The Cantankerous Mr. Wynn

UPDATED: August 12, 2014
PUBLISHED: August 12, 2014

When Steve Wynn enters a room, the air changes. Especially if the room is at Wynn Las Vegas, where he maintains a villa overlooking his hotel’s golf course. 

This is a man who seldom has an idle moment, who’s almost preternaturally on his game and expects those around him to be on theirs, too. Having previously seen Wynn make a casino pitch, I was prepared for his motor-mouthed eloquence, but not his powerful presence and one-on-one intensity. Wynn, chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts, has been in charge for a long time, doesn’t like to waste time, and is famously impatient with bad performance in any line of work.

Wynn is frequently profiled, but just as often misunderstood. A one-sided portrayal of a bigger-is-better casino magnate is going to miss the point, because he is a nuanced character whose legacy includes not only changing the way Las Vegas does business, but also introducing it to fine art and family entertainment. And he’s no lone wolf like Ayn Rand’s John Galt: He gets by with a little help from his friends and is the first to acknowledge that fact.

There’s the Steve Wynn who’s well-read and runs his international gaming empire with attention to detail, taste and concern for his large workforce. And then there’s the Steve Wynn who got into a highly public tiff with film star George Clooney, launches diatribes against President Obama’s business policies, and can get loud when things don’t go his way.

Building his empire, he has flung chairs, screamed at employees, and fought off lawsuits and (unsubstantiated) accusations of mob ties. A caller who interrupted Wynn mid-story while we were talking probably wishes he hadn’t. “I’ve been indulged,” he’s said. “I’m a self-made brat.” But these things are the yin and yang of the same guy, and the tension produces an extremely successful businessman.

In quick succession, Wynn, who came to town with a net worth of around $20,000, took over the Golden Nugget casino (and built another one in Atlantic City), followed up with the game-changing Mirage (the first Vegas hotel to concentrate on hotel service, not gaming), then the Treasure Island, and—an eye-popper at the time—the Italianate Bellagio, before selling his Mirage Resorts to MGM. And then—in his mid-50s—he started all over again.

Driven to Succeed

The 72-year-old Wynn, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $3.8 billion, owns a lot of art with his second wife, Andrea Hissom (who married him in 2011). Their duplex villa’s meeting room, decorated in cashmere and silk chenille, is adorned with a pair of Picassos, a Matisse, a Léger, a Giacometti sculpture and—a $4 million prize—the Maltese Falcon.

Wynn has another, more formal office, but this one is the show-stopper. It says something about him that when he famously put his elbow through Picasso’s ultra-valuable Le Reve in 2006, the late Nora Ephron quoted him as saying, “The money means nothing to me. It’s that I had this painting in my care and I’ve damaged it.” We sit down next to shelves groaning with art books and a model of my host’s 222-foot yacht, Aquarius. Wynn is attired in a crested blue blazer and shiny black shoes. Although the Wynn and the close-by Encore are his crown jewels in Vegas now, when he opened the $1.6 billion Bellagio in 1998, he said the Italianate casino with an 8.5-acre lake offered a unique escape from the vulgarities of the Strip. The whole place, he said, was designed so that upscale hotel guests would see that “it’s nicer inside here than it is in the real world.”

Wynn himself rarely shoots craps or plays poker anymore, although you could call building billion-dollar hotels a form of high-stakes gambling. “If you’re good at what you do, it’s a game of skill, not chance,” he told me. “When it comes to my company’s capital, or my own personal capital, I’m not interested in gambling—I don’t want to fly without a net. I’m not a risk-taker in the sense of, ‘Let’s give this a shot,’ no, no, no. We analyze the deals eight ways to Sunday.”

Humble Beginnings

Wynn told me he was inspired—during his college years at the University of Pennsylvania—by visits to his parents in Miami Beach during the late ’50s and early ’60s. “The Fontainebleau was then the great destination resort on the planet,” he said. “That experience of being in a world that was prettier than the outside world was profound to me. It struck me that it would be a wonderful thing to do, to build a place like that.”

Wynn’s plans for Yale Law School were derailed in 1963 when his father (who changed the family name from Weinberg) died, leaving behind bingo parlors and $350,000 in gambling debts. “My father’s gambling showed me at a very early age that if you wanted to make money in a casino, the answer was to own one,” he told a Knight-Ridder reporter in 1983.

After turning the bingo business around and paying back those debts over nearly five years (taking over a competitor was part of it), Wynn found his way to Las Vegas. With his gaming experience, he landed a job in 1967 as part-owner and slot-machine manager at the Frontier Hotel. He’d originally planned to stay just six months and then go back east. But Vegas being what it was, he soon met Frank Sinatra, who got him front-row center at a Rat Pack show and asked, “How do you like the seats, kid?”

Wynn says now, “I was hooked—and I was staying.” So a series of what Wynn calls “contingent events” put him in Vegas, right where he needed to be, in a strategic position to take over the Strip’s Golden Nugget in 1973 (when he was just 31).

