Mr. Vice Guy: Meet the hedge fund vulture who made US$120 million betting on casinos and cannabis


What will be Soo Kim’s next big gamble? Television.
Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Twelve floors above Fifth Avenue, inside a corner office in the old General Motors Building in Manhattan, Soo Kim is showing off his vintage Ballyhoo pinball machine. It’s the first one made by what would become the storied American company Bally’s, which started in Chicago in the 1930s with punchboard games, pinball and eventually became a slot machine powerhouse before going through multiple bankruptcies.

“It’s a predecessor to casinos games—there’s no paddle, so it’s really a game of luck,” says Kim, the founder of the New York hedge fund Standard General and the chairman of Bally’s, which owns 16 casinos across 11 states and will soon build Chicago’s first Las Vegas-style casino resort. “People want their fortune revealed to them. It’s like, ‘Am I lucky today, or am I unlucky?’”

The 47-year-old Kim has been on quite a roll lately. Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Bayside, Queens, where he learned English by watching TV, Kim now controls a growing gambling empire that he built slowly and deliberately by targeting companies struggling under debt or already in bankruptcy. Kim founded Standard General, which has $1.5 billion in assets under management, in 2007, and has focused on regulated industries such as casinos, cannabis, tobacco and television. Kim, whose firm claims a 7% average annual return over the past 15 years, describes himself as an “opportunistic investor”—although most people on Wall Street would describe him as a vulture capitalist.

“We jump into situations that other people don’t like, have a bad balance sheet or a run of bad management and we try to find value in the babies that were thrown out with the bathwater,” says Kim. “Regulated businesses are almost easier to bring back because they have good demand characteristics, and the license is an asset.”

Most investors run away from government-regulated industries, but Kim sees great value in vices such as gambling but also in other industries that labor under a thicket of federal rules, such as cable television. “Almost everything is regulated to some extent,” says Kim. “We embrace that because we can ultimately use the rules to our advantage. You can compete in any sport—you just need to know the rules.”

“I hate to even use the word ‘sin’—sin industries,” Kim says. “These are things Americans want to do. And if they’re not allowed to do it, it’s just going to be underground.”

A casino, for example, can be run into the ground, as Donald Trump’s properties in Atlantic City were over the course of decades of mismanagement, but they are often salvageable. In Trump’s case, entrepreneurs such as Tilman Fertitta, billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets, bought the Trump Marina in Atlantic City and parlayed it into the $140 million (2021 annual revenue) Golden Nugget. “You can make a lot of bad decisions,” Kim says, “but that asset remains.”

Standard General is also the largest shareholder in Turning Point Brands, which owns the American licensing rights to Zig-Zag, the iconic 120-year-old rolling paper company. Turning Point Brands also owns discount chewing tobacco brand Stoker’s and has made investments in a couple of cannabis brands.

But Kim’s biggest bet yet is in another binge-activity—television. Standard General is in the process of buying Virginia-based Tegna, one of the country’s largest broadcast television companies, with 64 stations across 51 markets, including the True Crime Network and WUSA9, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. Standard General will pay $275 million while New York-based private equity giant Apollo will contribute $925 million; $8.2 billion will be debt financing.

Despite bringing less money to the deal, Standard will get majority voting control of the publicly traded firm. Apollo had initially wanted to buy Tegna, but there were antitrust concerns as Apollo owns competitor Cox Media Group. Kim knows he’s punching above his weight class when it comes to the Tegna deal. “In some ways, this is the minnow swallowing the whale,” he says.

Kim’s outsize ambitions first became evident in 2011, when he targeted Twin River Casino, a privately held company in Lincoln, Rhode Island that operated a slot parlor and a shuttered greyhound racetrack. Twin River had been hit by political and criminal scandals and spiraled into bankruptcy court with $590 million in debt. In other words, it was a perfect target for a shrewd vulture. Standard General started buying up shares in the over-the-counter distressed equity market while it was still a private company and within five years Kim’s firm was the largest shareholder. Once in control, Kim began rolling up other regional casinos in Delaware, Mississippi, and Colorado.

Eight years later, Twin River went public by acquiring Delaware-based casino Dover Downs for $116 million in stock and cash. In 2020, the company bought the struggling Bally’s hotel and casino in Atlantic City, which had lost nearly $100 million that year, from Caesars and New York-based real estate investment trust Vici Properties for a paltry $25 million. If that number sounds like Monopoly money—especially since Bally’s is located at the intersection of Boardwalk and Park Place—consider that the property was struggling financially and regulators were forcing Caesars to sell some of its assets before being acquired by Reno-based gaming company Eldorado for $17.3 billion.

Kim has since increased his bet: in April, Standard General set its sights on Las Vegas when it agreed to buy the operations of the Tropicana casino for $150 million, plus $10.5 million in rent a year for the land, from Pennsylvania-based Gaming and Leisure Properties, Inc. (GPLI). (Kim will eventually change the name to Bally’s and Caesars will change the name of the existing Bally’s in Vegas to its Horseshoe brand.)

Then in May, Kim had a big win in America’s heartland. Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, selected Bally’s to build a $1.7 billion casino and entertainment center at the site of the Tribune Publishing printing plant—beating out hometown billionaire Neil Bluhm and gaming juggernaut Hard Rock International. Bally’s is financing about $600 million of the project with proceeds from the $1 billion sale of its Rhode Island casinos to GLPI, which Bally’s is leasing back, and the rest will be raised through debt. “Our ambitions are to be global,” says Kim. “Chicago is a great statement to that: Chicago has more tourists than Vegas.”

