Casino Canberra owner steps down as chairman of parent company

By William Brown Updated
Iris Capital purchases Casino Canberra from Aquis

The chairman and non-executive director of the company that owns Casino Canberra has retired.

Inside Asian Gaming reports that Aquis Entertainment owner Tony Fung has stepped down, citing the need for the board to be independent, given the regulatory challenges facing the gaming industry in Australia.

With increasing scrutiny on casinos nationwide following inquiries into Crown Resorts, Aquis said Fung’s retirement comes at a time when the industry is facing “competing interests” in making profit versus responsible gambling management, anti-money laundering and responsible management to justify retention of their social licences to retain a gaming licence.

Fung will remain majority shareholder and lender to Aquis but said, “It’s not hard to see how my family’s interest as a financial lender and majority shareholder to the casino business may be a conflict of interest in relation to the priority of non-profit factors.

“As such, I feel that it is appropriate to step back and ensure the company receives stewardship by an independent board.”

Independent non-executive director Russell Shields will step in as interim chairman pending a formal offer to assume the role permanently in the coming weeks.

Aquis acquired Casino Canberra in 2014 and has been in ongoing discussions with the ACT Government regarding a proposal to spend $330 million to transform the property and surrounding areas into a comprehensive entertainment district.

Aquis committed to Casino Canberra redevelopment

In May, Aquis signalled its commitment to redeveloping its casino and gaming precinct in Canberra.

Tony Fung told shareholders during the company’s annual general meeting that redeveloping the casino remained an important part of Aquis’ future, despite having seen talks stall on multiple occasions due to disagreements over the number of poker machines able to be installed.

“We do remain committed to the redevelopment of the property and we believe that the post COVID-19 recovery in Canberra is the greatest opportunity to do so,” he said.

“We will be holding discussions with the government this year to discuss the conditions in place in relation to the redevelopment and electronic gaming machines and we look forward to the opportunity to deliver to Canberra the kind of world class entertainment precinct that our capital city deserves and to creating many new employment opportunities and further securing all existing roles within our business.”

Aquis, which purchased Casino Canberra in 2014, submitted its original redevelopment plans in 2015, including a request for permission to install up to 500 poker machines.

Casino Canberra is not permitted to operate poker machines under the current legislation.

The company’s initial bid was rejected in December 2018, with the government describing the proposal as untenable due to ongoing uncertainty surrounding regulation and financing details.

Instead, the ACT government issued a counter offer under which Aquis would be permitted to run 200 poker machines and 60 electronic gaming machines subject to strict conditions.

Aquis has largely balked at the reduced offering since.

Nevertheless, Fung said that redevelopment of the casino “still forms part of our longer-term strategy for growth in Canberra.”

Aquis recently reported a profit of A$798,201 in 2020, reversing an A$4 million loss in 2020.

In March, Aquis shares exploded, rising 48.89 per cent in a single day.

The move caps off what has been a wild ride for Aquis over 2021.

Aquis is a company that until 2021, had been drifting in relative obscurity for years.

Between mid-2015 and the end of 2020, the company had slowly lost around 80 per cent of its value.

In 2020, Aquis even touched the depressingly low share price of less than half a cent.

2021 has seen a dramatic reversal in the fortune of the company.

After starting the year at four cents a share, it rocketed almost 2000 per cent between February 16 and 25, when it reached a new all-time high of 82 cents a share.

On August 31, 2021, Aquis shares were paying $0.19 during midday trade.

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