When Harrah’s pulled out in 2008, were you worried that this project might have to be abandoned?

Don Robinson was named President of Baha Mar Resorts in early 2006, and is tasked with making Baha Mar the largest destination resort in the Caribbean. In his five years as Baha Mar president, he has seen the project go through some amazing ups and downs. The former Disney executive sat down with Casino City’s Dan Igo after the historic groundbreaking to discuss the past, present and future of Baha Mar.

I had worked for Disney for 33 years and I had just finished the Hong Kong Disney project. And (after a project like that) you do some soul-searching about what you want to do in the next chapter of your career. At the same time I was contacted about this project and the vision behind it. It felt a lot like the kind of Disney archive stuff. Walt believed, Walt did this. It had the same sense of vision versus this is just a development we’re going to sell and flip. So there was some of that emotional attachment to it and it sounded like a good place to try and see if you could make a difference.

I think everyone was worried about the impact of a strong company, like Harrah’s was, making the decision they made. So it was a little bit of a time of retrenching. What are our options? What can we do? Out of that came strategies and that led to this one with the Chinese. It kind of ended up being the best route to follow. So two years later, here we are.

So looking back on it, do you think it was a good thing Harrah’s pulled out in 2008?

If we had known about the economic crisis, we (still wouldn’t) know what condition the project would have been in, regardless if Harrah’s was in or not. They obviously were taken over by several private equity groups. You just don’t know what would have happened at the time. But the way the project has evolved, some of it luck and some of it by plan, we’ve got full financing. At that time we were going to start the project with just Harrah’s equity contribution and then were going to get financing later to finish the project. In this case we don’t have to worry about that stuff, which is a nice thing to say.

When did the two Chinese companies (China State Construction and Export-Import Bank of China) contact you about investing in this project?

Even before Harrah’s had withdrawn we had gone out to bid the project in a variety of subcontracts. One of the subcontracts we were looking for was the super-structure, the core shell, the concrete steel. China State had bid on it and won the package based on their ability to do that work. Once we had to start figuring out our options China State came to us and said “if you’re interested in us becoming the general contractor, we believe we can bring a financing partner to the table.” And that option is what we explored. The China Ex-Im Bank came and visited the site. We started doing presentations. It was two and a half years of us going to Beijing and Beijing coming to us (and) China State helping and being involved in it (and) deciding to contribute $150 million in the project also. Each step kind of evolved into a stronger relationship that we have today.

What have been the challenges of working with a state-run corporation as opposed to working with a private company?

I’m not sure I’d break it between state and private as much as I would Eastern and Western. Working with an Asian or Chinese company is different. The negotiations are different. The style of the negotiations and the time, the relationship-building take much more importance in a Chinese negotiation than they do in a Western negotiation. Western negotiations are “get to the numbers.” Chinese negotiations are “let me decide if I like you before I get to the numbers.” (laughs).


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