The name floats above the Strip in cursive lettering — Wynn. — punctuated by that subtle period.
There are tens of thousands of potential rank-and-file workers who see that name in the sky as a beacon for the Strip’s newest hot thing, a place that potentially could overtake the high-end chic of The Venetian, the five-star cool of Bellagio.
To hear applicants seeking to work for Steve Wynn, he is the boulevard’s most charismatic CEO, a union-friendly boss who offers first-rate pay and benefits. Nearly 100,000 people have applied to work at the $2.5 billion Wynn Las Vegas. Just 10,000 will be hired by the time of the megaresort’s scheduled April 28 opening.
“I have a great job, an eight or an eight-and-a-half,” says an MGM Grand bellman who wants one of those positions, “but I don’t have too many opportunities to work for a nine or a 10. He (Wynn) just has the opportunity to make everything nice.”
Many Wynn executives of the past and present say he is a trendsetter who redesigned Las Vegas Boulevard with The Mirage and Treasure Island, the first Las Vegas megaresorts to generate the bulk of their revenues from noncasino operations. His creations helped kick off the casino building boom that has driven the region’s hypergrowth of the past 16 years, highlighted by Bellagio’s 1998 opening.
“If you’re working with Steve Wynn, you’re probably making more money, and then there’s his attention to detail. He’s the real deal,” says Don Marrandino, a former executive vice president and general manager at Wynn Las Vegas who left before the property’s opening.
But Wynn also is known for an emotional, hard-driven approach that has its mercurial bent. It’s one that few front-line employees ever see, but occupants of his executive suite must learn to develop a thick hide or they could wither from Wynn’s periodic verbal assaults.
At least one ex-Wynn executive, who requested anonymity, recalls the words of the Togel casino developer’s wife, Elaine, who once counseled the then-employee: “You will never be as brilliant or as stupid as Steve says you are on any given day; the reality will be somewhere in the middle.”
‘Human’ or humiliating
Down at the city’s best-known union hall, organizers of Culinary Local 226 have brought together two groups of potential Wynn Las Vegas workers to chat with a visitor. There’s a bellman, a housekeeper and several others. None is willing to share a name because all fear losing their jobs if their employers learn they are considering moves to Wynn Las Vegas.
Several work at former Wynn properties — Bellagio and Treasure Island. They speak fondly of his leadership.
“In the first place, he’s a good boss,” one of the housekeepers says. “He’s more human. They value the work.”
“I respect him. I like him a lot,” another says. “I feel like that’s my place.”
Not all is cheery when it comes to a discussion of Wynn Las Vegas hiring practices. Tim Reilly, a 29-year-old Las Vegan and waiter at a neighborhood restaurant, said a recent job interview with a midlevel Wynn manager left him feeling angry and humiliated. The interviewer hammered him with a series of questions, some that were critical of Reilly’s employer, Red Robin, and others that seemingly criticized Reilly for taking off time from work to raise his 3-year-old daughter.
“I’m sure what happened was not indicative of the company as a whole, but I was brow-beaten,” says Reilly, who previously worked in retail at Treasure Island when Wynn headed Mirage Resorts. Reilly’s father worked as a cook at Treasure Island and is now a banquet server at Bellagio. His dad, aunt and uncle also planned to apply for jobs at Wynn Las Vegas. Not anymore.
“I walked out of there and felt like I was 2 inches tall. I had looked so forward to it,” Reilly said of the job interview.
Vying for workers
An estimated 168,100 people work in the valley’s casino, hotel and gaming industry. Wynn Las Vegas executives say nearly half of the front-line workers at Bellagio, Treasure Island and The Mirage, about 22,000 in all, have applied for work at the Strip’s newest megaresort.
Randy Morton downplays the potential threat posed by the loss of some of Bellagio’s 10,000 employees to Wynn Las Vegas. As the head of the hotel operations for the high-end property, Morton is confident that the vast majority of Bellagio’s workers will remain in their jobs.
“I would think that all of our competitors would want to hire employees from Bellagio,” Morton says, his monotone, straight-spoken delivery lacking any hint of cockiness.
But the competition for workers has been described as cutthroat. There has been talk that computer experts from competing Strip properties have attempted to tap into the computer database at Wynn Las Vegas to determine who has applied for jobs at the new hotel-casino.
Wynn personnel director Arte Nathan declines to offer specifics about the charge, but he says Wynn’s computer staff has locked down the property’s computer system to prevent outside access to the applicant database.
Meanwhile, Nathan was banned from the back of the house at Bellagio, The Mirage, the MGM Grand and other MGM Mirage properties after he was caught passing out business cards to potential hires in the bowels of those buildings.
Nathan and his MGM Mirage counterparts privately chuckle at the ban and the thought of Wynn’s personnel director lurking around behind the scenes, but the message is clear: Stay away from our workers.
