Ameristar’s stock jumps on speculation of possible takeover|[11/21/06]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 21, 2006

From staff and AP reports.

Shares of Ameristar Casinos Inc. surged to a 52-week high and then fell as speculation swirled that the casino operator could be a potential takeover target after the sudden death of its chief executive, Craig Neilsen.

The company’s stock, was $28.77 at midmorning today, had soared to $31.32 Monday morning after the death was announced. Prices closed at $28.54, up $2.86 or 11.1 percent.

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Neilsen, 65 and a former Vicksburg resident, died in his sleep Sunday at his home in Las Vegas.

&#8220With this new development, Ameristar immediately becomes a possible takeover candidate due to its stable of high-quality gaming assets,” KeyBanc Capital Markets analyst Dennis Forst wrote in a client note.

Forst urged investors to get involved in the company, which owns seven casinos under the Ameristar, Cactus Petes and Horseshu brands in Nevada, Mississippi, Iowa, Missouri and Colorado, including Ameristar Casino and Hotel off Washington Street in Vicksburg.

Local financial advisers mirrored the outlook.

&#8220It takes away a barrier from the company being sold to another company,” said Easy Biedenharn, vice president of wealth management and assistant branch manager of Smith Barney investment securities at 112-B Monument Place.

The company said Neilsen’s shares in Ameristar would be transferred to a private foundation, The Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, which focuses on spinal cord research. Neilsen was paralyzed in a car accident in 1985. Ameristar indicated there were no plans for the foundation to sell the shares.

&#8220Mr. Neilsen’s desire was for the foundation to retain a controlling interest in Ameristar for the long term,” the statement said.

Biedenharn said the foundation’s &#8220fiduciary responsibility” to its shareholders would make it more likely to &#8220sell out if the right offer came along.”

Neilsen owned 31.4 million shares, or about 55.4 percent of the company, according to Ameristar’s most recent proxy filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Neilsen’s insistence that the company not entertain buyout offers had kept its share price down, said analyst Adam Steinberg of Morgan Joseph & Co. Inc. He called Neilsen &#8220the one person most opposed to selling it.”

&#8220Any number of strategic buyers make sense,” Steinberg said. &#8220I’m sure there’s a number of private equity players that would be interested as well.”

Late Monday, Ameristar’s chief financial officer, Thomas Steinbauer, reiterated the company’s position that it had no intention to sell, calling the market’s reaction to the announcement &#8220unrealistic.”

&#8220We believe as Craig believed that the greatest value that can be brought to shareholders will be to continue operation of the company through the base strategies and continue to try to apply those to new assets,” he told The Associated Press.

In an emergency board meeting Sunday, Ameristar named president John Boush its new chief executive and appointed vice presidents Gordon Kanofsky and Ray Neilsen, who lives in Vicksburg, as co-chairmen of the board. Kanofsky and Ray Neilsen are also co-trustees of the foundation.

Ray Neilsen said his father was &#8220an entrepreneur with incredible vision.”

&#8220Further, he inspired all of us with the courage, determination and dignity that he demonstrated every day in living with a spinal cord injury,” he said.

Ameristar was among the bidders earlier this year for Phoenix-based Aztar Corp., owner of the Tropicana casino-hotels in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J. It dropped out of the competition in May after offering $47 per share, or about $1.7 billion.