Lunch with the FT: Wynn’s World

Financial Times
April 22, 2006

Just before I go in to see Steve Wynn, one of his staff asks if I like dogs. As soon as I enter the casino magnate’s office in Wynn Las Vegas, his new $2.7bn casino-resort, I understand the question: two German Shepherds lie by his feet under his desk. A third dog, a sleepy cocker spaniel, ambles across the plush carpet and carefully sniffs me.

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Wynn, clad in black, is reading a letter at his desk. “Just a minute,” he intones. As I wait, I stroke the spaniel and look at the large Mark Rothko painting on the wall. A Basquiat hangs near by. Finally he looks up and greets me with a steady gaze. He doesn’t bother with niceties, throws a black blazer over his black turtleneck, slips on a pair of aviator sunglasses and heads off to choose one of the casino’s 22 restaurants for lunch.

A rival once called his 117ha resort “the kind of place God would build if he had the money”. Opened last April, it includes a man- made mountain, waterfalls, 2,700 hotel rooms, an 18-hole golf course, Maserati and Ferrari dealerships and five swimming pools.

Wynn knows all the short cuts through it because this is also his home; he and his wife live in a villa somewhere on the resort’s golf course. Even so, he stumbles a few times, once nearly careening into a baby stroller in the crowded corridor: he has a degenerative eye disease that limits his peripheral vision.

Along the way people ogle him, which is not surprising. After three decades of creating some of the world’s best-known casinos, Wynn is synonymous with the rise of Las Vegas from a dusty gambling wasteland to one of the top tourist destinations in the US.

We end up at the Country Club, a steakhouse restaurant, and are led to a table on the sunny patio overlooking the golf course. “Sit there so I can see you,” orders Wynn, pointing to the seat opposite him. Before we can start talking, two men in suits approach. One announces his affiliation with a well-known billionaire financier who would like to start a casino with Wynn. I tuck away my notebook and try to look uninterested in what is a slightly surreal conversation to overhear. Unfortunately, there is no hot scoop.

“I’m not good as a partner,” says Wynn, waving aside the proposition. “I like to do everything my way. I’m too old to change.”

When the men leave, Wynn takes off his sunglasses and tosses them on the table with a clatter. He smiles slowly, revealing a set of large teeth that seem to have been polished to whiteness. At 64, his appearance doesn’t seem to have changed for decades. His tanned face is topped by a puff of brown hair and the few grey hairs at his temples seem placed there for effect.

A somewhat giddy waiter arrives to take our order. Wynn raves about the Kobe beef carpaccio, which he takes the liberty of ordering for both of us. His face falls when I say I don’t eat beef and order a salad instead.

Musing on the impromptu business proposition he has just received, he says his plate is full. On top of the massive expansion of Wynn Las Vegas, he also has a casino due to open in Macao this September. “Talent comes best when it is fully focused,” he says sagely.

With little prodding, Wynn launches into his philosophy of business, life and leisure. “I need the certainty of an idea that I understand to begin anything in life,” he says.

“I’m in the leisure business, the hotel business. Not the casino business. The casino is irrelevant. If I make this place resonate with your ideas of what’s a wonderful place to be, then I am successful.”

Las Vegas first captivated him at the age of 10 when he went there with his father, a Maryland bingo parlour owner who changed his name from Michael Weinberg to Michael Wynn. “Everybody wore cowboy hats and cowboy boots. My father and I went horseback riding every afternoon in the desert. You’d see the skull of a steer or a donkey lying there,” Wynn fondly recalls. “There were no sidewalks, just eight hotels and sand in between. It was fabulous.”

Wynn moved to Las Vegas in 1967 and became slot manager and part owner of the Frontier casino. He later bought land on the Las Vegas Strip from Howard Hughes, flipped it to casino giant Caesars and used his profits to buy the Golden Nugget casino.

The Mirage (which Kirk Kerkorian’s MGM Entertainment bought for $6.6bn in 2000) went up in 1989, followed by Treasure Island and then in 1998 The Bellagio, which set an unlikely new standard for luxury in a city known for Elvis impersonators and quickie weddings.