Those competitive fires never were hotter than when a former Bellagio chef was counseled to leave the property immediately after announcing that he had accepted a job with Wynn; otherwise, he faced being escorted out of Bellagio by two security guards.
‘No trouble filling in’
MGM Mirage’s Morton notes the benefits that come with seniority at his 7-year-old property. There’s the predictability of scheduling, the well-established relationships with co-workers and the opportunities for advancement found in a company that, once its buyout of Mandalay Resort Group is completed later this year, will own nine of the 10 megaresorts on the west side of the Strip between Treasure Island and Mandalay Bay.
“Across the company, we know there will be a certain percentage that will go,” Morton says. “Whatever the number ends up being, we will have no trouble filling it.”
As proof, he points to the December opening of Bellagio’s new 928-suite hotel tower. The hotel-casino had more than 115,000 applications for 1,400 new jobs. Thirty percent of the tower’s work force was promoted from within the company.
MGM Mirage officials say a certain amount of turnover is good for any property. It brings in people with a fresh outlook, people who offer a new take on the day-to-day workings of a Bellagio. In fact, MGM Mirage executives are so confident that the potential losses will not hurt their company that they have not offered any special incentives for workers to remain.
Back at the union hall, workers continue to debate the merits of a move to Wynn Las Vegas. Some will stay where they are. They’d rather retain their seniority and all the perks that come with it. Others are ready to go. Wynn typically has been the first Strip employer to sign new union deals, and that hasn’t escaped the attention of this potential pool of new employees.
“He looks for people who work hard, do a good job, and treats them well,” a Bellagio bellman says.
Tough like a father
Wynn’s agitated exchanges with top managers, replete with street epithets and a heated intensity, are legendary within his operations. He has been known to hammer outsiders as well, whether they’re Wall Street analysts, university professors or journalists.
“The legend of Steve Wynn seems to be more pronounced the more you are removed from him in your daily life. Executives have a more balanced and tempered view,” says an ex-Wynn executive who requested anonymity. “They (front-line workers) don’t see any of the (Wynn) anger. The front-line guys see him as a charismatic personality, a celebrity. They don’t have day-to-day interaction with him as a boss.”
Nathan speaks fondly of the man he has known since the two were youngsters in upstate New York, a man he considers an older brother, a second father. Wynn’s not verbally abusive, the personnel director says, but he is direct.
“He’s tough like a father, your uncle, your brother. This is a family business. This isn’t an overly politically correct place. It is more entrepreneurial than it is corporatized. People do get burned out on this. You’ve got to be on top of your game. You can’t let down one second. Steve doesn’t,” Nathan reflects.
“He doesn’t accept anything at face value, and he doesn’t allow you to. It works for me, the shift manager in the casino, the restaurant manager, anybody in management who likes to be challenged, stretching a little bit more, they’ll do well here. If you’re somebody who is willing to accept the status quo or not willing to stretch to overachieve every time you do something, this will be maddening.”
Eye on every detail
From 1973, when Wynn took control of downtown’s Golden Nugget, through the 1980s when he developed and sold Atlantic City’s Golden Nugget, Wynn laid the groundwork for the high-end properties that became his forte. He opened The Mirage in 1989. Treasure Island followed four years later to handle The Mirage’s overflow. Bellagio opened in 1998.
Throughout, Steve and Elaine Wynn have developed a working relationship that taps into their individual skills. He is the hard-charging dealmaker, the development guy. He provides the concepts; she helps implement them, Nathan says.
Although she lacks an executive title, Elaine Wynn serves on her husband’s board of directors. She has designed the employee uniforms for Wynn Las Vegas, plans major parties and is her company’s face on all things related to charitable and community giving.
Steve Wynn has redesigned high-roller suites two, three and four times until they are what he truly wants. When choosing fabric for a room or restaurant, Wynn, who is losing his eyesight to a degenerative disease, touches and looks at dozens of samples. He’s had models built to study the sight lines of his casino floor. He had another scale model constructed of the Desert Inn golf course and ran a pencil-sized camera along each fairway. “He would say, ‘You’ve got to move this tree 3 feet,’ ” Marrandino remembers.
Six years ago, Wynn’s then-Mirage Resorts purchased the tired Boardwalk hotel-casino between Bellagio and Monte Carlo. It was more of a real estate play than a casino purchase, but several Boardwalk employees were ecstatic to learn of the buyout. One, a housekeeper, was so excited that she stood outside of the hotel-casino shouting: “Steve Wynn is coming! Steve Wynn is coming!” Tears trickled down her cheeks.
Mirage Resorts executives routinely quipped that Bellagio’s employee dining room was as nice as most Strip restaurants.
“Steve has always said if we treat our employees like guests, we will set the foundation for our success,” Nathan says. “All of the attention and the detail that you apply to approaching, addressing and retaining your guests, we follow those same concepts.”
While he has a loyal coterie of top- and midlevel executives, hundreds of whom would follow him to any new project, there are past Wynn executives who are happy to be done with the man.
