80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont NSW
There’s already much to be proud of, but Mike Henry can’t take his eyes off the half-completed Events Centre. He and venue have been inspecting the finished and not-quite finished scope of The Star’s refurbishment and from a vantage point we can see the progress. It’s big (1500 banquet style) and involved (“one of the most complex structures ever built in steel”) and for Mike it will be the jewel in the crown of a very ambitious project. The Events Centre will be column-free, weigh the equivalent of a 15-storey office tower and finally Crown’s Palladium will have some serious competition for The Logies and The Allan Border Medal.
For Mike, the Events Centre represents everything that’s gone right with The Star build — a big, versatile, multi-disciplinary team of contractors and consultants pulling together to build something significant on time and on budget. During the period, the ranks of Echo’s senior management have changed, sometimes spectacularly, but Mike Henry remains constant, keeping the project team inspired and moving forward.
I don’t know what they’re paying Mike, but he’s worth double, especially given the fact that much of what we now know as ‘The Star’s transformation’ can be attributed to Echo’s General Manager of Development and Property Management.
It doesn’t take a genius to have identified that the old Star City Casino needed a shot in the arm — that much was obvious. But actually being able to execute a $860m renovation without completely shutting down operations is something else again.
Mike Henry came in as a specialist in large-scale, ‘tricky build’ projects. The Star refurb may well be the job that defines his career. It has been enormous.
“Our role is to do our job, do it well and get the quality we’re after, but at the same time we’re conscious of the fact we’ve got to keep a 24/7 business running. There’s always that arm wrestle between those two demands but we’ve been able to systematically manage it. For example, what you don’t see is $40m worth of infrastructure redevelopment we’ve invested and we’ve had something like 210 cutovers and electrical shutdowns without any real impact to the business whatsoever. And that’s been over a two and a half year period.”
venue: Everyone talks about how the old Star City Casino was ‘pointing’ in the wrong direction — facing Pyrmont rather than Darling Harbour. Was ‘realigning’ the site an early priority?
Mike Henry: Right. It was. We’ve now made the facade visually transparent. And in so doing, we’ve opened up The Star to Sydney, the Harbour Bridge, and the beautiful skyline. That’s a lot of glazing. Basically, it’s four storeys of brand new extension. Within that extension we have what we call our two ‘anchor’ signature restaurants — Black by Ezard, and Balla by Manfredi — and the extension has allowed us the luxury of building a terrace on top, which will accommodate around 1000 people on New Year’s Eve night.
My take on it is: we’ve always had a beautiful harbour at our doorstep but we became complacent. We’ve now been able to integrate the harbour with the complex. We’ve now got a unique façade that is not only visually transparent but allows for fresh air and ventilation on a hot summer’s night. And it’s being able to integrate the public area and give the people true public access and also giving them an experience when they come in here — it’s something very different.
venue: How would you describe what was wrong with the old Star City Casino?
MH: The previous offering was poor — there’s no other way to describe it. We’re now focussed on providing an experience for people, where they can come for entertainment, food, hospitality and service — lifting the standard across the board, because previously, it was tacky. The other aspect is variety. You can now come to The Star and have a variety of different experiences.
venue: So it was always going to be a major overhaul rather than a ‘tarting up’?
MH: After years of not reinvesting we knew that it would be a significant refurbishment. Even just to keep up with where the RSLs have been going in recent years, and also to compete with Crown head to head, we had to do something fairly unique. I think we’ve been able to achieve something that Crown doesn’t have — a genuine waterfront property. They’d like to have one but they don’t.
venue: Right. So The Star is clearly not just a local casino anymore, like a Burswood or Adelaide.
MH: The works have brought The Star to a truly international level. Whereas before we were very stuck in the local mould, where we were competing against the neighbourhood RSLs. There’s no question that The Star is now on the international stage.
venue: And that’s borne out in the visitor numbers?
MH: Well, for example, our international business has increased by 99%, which is phenomenal. The (Darling) hotel has been full since it’s opened. And we’ve certainly had a great response from the celebrities who have stayed there such as George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio.