Mention of all that sets Wynn off on an erudite discussion of evolutionary biology, the dinosaurs, and the highly adaptable arthropods (mostly insects, spiders and crustaceans) that could survive Ice Ages by burrowing into the warmer ground. “Today, 70 percent of all life is arthropods,” Wynn said. “Adaptable and competitive species are often defined by contingent events.”

With a Little Help…

But even arthropods need allies. Without question, Wynn’s first friend was his former wife, Elaine, whom he married and divorced twice. Wynn has described her as “a much better person than me.” She was present at the beginning, handling the cash for the family bingo business.

But Wynn might never have gotten started without friend No. 2. A key man in Wynn’s early life was influential banker E. Parry Thomas, the Mormon right-hand man of the shadowy Howard Hughes. Thomas was impressed by the newly arrived Wynn and persuaded the eccentric Hughes to sell property to Wynn that was later passed on to Caesars Palace for a healthy profit. Thomas was also the driving force behind Wynn’s gaining control of the old-line and languishing Golden Nugget. Wynn, Thomas said, was “like a son to me… I like his attitude. He’s brilliant.”

But how did Wynn finance his early hotels, generally the most lavish of their time? Enter friend No. 3, Michael Milken, the go-go financier and junk-bond king who recovered from a fraud conviction and reinvented himself as a philanthropist and entrepreneur. The pair met in 1978, when Wynn was 36 and Milken 32.

Wynn saw an opportunity and wanted to build a $100 million Golden Nugget in Atlantic City. “I had $5 million in equity, and $4.5 million of that was goodwill,” Wynn said. Milken gave him an education in how to raise money in the capital markets—convincing Wall Street that the gambling opportunity was more than mobsters, high rollers and showgirls—and that led to not only an important source of funding, but to a friendship of nearly 40 years.

“What I saw that day when I met Steve was a Walt Disney for adults,” Milken said. “It wasn’t a question of the size of the business, but the vision that Steve had.” What Wynn imagined were opulent, family-friendly resorts that could turn Las Vegas around as magnets for fine dining and entertainment. What he had in mind then was dolphin pools and Siegfried & Roy, not fine art. That came later.

A Matter of Taste

Enter friend No. 4. Roger Thomas, E. Parry’s son, has been Wynn’s chief of design for more than 30 years. By the early 1980s, Roger Thomas had built a reputation for tasteful interiors, and they ran into each other at a Las Vegas benefit. Wynn was then operating the Golden Nugget, but dreaming of what became the Mirage. It soon became clear they wanted the same thing—a new and much more sophisticated hotel in a city that was stagnating.

The younger Thomas, who studied art history at Tufts, was the guide, but Wynn proved an astute pupil. “Steve has the genius of knowing which of my designs are working,” Thomas said. “And there’s always a lively discussion on how to make them better. Sometimes he’ll have the big idea. I don’t think my interiors would look anything like they do without Steve’s involvement.”

“Trying to separate Roger from whatever credit I’ve received is ridiculous,” Wynn said, adding that the designer’s “taste level and his creativity are 60 percent of the success we’ve had.”

For the over-the-top Bellagio, opened in 1998, Wynn imagined something new—not only truly elegant interiors, inspired by the style of northern Italy and southern France (“which we both love,” Thomas said) but a world-class museum, too. And for that Wynn needed a fifth friend, highly respected New York art dealer William Acquavella.

“We met when he was about to build the Bellagio, and I told him the museum idea would backfire as something vulgar unless he brought in top-quality work,” Acquavella said. “Steve was a quick learner.” The Bellagio’s museum eventually showcased $300 million in art, including Impressionists, post-Impressionists and modern work. The art not only proved a big success for Wynn’s hotel, but became a personal passion for him.

Today, the beautiful Bellagio is somebody else’s oasis. Bloomberg Businessweek wrote that in 2000, deal-maker Kirk Kerkorian “snatched” Mirage Resorts and all of its assets away from Wynn in a more than $6 billion acquisition, but Wynn takes great exception to that “misinformation.” He says, “It’s not true that I lost Mirage, or that it was an unfriendly takeover. It was a friendly deal—I wanted to do it, provided he paid the price, $21 a share. I wanted to start over.”

Wynn says he talked to then-wife Elaine, after getting a late-night offer from Kerkorian (who calls Wynn “Stevie”) and countered her negativity about the proposed deal. “What am I supposed to do,” he tells me he said to Elaine, “spend the rest of my life being Mr. Bellagio, going to lunch, marching around the joint, doing interviews for magazines? I’m only 57. I’d like to see if I could do it twice. I could buy the Desert Inn, and with that golf course build a great joint there.”

What Makes Stevie Run

Now we’re getting to the heart of what makes Steve Wynn tick. Every casino he builds is bigger, grander than the last one, and he says that’s good business. His two Vegas towers, Wynn and Encore (which together have 4,750 rooms), make more money from non-casino assets like hotel rooms, upscale stores and liquor than they do from gaming. On top of that, he claims, they produce more revenue than any other casino in the history of Nevada.

As Wynn says, “You need to build a place that is a touristic destination that brings in people from outside the region. You don’t do that with a regional box of slots that caters to the local desire to gamble. You have to spend more, build beautiful rooms, spas, shops and meeting places—it’s the non-casino stuff that attracts them, not the slot machines.”

