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Duterte backer steps up casino plans despite anti-gambling rhetoric

Davao tycoon Dennis Uy secures 'backdoor listing' for integrated resort vehicle

Dennis Uy, left, is a Davao-based entrepreneur who helped bankroll President Rodrigo Duterte's election campaign. 

MANILA -- Filipino tycoon Dennis Uy is pressing ahead with plans to build casinos, despite the risk of clashing with President Rodrigo Duterte, who has vowed to block the construction of new gaming resorts. 

Uy, a prominent Duterte supporter during his election campaign, has won the approval of the Securities and Exchange Commission to convert Philippine H2O Ventures, a listed shell company, into PH Resorts Group Holdings, a vehicle for integrated resorts and casinos, according to a stock exchange filing on Wednesday.

The move allows Uy to get the company listed without it being subject to initial public offering requirements, such as proving track record and profitability.

PH Resorts will oversee Uy's "tourism-related businesses," including two integrated casino resorts planned for the central island of Cebu and Clark Freeport Zone, a former U.S. military base north of Manila, the company announced in June.

The company, which used to hold water distribution assets before Uy's takeover last year, also increased its authorized capital stock to 8 billion pesos ($151 million) from 500 million pesos, paving the way for it to raise further capital. It has previously disclosed plans to raise around 18.5 billion pesos to bankroll certain projects.

"As we foray deeper in the tourism sector, we hope to usher in a new era of growth for our shareholders," Uy, who chairs PH Resorts, said in June.

Gambling will be a new addition to Uy's portfolio. The tycoon has been aggressively expanding his business empire since Duterte took office in June 2016.

Most Filipinos know Uy as the founder of independent fuel retailer Phoenix Petroleum, and one of the main financial backers of Duterte's election campaign.

Once the new administration took office, he started buying up ventures in different industries, including logistics assets, a hospitality school, a restaurant chain and the local franchise of Family Mart convenience stores. His takeovers in the logistics sector caught the attention of Philippine Competition Commission early this year, with the antitrust watchdog saying they "would lead to a substantial lessening of competition" in certain shipping routes.

In what may be his most ambitious venture, Uy's Mislatel Consortium last month won the country's third major telecom license with partner China Telecom as the lone qualified bidder in a state auction.

The parties pledged to spend 257 billion pesos over five years to offer "world class" services, but the deal raised questions over the businessman's ties to the president.

Uy is also involved in a joint propossal with China National Offshore Oil Corp regarding a $2 billion liquefied natural gas terminal. He also recently struck a deal to invest in a company that owns rights to explore oil and gas in waters that have been at the center of a maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing.

Last year, Uy told the Nikkei Asian Review that he does not use his relationship with Duterte for personal gain.

Uy has continued to be a vocal supporter since the election, praising Duterte policies like the renewed ties with China and the controversial drug war. But his foray into casinos appears at odds with presidential rhetoric.

"I hate gambling" Duterte said in August. "There will be no casino outside what is existing."

Duterte has rejected plans to build casinos from Chinese companies Galaxy Entertainment Group and Landing International Development, even after they had secured the necessary licenses.

In August, Duterte fired senior government officials who had transacted with Landing for alleged corruption while the groundbreaking ceremony for a $1.5 billion integrated resort was taking place.

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