Dublin-born Niall Murray came to Macau from Las Vegas 12 years ago to open the city’s first westernstyle casino. In addition to running his own hospitality management consultancy and beverage distribution business, last year he opened Taipa’s PREM1ER bar. He also heads the local Irish Chamber of Commerce.
IAG: Let’s start at the beginning — where did you grow up and start your career in the hospitality industry?
Niall Murray: As a child in Dublin my mother used to always point out our top school, the Dublin College of Catering. So from an early age I wanted to go there. When I got in I found I loved it. It was very hands on; the real European style. In the kitchen you learnt all of the classical stuff for cooking, then how to be a barman, how to be a sommelier and so forth, and even how to arrange flowers. I had good internships. First I was at the Omni Sagamore in upper New York state; a five star five diamond hotel on a little island in a private lake. Then I was at the Hamilton Sheraton in Ontario.
IAG: Tell us about your time working in the top hotels in New York and Las Vegas.
NM: Irish hotels rely on the traditional European style of training. That means the slow passing down of knowledge through long apprenticeships. In America it’s more about standard operating procedures (SOPs); analyzing knowledge into error-proof steps and putting it down in writing, pictures and video guides; painting by numbers if you like. That makes it easier to replicate that knowledge; to rapidly transfer and multiply skill sets. During my internships in the US and Canada I learnt that this way can make a big operation very, very efficient.
Then just before graduation Disney came knocking because they were opening a new theme park near Paris. I took a job there as a trainee manager. It was a remarkable opportunity because it was the first time there was going to be an opening on that scale; a big park with 5,700 hotel rooms and all the infrastructure to pull it together. One day a truck showed up containing all of the SOPs from Disneyland in Florida; written down and refined over 30 years. After unloading them we had to sit down and convert them for use in France; with lawyers who would tell us what was allowed under French labor laws, food safety and so forth. It was an amazing experience. I was promoted twice, to duty manager at the resort’s pinnacle hotel, the Disneyland.
I emigrated to the US because I won a Green Card through a system called the Berman lottery. In New York I talked my way into a job at the Ritz Carlton, which is a five star five diamond operation in the only hotel chain that has won America’s Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The Award uses Six Sigma, Total Quality Management and is very difficult to attain. On top of SOPs the hotel mapped out every process that could improve its operations, which I thought was amazing. I dived right in and became a certified quality engineer. After a subsequent stint at the New York Four Seasons, I was headhunted for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. They wanted me to help bring them up to the five star five diamond standards of hotels in New York and San Francisco. One of the people I served under there was Gamal Aziz, who is now President of Wynn Macau. Another was Michael French, who later moved to the Las Vegas Venetian and asked me to follow him, so I joined as Director of Training and Development in 1998.
IAG: How was it that you came to Macau, and what was it like in those early days?
NM: Sands asked me to come and help with their first casino here, eight weeks before it opened in 2004. It was a difficult assignment because the managers in place had been recruited from Asian properties in the likes of Cambodia and Laos; with a hodge podge of methodologies that were not in alignment. Among the 50 Las Vegas managers we brought in to pull them up to standard, 27 did not yet have a passport. So there were huge cultural differences and we had to get the two sides talking to each other, to bring in processes in time for opening on a huge scale. Las Vegas had a big efficient network of suppliers to feed its machine. But in Macau we had to start from next to nothing. I’d ask to see a supplier of chickens and he’d come in with his produce strapped to the back of a motorbike.
On the day of opening a rumor had spread that the first 1,000 people would be given free gambling chips. I was on the third floor, looking down when 45,000 burst in. There were six walk-through metal detectors, but the crowd swept them forward like a tsunami picking up houses. After they filled up the escalator it stopped, and then started going backwards. But we got through the first day OK. Subsequently as the first western casino in Macau, it was an incredible learning experience.
IAG: How was it that you came to work for SJM? What was it like working for a Chinese hospitality and gaming company after working for western hospitality and gaming companies for so many years?
NM: SJM wanted to know how this upstart Sands had come in from nowhere and taken such a large chunk of their business. They recruited me as Director of Operations Development in November 2006, one month before the scheduled opening of the Grand Lisboa. I took one look and said this won’t happen before February. They didn’t have a gaming management system in place. We had to knock on several doors before we found a supplier willing to work with us to get the bare-bones up and running at such short notice. SJM were skeptical of the processes I wanted to bring in, which had to prove themselves before they were willing to adopt them in other departments. There was no culture of meetings to implement the processes. The first one we held was like a long-lost family reunion, with managers in different departments who hadn’t seen each other for years. It created quite a disturbance in their business. But amazingly it worked well. After the Grand Lisboa they assigned me to open the Ponte 16, then l’Arc and the Oceanus, and ultimately pre-development for the Lisboa Palace.
