with this company differently in Sheldon’s lifetime. I think it’s very important to him to stay in the chair. His vision and his energy and his involvement in the business is much greater than it was several years ago.”

Reporting by Paul Thomasch, additional reporting by Deena Beasley; Editing by Phil Berlowitz

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