Despite his collection of assets, Kim doesn’t believe his empire is built on vice. “I hate to even use the word ‘sin’—sin industries; I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it,” he says. “Whether it’s cannabis, to a lesser degree nicotine, or gambling, these are things Americans want to do. And if they’re not allowed to do it, they’re still going to do it, it’s just going to be underground.”

If you spend enough time with Kim, who favors the classic hedge fund uniform of a blue oxford under a fleece vest, he starts to sound like a chill Gordon Gekko. Having learned investing at Bankers Trust and Och-Ziff, he soon realized he could drive profits for a longer period if he wasn’t as ruthless.

“It’s not just [about] raw, unadulterated capitalism—I kill, kill, kill, [and] eat what I kill,” says Kim, who Forbes estimates to be worth nearly $120 million. “In the end, the longest, greediest thing you can do is to be intentional about your actions and be mindful. You get a better outcome.”

One of the reasons Mayor Lightfoot selected Bally’s to build and manage Chicago’s first casino is that Kim signed a peace agreement with the labor unions—a tactic he has also employed in Atlantic City. None of the other applicants agreed to one. “Bally’s had the total package,” says Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar.

Colin Mansfield, an analyst from Fitch Ratings, says Bally’s strategy of buying its way to a national footprint is part of the classic gambling empire playbook. “Caesars, previously Harrah’s, grew through acquisition,” says Mansfield, “the same could be said about MGM Resorts and more recently, Eldorado.” Bally’s is a “formidable competitor,” Mansfield adds.

The Tropicana, which is at the South end of the Las Vegas Strip and has a reputation for perpetually underperforming, will play a big role in the future of Bally’s, Kim says:“We believe that if you want to be a national gaming player, you have to have a presence in Vegas.”

Bally’s now owns the operations of the Tropicana, but the property and its 35-acre land parcel is owned by Gaming and Leisure Properties. GLPI’s chief executive Peter Carlino said in the company’s first-quarter earnings call that the Oakland A’s have “a very, very strong interest” in relocating to Vegas and building a baseball stadium on a portion of the Tropicana’s land. Kim expects the existing Tropicana—which was built in 1957 and was James Bond’s hotel of choice in Diamonds Are Forever—will be demolished and rebuilt as part of a plan to redevelop the entire property. Along with a newly built stadium for the NFL’s Raiders and an existing arena for the NHL’s Golden Knights, the prospect of baseball in Las Vegas is appealing to Kim and local leaders. As for luring the A’s to the city, Kim remains coy. “I think 35 acres is a lot of space,” he says with a laugh. “A baseball diamond takes approximately nine acres.”

Kim sees himself like a corporate fireman. “We run into smoky buildings and situations are opaque and we’re trying to figure it out,” he says. “We’re trying to save property and lives and sometimes a building falls on your head.”

Being the target of Kim’s deliberate, long-term strategy isn’t always pleasant. One person who had business dealings with him over the years was too afraid of retribution to give his name. “He’s aggressive, legally aggressive… and there’s no way to beat them,” says the executive. “They have the experience—every situation they’re in is a battle.” Another person who worked with Kim and Standard General says they look for leverage and “shake you down.”

Kim doesn’t dispute that his deals can get messy. Sitting behind his desk in New York, he explains that he sees himself as a “corporate fireman.” “We run into smoky buildings and situations are opaque and we’re trying to figure it out,” he says. “We’re trying to save property and lives and sometimes a building falls on your head.”

Two of his most notable failures are Radio Shack—which Standard General bought from bankruptcy in 2013 and it wound up back in reorganization two years later—and the hipster clothing brand American Apparel, founded by disgraced entrepreneur Dov Charney. Standard General lost more than $100 million in the Radio Shack deal while American Apparel was a more limited loss. (Charney was ousted, the company filed for bankruptcy twice and is now owned by Canadian clothier Gildan Activewear, Inc.)

Running parallel to all of these moves, Standard General is currently pursuing its biggest prize—the $9.3 billion deal to buy Tegna. In his efforts to acquire the media brand, which included two failed proxy battles and attacks on the current CEO, there is a clear glimpse of Kim’s aggressive tactics. While Standard General was staging a takeover last year, Kim wrote to Tegna shareholders: “The Tegna Board is marshaling misleading analyses and data in a desperate attempt to deflect responsibility and attention from Tegna’s persistent underperformance, strategic missteps, and governance failures.” But in the end, Kim got the board to unanimously approve his bid and he already picked a new CEO.

The Tegna deal may be in motion, but federal regulators still have to approve it. Many don’t believe that Kim isn’t out for blood and profits, especially as Apollo, which owns Atlanta-based TV broadcaster Cox Media Group, is helping to finance the deal. The NewsGuild-CWA, the country’s largest labor union for journalists, even wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking for him to block it. “This proposed transaction would kill journalism jobs, undermine local news and raise prices for American families,” the August 1 letter reads. In an email to staff, Deb McDermott, who will take over as Tegna CEO if the FCC approves the deal, wrote that Standard General has “no intention, and have never had the intention, of reducing news or news staff at Tegna stations.”

Kim’s vision for Tegna involves an “injection of innovation” into the TV broadcast world. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the content we’re creating, nor the good work that our journalists are doing,” says Kim. “I just think that the way we’re distributing it is all wrong.”

While Tegna will be his next gamble, back on the twelfth floor of the GM Building, Kim is admiring his Ballyhoo, which he bought on eBay for $600. He says convincing Caesars to sell him the Bally’s brand will likely “become one of the best decisions” he’s ever made.

“Many people say, ‘Well, you guys are essentially a bunch of cast-off casinos,’” he says. “And our response is, ‘Well, we have a crazy good management team that have been able to take these casinos other people left for dead and have turned them into nice little profit engines.”