SJM weren’t really crazy about meetings, or emails or continuous SOPs. With American companies you have meeting overload, a thousand emails backing up, and everything written in policies, procedures and SOPs. For the Chinese it’s very much a family approach, with different members responsible for different branches of the business, although to a small extent this existed in Adelson’s empire as well. Can a balance be struck between the American and Chinese way? I think Galaxy has a combination of east and west that’s more succinct and tight than others.
IAG: You’re now into your second decade in Macau, so you’ve seen a lot of changes here. Which have stood out the most to you?
NM: Property prices here are outrageous now. You can buy a castle in Europe for the price of a two bedroom apartment in Taipa. It’s causing a problem for locals. Of course I wish I’d bought in earlier. When I first came there were about six restaurants I liked and at the end of the month you were starting again at number one. There are a lot more options now, not just for food but entertainment as well. That makes life here more tolerable.
IAG: We’re seeing a paradigm shift in Macau from a VIP-dominated market to a mass-dominated market. What’s your take on the future of gaming in Macau over the next five or ten years?
NM: The Macau government talks about diversifying beyond gaming like the Saudis talk about reducing their reliance on oil. But the only thing Chinese can do in Macau that they can’t do in China is gamble. If we want to diversify beyond gaming we’ve got to give them something more luxurious, or better value for money than they can’t get back there, or something unique and spectacular. Quite frankly there’s nothing I see that we’re doing here that they can’t get in Guangzhou, Beijing or Shanghai. I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental in Guangzhou, which is absolutely fantastic. Many properties there are amazing, with restaurants that are much more in tune with Chinese tastes.
IAG: What about Asian gaming outside of Macau. There’s Entertainment City in the Philippines, new developments in South Korea, and Japan always gets mentioned. New regulation might be coming to Cambodia and Vietnam and even Australia is drawing mainland Chinese visitors. Should Macau be worried?
NM: I think a lot will depend on China, which controls where its people can go. For the mass end of the market I don’t think Macau will have to worry because of its proximity to the mainland. But at the higher end you’re seeing VIPs go further afield. In Saipan, for example, Chinese can get visas on arrival.
IAG: You’ve now got the PREM1ER wine and spirits importing company and the PREM1ER bar and lounge in Taipa. What led you to starting this business and how does the business fit in to Macau’s hospitality industry?
NM: From 2004 on, when I called in distribution companies I saw they had nice standard product, but nothing that would allow an outlet to stand out as exceptional. We started by looking at prize winners in international contests at the big shows in places like London and San Francisco. Now we aim for the best of the best, produced by independent artisanal suppliers like Haswell which produces an exceptional London Dry Gin, or Dictador which produces excellent Columbian rum. Our products can be found in places like the Macallan Whisky Bar in Galaxy, Vida Rica Bar at the Mandarin Oriental and Pacha Club at Studio City.
Last year I signed a rental contract for our Taipa bar, which opened in September after a few months of renovation and is also our tasting room. I don’t think managers at the big properties here want to knock off work and drink under cameras on-site, and they don’t want it to look like they’re using the company account at the bars of their competitors. We’re an independent hideaway that sells amazing stuff in a casual atmosphere.
IAG: You’ve been in Macau a long time, do you ever think of returning to Ireland or is your plan to stay in Macau indefinitely?
NM: My daughter is in Ireland and I go back there to see her at least three times per year. I run my own consultancy now, Murray International. Unfortunately projects on a scale that interests me just don’t happen in Ireland. Asia is the growth hub. I might be tempted by a big project in Korea. If Japan built a casino resort I’d be over there like a shot. Mongolia is talking about opening casinos to draw in northern Chinese, and recently I’ve been back and forth there quite a bit. Having said all of this, there’s lots of work still to be done in Macau.
IAG: What do you like to do in your spare time?
NM: I have a passion for books on management science and theory. At the moment I’m finishing up an MBA in International Management at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. I also love great drinks and food; seeking out the best restaurants and cocktail bars. A dream of mine is to have my own distillery. Hundreds now lie abandoned in Ireland, surrounded by farm fields with grazing cows. I’ve visited two or three. You might have a natural well on site, with pure fabulous water, which is 99% of your product. I would create fantastic whiskies and craft beers and bring them to market.