WINNING OVER LOCALS
venue: Having international celebs tweeting nice things is one thing, but I guess winning over the locals is just as important?
MH: I think regular Sydney people are beginning to realise just how good The Star is: how good the food is and what a great environment it is. Obviously what they were offered before was so poor, and it will take time for The Star to be local social hub — but we’re getting there. The events we’ve been staging certainly help. An Officer and a Gentlemen is now on at The Lyric theatre, and we’ve had the likes of Bon Jovi and Stevie Wonder on in concert. These events undoubtedly introduce people to The Star.
venue: From the outside, it seems like the design and architecture has been a ‘cast of thousands’.
MH: We went through a process of selection of the right architects. We’ve pursued a policy of combining subjectively ‘safe’, solid architectural and design choices with those that are arguably ‘riskier’ — younger, energetic designers. We’ve also combined international talent with locals.
For example, obviously we’ve relied on Cox, which is probably one of Sydney’s founding architecture firms and renowned for the type of work they do. And we’ve had Fitzpatrick & Partners which did the design for the extension and has been doing the Events Centre.
Then we’ve had Paul Kelly design Black and Sokyo. He’s a unique individual and has been able to inject an incredible amount of energy in his work. We’ve had an established firm like Luigi Rosselli do Balla. But on the other hand we’ve got Luchetti Krell doing Momofuku. Another example can be seen with ICrave from The States providing the original concepts for the Marquee nightclub, with Squillace Nicholas Architects providing the local knowhow and flair. So to have young up-and-comers who are sharp and innovative — that’s what we wanted.
And for the main gaming floor we deferred to a designer from the Friedmutter Group and he did all the master planning and the actual concepts and we had the Buchan Group document it. So we had the best of both worlds. We got the smarts internationally, we brought it here, then we’ve ‘Australian-ised’ it and documented it here.
venue: And a similar story for the builders on the project?
MH: Multiplex has been the main builder, working on the Events Centre, the extension and The Darling. And we’ve had a number of other builders. Isis was the contractor behind the bulk of the gaming floor and VIP private gaming room. Their workmanship has been excellent. Buildcorp and MPA have done some great work on the restaurants, and we’ve had a couple of other smaller builders in there doing a number of things for us as well. For such a large-scale multi-faceted job it’s all dovetailed together nicely.
venue: Has that been the secret of the success do you think? The selection and management of the contractors?
M: I’ve got a great team around me, and you’re right, the success lies in being able to manage that team. We’ve had to deal with changes in government and I’m probably the last remaining person of the management team that started in the job. So there’s been significant changes in personnel but being able to provide some consistency; maintain a professional approach to the job; and selecting the right people — the right builders and contractors — has been essential to our success.
venue: It sounds to me like that you’re highlighting the main aspect of your job that gives you most satisfaction?
MH: For me personally it has been a very complex project and a multi-faceted project. The structural engineering is highly complex and we have great consultants, a great team and one of the things I’m most proud of is the camaraderie on this project compared to others. We’ve hit every deadline, we’re under our budgets, we’ve achieved a high-end quality and we’ve done it with virtually no fuss — we’ve got the job done and we have no issues and no complaints. We have niggles and normal commercial tensions but we’re robust in how we’ve dealt with all of those and we tend to be very pro-active.
‘The Star’s transformation’. They’re words venue seems to be printing with monotonous regularity. But every chance I get to wander around The Star I can scarcely believe it’s the same place. Whether it’s dining at one of the amazing new restaurants, clubbing at the Marquee, playing the tables, shopping for fancy duds, catching some live music or having a cocktail in one of the bars, being at The Star is now endlessly satisfying.
Of course, after any big build comes the operation of the venue, and The Star now needs to be run. Something that Mike Henry reflected on in our interview: “I’m the lucky guy. I get to spend all the money and put it all together. What we have now is the operational team going into that operational phase and really making it work and drive it through for the business.”
While the world (and James Packer) is watching.