Ask one of these high-powered gaming types to talk publicly about their Wynn experience and they clam up unless promised anonymity. They routinely say their Wynn tenure was among the most important experiences of their careers, something akin to a high-end finishing school for megaresort bosses.
Wynn alumni members run major casinos along the Strip, in Northern Nevada and the northeastern United States, but ask some of those alums whether they ever plan a return engagement, and they roll their eyes or smirk.
The evolving Buddhist
Wynn’s speaking on the phone. There’s the sonorous bass, the broad vocabulary, the use of inflection to make his points.
The pending opening of Wynn Las Vegas has created excitement and uncertainty along the Strip, excitement for anyone seeking a major infusion of creativity along the boulevard, particularly along the street’s aging north end, but uncertainty for operators of The Venetian, Bellagio and Mandalay Bay, which stand to lose customers, employees and some of their cachet.
Wynn believes his greatest strength is the ability to design a megaresort from a customer’s viewpoint. His goal, he says, is simple: When people come to town, he wants his building to be considered the best of the bunch. “I find that automatic. Some people can sing. I can think like a customer,” he says.
Wynn hasn’t run a hotel-casino since early 2000, when he lost his Mirage Resorts in a tactical stock play led by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. Many institutional investors had tired of Wynn’s act, his reluctance to release property-by-property quarterly results, a verbal style that smacked of a to-hell-with-you approach. Critics complained that he overspent on the construction of the $1.9 billion Bellagio, which by all accounts was a smash hit when it came to generating top-line revenues but failed to earn the bottom-line numbers that Wall Street demanded.
The buyout of his Mirage Resorts shares earned him about $500 million, sparking his $270 million cash purchase later that year of the struggling Desert Inn, a site that he has leveled and totally redesigned with the soon-to-open 2,700-room tower. He’s developing plans for a second 2,000-room tower.
Wynn acknowledges that his hard-driving style might have angered others in the past, but he says any angry exchanges were well-intended on his part, even if they didn’t come across that way.
“Passionate people have tempers. Passionate people are intemperate,” he says. “Being a Buddhist, I’ve gotten better at (that) these days.”
He’s asked to explain that last statement: Is he studying the teachings of Buddha? Wynn’s reluctant to answer.
“I’m not keen about getting into a religious discussion,” he says. But he invokes the name of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, when further discussing his own temper.
Last summer, Wynn spent a weekend in Florida with the religious figure who is revered by millions throughout the world. At first, Nathan wasn’t sure what to make of the trip. Wynn had been quiet about the visit before heading south, but Nathan said he spotted noticeable changes in his longtime friend following his return.
“It’s not about us. It’s about them,” Wynn took to saying about the employees he was about to hire. A photo of the smiling CEO is posted in the lobby of his employment center. A Buddhist-inspired message written by Wynn sits next to the picture: “In this place we are trying very hard to find out what makes you excited so that your job can be fun.”
Ask Wynn what it all means, especially for his legendary temper, and he offers a humble response. “I am working at it. The only way to be happy in life is to know you’ve helped other people,” Wynn says.
He points to the estimated 25,000 direct jobs created by the opening of Bellagio, The Mirage, Treasure Island and the expanded Golden Nugget as a sign of his good works. An additional 50,000 to 75,000 jobs were created indirectly by the projects. Toss in the impact of the Wynn-inspired megaresort construction boom, a boom largely credited with sparking the doubling of the region’s population over the past decade, and there is no way to gauge with any accuracy Wynn’s impact on the state’s economy. No doubt it’s meant hundreds of millions, maybe even billions of dollars to the city and state.
“That is the only legacy I will ever have,” Wynn says.
He’s asked again about his temper. Does he ever regret some of his past exchanges, the ones with the angry epithets?
“If I ever said anything to anyone in the heat (of discussion) it was probably because I was right,” Wynn says.
He pauses for a moment, possibly realizing that the sentiment lacks an air of humility. “The way I do it is wrong if I’m being judgmental but right if I’m being helpful.”
Up in the executive suites, nuance reigns. There are several MGM Mirage executives who run former Wynn properties and would seem probable candidates for a move. Most don’t want to talk about it publicly. The Strip’s a small town, and there’s no reason to ruffle anyone’s feathers, especially when today’s competitors might become tomorrow’s co-workers.
But those who do speak, at least on background, say they are proud to have done their time with Wynn. They learned a lot; many grew wildly wealthy because of that relationship, but they have moved on. And besides, at least one former Wynn executive says, there is greater predictability, greater inter-office stability that comes with the MGM Mirage stewardship of Terry Lanni, John Redmond and Bobby Baldwin, and that means a great deal, too.
Wynn is philosophical about such talk. Drawing upon what might be a new-found well of self-composure, he replies softly and succinctly without any hint of irritation.
“When you sell a company,” he says, “the people who stay behind form new loyalties because they want to protect themselves. I became their enemy. I understand that.”