With his qualifications, new SkyCity chief executive Graeme Stephens reckons he could choose where in the world he works - and now, New Zealand is that place.

Living in New Zealand has been a long-time ambition, he says.

"When you qualify as a chartered accountant in South Africa, you can pretty much pick and chose what you do.

"I first visited here 25 years ago and wrote down my life plan: 'I have to live here'."


The Zimbabwe-born Stephens has left the much larger Johannesburg-headquartered Sun International - a casino/entertainment/hotel business - to take over from Nigel Morrison.

Stephens' appointment to SkyCity was announced in November; he took over on May 1st and since then has been travelling to company casinos here and in Australia .

Although the family has moved into their Stanley Point house, the furniture has not arrived, so he describes their current situation as "like camping".

Stephens first visited New Zealand in 1992, for about two months as a backpacker on a four-year OE, walking parts of the Abel Tasman, Kepler and Routeburn tracks, unable to complete each full route "as we hadn't booked ahead. I'd like to go back and do some of those tracks. I've never experienced real snow. I might be a little too old to learn to ski!"

"I come back [to Auckland] 25 years later ... it's certainly woken up and become a very cosmopolitan city."

Stephens' father, Dennis, headed the giant Meikles hotel, supermarket and department store business in Zimbabwe, while mother Ilona was a pharmacist.

He has arrived at SkyCity during a period of great change, with the company spending $700 million on the International Convention Centre (NZICC) and planning to spend A$300m in Adelaide.

Asked about the $110m cut in Fletcher Building's latest operating profit - $40m of which one analyst has attributed to the NZICC - Stephens says: "We don't have any particular insight into the Fletcher side of the equation. We are very happy with the work that's been done.


"We don't have any issue. We don't see any material change in the project from our side."

He wants to extend SkyCity's presence in the Auckland CBD and make it more distinctive.

"There's more to be done to position it appropriately. Federal St, is it completely done? I don't think so."

The NZICC opening about two years from now will free up existing SkyCity conference property between Albert St and Federal St. Stephens sees that as having entertainment capacity.

"How do we plug into our neighbours?" he asks, referring to wider entertainment offerings in the area, such as the Civic, Aotea Centre and The Edge.

As for criminals socialising in SkyCity's VIP area, Stephens is adamant that company policies go beyond minimum requirements.

"If we look at anti-money laundering procedures and health and safety, I think the culture of the company is very much on the side of being conservative," he says, citing as an example SkyCity's hotel room sweeps for chemicals.

"We did not do that in South Africa. It would not cross our minds. The culture of this company is not just ticking the boxes in terms of compliance. The culture of the place is a zero tolerance for criminal activities."

Stephens is enthusiastic about the challenges ahead.

Back on his home continent, he was a keen wildlife photographer and expects to miss Africa's lions and rhinos.

For nine months during 2010, he travelled with now-wife Victoria through much of Africa, in "Stanley", a Land Rover Defender.

"Outside of my family, I look back on my life and I see that's the achievement I'm most proud of," he says of the camping trip through remote parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Botswana and Namibia.

"We were on our own and often exposed to risk in parts of the world that were extremely difficult to get to - well off any beaten track, it was a life-defining experience."

On his second weekend in Auckland, he visited Hauraki Gulf jewel Tiritiri Matangi, returning enthusiastic about what he and the family found.

SkyCity has more work to do in Auckland, says Graeme Stephens. Photo / Doug Sherring
SkyCity has more work to do in Auckland, says Graeme Stephens. Photo / Doug Sherring

There, he captured images of bellbirds and saddlebacks. Pulling out a $50 note, he points to a kokako, delighted that he also photographed that rare bird.

"We wake up every morning to bird calls in my garden. I didn't anticipate that," he says, describing how he has bought a weatherboard house, more than a century old, on the North Shore's Stanley Point.

And he is enthusiastic about understanding New Zealand's flora and fauna. When it comes to capturing birdlife, he has one very specific goal: "You've got to focus on the eye and get the glint in the eye."

In his spare time, he is reading up on New Zealand: Gordon McLauchlan's A Short History of New Zealand and Great Tales from New Zealand History, and a bird guide.

He says he feels privileged to head SkyCity and is looking forward to getting to know more about New Zealand and Australia, and running one of this country's top 10 NZX listed companies.

Graeme Stephens

Position: SkyCity Entertainment Group chief executive
Age: 53
Born: In Harare, Zimbabwe
Lives: Stanley Point, North Shore
Qualifications: Chartered accountant
Career: Previously chief executive of South Africa's Sun International (28 casinos, 4000 hotel rooms, 13,000 employees). Earlier roles in hotels, banking and at Ernst & Young
Family: Married to Victoria. Children: Sam, 4; Stella, 3; plus Kate, 24, and Sarah, 22, from previous marriage
Last books read: A Short History of New Zealand and Great Tales from New Zealand History by Gordon McLauchlan, The Hand Guide to Birds of New Zealand by Hugh Robertson and Barrie Heather
Last film watched: La La Land

Challenges for SkyCity

Goldman Sachs analysts Adam Alexander and Nick Basile issued a report on SkyCity last month after meeting Stephens. Among their findings:
Existing opportunities
"There is enough to do in the current portfolio. Having recently toured the SkyCity properties, Mr Stephens was encouraged by the opportunities that exist within the current portfolio, citing his initial focus will be on improving operations across the group's key properties of Auckland and Adelaide," the analysts wrote.
Adelaide update
"A decision on the Adelaide hotel and associated gaming concessions is arguably the most pressing issue for the group. In the meeting Mr Stephens reiterated that negotiations with the [South Australian] Government are in the final stages.
"As part of the negotiations SkyCity is asking for a number of concessions that would allow greater utilisation of the premium gaming areas within the casino ..."
The report describes SkyCity Adelaide as Australia's worst performing casino, but also notes A$300m in spending plans.
"Despite the modernisation of the premium gaming areas, the venue remains severely hampered by the lack of car parking and restrictive gambling regulations ... In our view the property is currently operating well below its ultimate potential."
VIP market
"The VIP business at Sun International was only in its infancy with the programme having been introduced by Mr Stephens. The existing internal business programme at SkyCity is larger and requires more focus."
Capital structure
"We note Sun International was run with higher gearing than SkyCity, however Mr Stephens commented that he was comfortable with SkyCity's current gearing levels."