So what is the idea behind this latest creation, Wynn Las Vegas? He begins an impassioned ramble about the “precambrian explosion” billions of years ago that was the beginning of life on earth.

“You get a lot of plastic gimmicky things that have a short shelf- life but Amy, turn around,” he says, pointing at the cascading waterfall on the golf course. “This is not short shelf-life stuff. This patio. Those trees. You better stick close to fundamentals if you want things to be lasting.”

This sounds ironic coming from the man who made a lava-spewing volcano part of the Las Vegas landscape, though his new resort strives to create an intimate, natural environment – or at least the appearance of one.

Wynn, an avid art collector who majored in literature and studied art and history at university, is famously involved in the design of his casinos and even helps to draw up initial plans, along with a couple of trusted designers. “I’m just a person who likes to know how things are done,” he says, noisily chopping beef slices with the edge of his fork. “If I’m having surgery, I like to know exactly what they’re going to do. I prefer to stay awake and watch.”

He orders another vanilla latte after gulping down the first one. I take advantage of the pause to stuff some salad into my mouth, then ask if Wynn Las Vegas might be too subtle? Finding its lovely views and stylish restaurants tucked within the resort requires something contrary to the hedonism of Vegas: effort. Wynn slaps his hand on the table. “That kept me awake for months!” he groans loudly.

As it turns out, he probably didn’t need to: business is booming at Wynn Las Vegas, which generated $269m in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2005. But the real test will come when Wynn Macao opens this autumn. Can he match Sands Macao, the only foreign operator open so far on the island? It is owned by Las Vegas Sands, headed by his nemesis Sheldon Adelson. Wynn’s voice tightens with outrage and his expression grows stormy: “To suggest that we wouldn’t do as well as anybody else, you would have to ignore my entire 33-year history.”

So has he ever made a mistake? “Oh my god!” he yelps, his brown eyes going wide. “All I ever see are the mistakes. At Mirage, I missed more things than I got hair on my head. If I had known how big the volcano was going to be, would I have had a volcano bar? How could you not have a volcano bar? Duh!”

He dispenses another nugget of wisdom: “People don’t like schizophrenia. If you’re going to do something, do that, do it well. And if you come up with a really different idea, save it for another hotel. Don’t try and be everything at once. You’ll confuse the public.”

The stakes are especially high when a business bears the name of its creator, as is the case with Wynn Las Vegas. “Celebrity is an overrated thing,” he declares. “But accountability for a product is a good thing.” Wynn’s celebrity has had a price: in 1993 his then 26-year-old daughter was kidnapped; she returned unharmed after he paid a $1.5m ransom.

Knowing the pitfalls of celebrity, why did he name the resort after himself? “We ended up calling this place Wynn by accident,” he explains. “I wanted to call this place Le Reve, like the [Picasso] painting. But people didn’t know what it meant or how to say it.”

An agency suggested using his name for the casino but Wynn and his wife Elaine were reluctant. Wynn asked friends for a second opinion. “I called up Steve Spielberg,” he says. “He said, ‘You are more self-conscious about it because it’s your surname. It’s not a bad word. Your name isn’t Lose.'”

The second call was to media mogul Barry Diller who said, “‘Why are you asking me a dumb question like this? Call it Wynn’s and forget about it! You got the painting. Enjoy the painting. Forget about it.'”

The last phone call was to Donald Trump. “I said, ‘You made a lot of money selling condos at a premium. Sometimes you even get an A price for a B building.’ He says: ‘I do. Steve, I’ll tell you one thing, if anything goes wrong, they crucify you.'” Nevertheless, Trump told Wynn, “‘I’d go for it if I were you.'”

Wynn is now on a story-telling (and name-dropping) roll. He begins spinning a yarn about meeting “Jack Kennedy” while covering the presidential campaign in 1960 for his university radio station. Suddenly his mobile phone rings. He listens intently, then snaps it shut. “We gotta go,” he says.

We speed-walk back through the casino. After an anxious moment avoiding some equipment strewn near the swimming pool, we arrive safely back at his office. Wynn says goodbye in the doorway, then slips inside too quickly for me to glimpse the dogs surely awaiting his return.

 

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