Jeff's back and this time he's started up his own little 'gaming hall of fame/shame', picking the top and bottom of Las Vegas' operators for the past decade.
Would you rate 'em different? Reply in the comments.
The recent news that Penn National Gaming had acquired M Resort's debt and should soon be operating the beautiful casino Anthony Marnell III built in the southern Las Vegas Valley made me think about Marnell's experience. I remembered interviewing Marnell at the time his property opened for trade newsletter Gaming Industry Observer and asking him how he would know if his first year was a success.
He answered that staying in business would signify a success, a stunning but prescient response that showed he knew even then that the property's debt and the horrible Las Vegas economy cast the future of his creation in doubt.
The M Resort news inspired me to think about the casino owner/operators I've covered since I've been in Las Vegas and which ones have been the most and least successful at building, buying and/or operating casinos. The three-year recession has distorted results to such an extent that operators smart enough to sell right before the downturn proved, at least for now, to have made some of the smartest financial decisions. If that was the key metric, then New Frontier owner Phil Ruffin, then-Tropicana owner Aztar and the Bill Bennett estate that owned the Sahara would rank near the top of a best operators list, and that crew is not what I was going for. My lists are based on my opinion about what the owners created and how they have run their casinos.
Worst Casino Owners, 1999-2010
1. Bill Yung and his Columbia Sussex at the Tropicana
Yung paid $2.8 billion for the Tropicana and Aztar Corp.'s other casinos, and the redevelopment potential of the Trop and its sweet location were the deal's most important assets. Yung and his team broke out their ham-handed operations style, slashing staff, destroying employee morale and allowing the property to deteriorate. My long-standing disdain for Yung and his casino-business acumen proved accurate when he lost the Tropicana and most of his other casinos. The casino business is not the airport hotel business -- as Yung and his Kentucky cronies learned. He still owns the Westin here in town so it's a shame I can't say "Good riddance."
2. Becky Binion Behnen at Binion's Horseshoe
I liked Becky Behnen and felt sorry for her as she seemed to be in over her head as the owner of the Horseshoe. Her husband, Nick Behnen, was another story: A loud-mouthed boor forbidden by Nevada gaming regulators from being involved in the Horseshoe's operation who was nevertheless widely viewed as being the power behind Becky's throne and at least partly responsible for running the once-proud 'Shoe into the ground. The Horseshoe had a bloated staff, a ridiculously large security team and the Behnens seemed determined to prove that they could change the way the property was run by Becky's brother Jack. They succeeded in that, at least.
3. Tamares Group at the Plaza, Las Vegas Club and Western
I'm hesitant to include Tamares because I've long suspected their long-term strategy is to allow their trio of properties to deteriorate while they wait to capitalize on their underlying real estate. If so, they've sure accomplished the first part of that strategy but the economy has delayed their ability to capitalize on the real estate. As for Tamares' recent announced plan to close the Plaza and refurbish it -- I'll believe it when its fully reopened.
Best Casino Owners, 1999-2010
1. Steve Wynn at Wynn Las Vegas and Encore
Wynn took a lot of criticism when Kirk Kerkorian bought Mirage Resorts, but I think Wynn has had the last (or at least best and most recent) laugh. He traded his stake in Mirage for the Desert Inn site, and he and his partner Kazuo Okada built what I believe are the city's top resorts. Along with his Macau operations, the Las Vegas properties give Wynn the best properties on the Strip and in Macau, an enviable branding statement. Wynn's operational savvy allowed him to quickly capitalize on the fine-dining, nightclub and daylife trends while at the same time flexing his most powerful weapon in the casino: Big gamblers love betting against Steve Wynn.
2. Sheldon Adelson at the Venetian and Palazzo
While Adelson's biggest successes have come in Macau and (by most accounts) Singapore, his Strip hotels have demonstrated the power of the convention business to prop up midweek hotel and food and beverage revenues. Adelson's company sued me when I criticized the property's early regulatory problems (it lost) but its operations have by all accounts improved since then. Adelson's casinos aren't as successful as the gaming operations at Wynn/Encore and Bellagio, but his dining, nightlife and entertainment offerings are strong competitors. A lot of folks were skeptical of Adelson's ability as an industry neophyte to build and operate a casino resort, but he's proven them wrong.
3. George Maloof at the Palms
Even though Maloof and his partners may have borrowed too much to build the Palms' Fantasy Tower and Palms Place right before the economy and the Strip-area condo market imploded, there's no denying Maloof's brilliance and operating skill. A creative and hard-working innovator who knows the industry as well as any executive not named Steve Wynn or Michael Gaughan, Maloof created a powerful, high-end brand at his low-budget location. He's a master marketer who understands his customers and I think Maloof will eventually be regarded as one of the industry's all-time greats.
Other strong competitors included:
* Michael Gaughan at Coast Resorts and the South Point (Another genius who understands his customers, Gaughan's properties were constantly very profitable. He improved the execution of the hybrid locals-tourist casino at the Orleans and later, the South Point.
* Bill Boyd at Boyd Gaming (Boyd loves the city and cares for his employees. He recognized that completing Echelon could kill his company and quickly put on the brakes.)
* Kirk Kerkorian at MGM Resorts (Kerkorian made a couple of great buys in Mirage Resorts and Mandalay Resort Group and continued his pattern of building the city's biggest casino resorts, adding CityCenter to his earlier creations at the International, MGM Grand I and MGM Grand II. Recent financial results have hurt, but there's no denying that Kerkorian allowed his top executives to buy and then renovate an impressive collection of properties on the Strip).
-- Jeff Simpson, October 2010