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Current as of 19/12/14 07:40PM NZST

Anne Gibson

Property editor of the NZ Herald

SkyCity boss anoints his successor

CFO James Burrell is a top candidate to take over when Nigel Morrison steps down in three or four years.

SkyCity boss Nigel Morrison, right, discusses the Auckland convention centre with Cabinet minister Steven Joyce. Photo / Greg Bowker
SkyCity boss Nigel Morrison, right, discusses the Auckland convention centre with Cabinet minister Steven Joyce. Photo / Greg Bowker

SkyCity Entertainment Group chief executive Nigel Morrison has named his potential successor but says he intends to stay running the $2.2 billion business till around 2017 or 2018.

Morrison, 55, said chief financial officer James Burrell was the best person for the job because he had the background and skills necessary to take SkyCity to another level.

"I think internally, he's a strong candidate but I'm not thinking of leaving, absolutely not," Morrison said.

The Australian took over in early 2008 and has headed the company that is one of the top 10 NZX stocks for six years but still intends to see to fruition SkyCity's two biggest projects - Auckland's new $402 million International Convention Centre and Adelaide's A$350 million historic railway station refurbishment and connected glass-fronted new-build towards the Torrens River.

"I'd like to see those two through and that's another three to four years.

I'm not looking for anything else," Morrison said. "There are a lot of opportunities in the world but we have set our course and I'm keen to see it through."

However, he indicated to the Herald twice this year that the British-born Burrell had been anointed, surprising some analysts.

Morrison said Burrell was acting CEO in his absence and he is keen people close to the business acquaint themselves with him.

"I met James in Hong Kong and we did a transaction together when I was CFO at Galaxy, and he was at Permira. They invested in Galaxy, raising nearly US$1 billion to do Macau. So I got to know him well six to seven years ago, we stayed in touch," Morrison said.

Big corporate SkyCity investors have picked up on how Burrell is increasingly becoming the face of SkyCity.

"He has been fronting a lot of interaction with investors recently," said one fund manager.

Morningstar analyst Nachi Moghe backed Burrell.

"He's the go-to guy. Previously, I was dealing with Aaron Morrison, now in charge of Adelaide. James seems quite good, competent. He's been there a while and generally, companies which hire CEOs from within do better than ones who hire them from the outside," Moghe said.

Morrison had done a good job, taking over from Evan Davies, who Moghe said had taken the business away from its heart, investing in non-core assets.

But the gaming environment was generally tough.

"The mass market in gambling has not been doing very well, Auckland's performance has been quite sluggish and Adelaide has economic issues but all this is outside Morrison's control," Moghe said.

Burrell said he wanted the top job.

"As CFO, I do have aspirations to become a CEO one day and over the last year I have deputised for Nigel when he is travelling overseas," Burrell said.

"I have been with SkyCity for three years now and that time has flown by. I am excited by what we are doing, with the NZICC in Auckland, the Adelaide redevelopment and broader industry growth opportunities," he said.

"We operate in a dynamic and exciting sector and there is a clear path to growth over the coming years. So if the opportunity arose to become CEO here at some point in the future, that would be an extremely attractive role to anyone.

"Clearly, the appointment of the CEO is the domain of the SkyCity board."

At the half-year briefing, he sat alongside Morrison, answering questions about performance. Burrell is in charge of financial reporting, group treasury and internal audit. Before SkyCity, he was in the Hong Kong office of international private equity firm Permira, where he helped establish it in the Greater China region.

"James has had a successful career in creating shareholder value and identifying, evaluating and financing a range of businesses acquired by Permira, including the US$840 million investment in Hong Kong listed Macau-based casino group Galaxy Entertainment Group in 2007.

"James is a chartered accountant originally from the United Kingdom, where he trained with Arthur Andersen in audit and transaction advisory services," SkyCity's website says.

Before Galaxy, Morrison was chief executive of the Federal Group, Australia's largest private gaming group, and chief operating officer of Crown.

He was a former corporate finance partner with Ernst & Young in Melbourne, specialising in the gaming industry.

Morrison said he had no definite plans after SkyCity: "Probably need a holiday. I would take a break."

- NZ Herald

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