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Bell's Regency Casino Plays a New Hand : Gambling: New management of faltering card club hopes to turn things around.

December 23, 1990|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELL — In a gambler's world there is one maxim that it pays to remember: never count on anything.

Instead of beginning with a bang six months ago, the Regency Card Club and Casino, began to fizzle the day the door was opened.

The parking lot remained empty. More than two-thirds of the tables were unoccupied, and the employees who manned them were idle.

Three months ago, club owner John Chi brought in a management team to chart a new course for the faltering casino, and Bell city officials are keeping a wary eye on the operation of the club.

"Things just didn't materialize the way we thought they would," said City Manager John Bramble.

Chi, president of Mutual Investment Group, which owns the Regency, replaced Mark Tenner, the general manager, with a management team of three men, each with extensive backgrounds in running casinos.

The change was of vital interest to the city because it receives 8% to 13% of the casino gross revenues. Bell city officials budgeted $650,000 in casino taxes for 1990-91.

Bramble said that during the first month the city received about $29,000. Since then, the city's share from the casino has leveled off at about $53,000 a month, totaling about $175,000 by the end of October. Bramble said that if the city continues to receive about $50,000 a month for the remaining seven months of this fiscal year, it would be in fair shape, though it would not meet its projected income from the casino.

The club is grossing about $550,000 a month, which is not a lot of income for a card club that cost millions of dollars to buy and operate.

Not far from the Regency Card Club and Casino on Eastern Avenue, the mammoth Bicycle Club, which has almost four times as many tables as the Regency, brings in an astonishing $100 million a year and pays about $10 million in taxes to the city of Bell Gardens. The Regency is hoping to make only $12 million in its first year.

"At this point I think the thing we have to say is that the casino is operational," Bramble said. "It's not as successful as it might be, but it's not a disaster, either."

City officials and the current management team said the mistake of former general manager Tenner was that he counted on immediate success.

He hired more than 600 employees, enough to staff a fully operational casino, but too many for a fledging 60-table card parlor. He hired away personnel from the Bicycle Club and put them in positions that were beyond their areas of expertise, the current managers said. He spent too much money in the first months, much more money that was coming in, said the new casino president, Alan Soh.

Soh said all money problems cannot be blamed on Tenner. Until last week, the club was operating with a temporary license from the state Department of Gaming Registration, which investigates all casino investors and grants licenses to operate.

The lack of a permanent license caused contractors and others with whom the club did business to demand payment up front. Potential investors in Mutual Investment shied away. No one, Soh said, would extend credit, which jeopardized Mutual Investment Group's cash flow.

In an interview Thursday, Tenner said that he believed that if Mutual Investment Group had not run into money problems, he would be at the Regency today.

"You know, when a business goes bad, it's like a baseball team: the manager is the first to go," he said.

He acknowledged that he did over-staff but said that there were two choices: staff, expecting the worst, "in which case you give bad service," or provide a well-trained, large staff "to provide the best possible service." Tenner chose the latter.

But perhaps Tenner's fatal mistake, said new casino general manager Randy Sears, is that he made the Regency Card Club and Casino a casino with all Asian games.

"(When I arrived here) I found a beautiful casino with not too many tables in action and a lot of employees," he said. "I think the idea of having a strictly Asian casino was something that people found repugnant. Neither Asians nor anyone else likes the idea of a segregated club."

Tenner said that making it an all-Asian-games club was "a calculated risk." The Asian games are the most profitable games at the neighboring Bicycle Club and the Commerce Club.

"Had the construction been completed on time, I think it would have worked," he said.

The club was to be completed in time for its grand opening last July 6 but work was not finished until August.

"Everybody was full of anticipation, and then the club wasn't ready," Tenner said. "We lost a lot of momentum."

Perhaps the club would have caught on if Tenner had been given more time to smooth out the operation, but, Soh said, Regency owner Chi, a Newport Beach real estate developer, was worried about how much money had been spent.

"He (Tenner) was basically asked to leave," said a former employee of the club who asked not to be identified. "The investors didn't think things were going well enough. We all thought we were doing a decent job."

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