I asked Wynn if he’d accomplished everything he’d set out to do, and he makes plain that he’s got enough money—it’s not about that. “I always feel I have to do one more hotel, because maybe, just maybe, next time I’ll get it right. The pursuit of creating emotionally charged spaces is a continuing study in which I’m a student, never a master. I only see the mistakes when they’re done. I  would like to say one day I couldn’t have done any better than this, and I can’t say that today.”

So when Wynn built the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas in 2005 (on the site of Howard Hughes’ old Desert Inn), it upped the ante in every way.

In part, he wanted to erase the memory of a design mistake. As Wynn tells it—at great length—shortly before the Bellagio opened he noticed he’d messed up a golden opportunity to provide guests a view of his expensive lake from the staircase leading to his premier restaurants. “ ‘Schmuck!’ ” I said. “It was a terrible mistake—with a two-story window, you’d have been able to see the lake in Technicolor. I blew an opportunity from heaven, because I didn’t see it when I was drawing it. It [ticked] me off, so I  had to do it again.”

He got the view right at the Wynn, which is set back and divorced from the gaudiness of the Strip. The lounge is his vindication, providing great views of his 140-foot mountain and three-acre Lake of Dreams with its spectacular waterfall.

“This town already had enough slot machines to float a battleship,” Wynn said. “I looked at the property and said, ‘What is this, after Bellagio?’ I had to do something different that would persuade people to get on a plane and come here.”

Instead of long corridors and impersonal spaces, he created bright floral gardens, colorful carousels and intimate “neighborhoods.” Spaces are carefully programmed to meet the needs of guests using them, such as the five-star Wynn Tower Suites (with many VIP Asian guests) located right next to Red 8, a pan-Asian restaurant.

Aesthetics are all-important to Wynn—perhaps even more so because of his challenged vision. He was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa in 1971. His office and meeting space has an amazing terrace view looking out over the golf course and waterfall, and even if he can’t fully see it, visitors are mightily impressed. Beyond the balcony is what looks like a well-manicured suburbia, not downtown Las Vegas.

Wynn maintains that Kerkorian—who declined comment for this article—“didn’t care about Mirage—he wanted, was crazed for, Bellagio. To those kind of people, owning something beautiful is really terrific. They see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make money. But to a guy who does it as an exercise, it’s nothing but the last job. Who gives a damn; you can do it again; there’s nothing to it. The Bellagio was supposed to be the greatest hotel in the world, but they can’t get close in earnings to us here. I say this not to make a big deal about how smart I am; I’m just saying that my world view is shaped by being a designer-developer. And that was just the last hotel, and it could be better.”

A Service Culture

And the building is just the starting point. As Wynn describes it, “You start with hand-woven fabrics, chandeliers, onyx and marble, lighting—sure, that’s all important. You install all that stuff, but on opening day, that part is over. You’ve either built a place with warmth and intimacy for a lot of people, or you haven’t.”

Wynn said more than once that it’s people who make other people happy, and what he’s aiming for is having the 12,000 people he’s hired to run his hotel take personal responsibility for the customers that will start crossing the carpets when the doors are opened. “How do you get your employees, with no boss or supervisor watching, to feel it’s important to impress the guests on a personal level?” Wynn asks. “If you can do that, you win all bets, no matter what the building looks like.”

Sure, every casino has an employee of the month, but Wynn said those programs don’t work because they depend on supervisors for the nominating process, and prejudices and favoritism might get in the way. Instead, he supports what he calls “storytelling,” in which employees are encouraged to stand up in the decentralized meetings they have with local supervisors and recount a recent positive experience with a guest.

It’s basically self-reporting, Wynn said, and the resulting stories are circulated regularly throughout the casino through company channels. “When that happens,” Wynn said, “the staff is walking around looking for guests in trouble so they can have a story, too. I talk about this process openly, but for some reason nobody copies it.”

Christina Binkley, a Wall Street Journal columnist and author of Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas, told me “I’ve always felt that the key to [Wynn’s] success has been his ability to convince people to join him on his adventures, and really become a part of them. His team works themselves to the bone because they desperately want to please him. He is as generous in conveying his pleasure as he is his disappointment. And he can speak like an evangelist. No one walks away untouched.”

Looking East

The Wynn and Encore in Las Vegas are closely mirrored with two similar (and identically named) hotels in the Chinese enclave of Macau, also a big playground for Wynn’s occasional sparring partner, Sheldon Adelson. Wynn says that his Macau operations easily generate more than three times the revenue of Las Vegas. Even in Nevada, Wynn said that 52 percent of his business is Asian and 25 percent from Latin America. The era of the American high-roller is long over, as are the days when Texas oil tycoons swept in and took whole comped hotel floors.

While we were talking, Wynn made a call to one of his casino managers, who gave him the name of a Chinese customer who was currently betting big. “Anytime I pick up the phone, it’s Chinese, Taiwanese, Malaysians, Indonesians, Brazilians and Mexicans,” he said. Chinese customers fly in first-class, and Wynn sends a jet to pick them up in Los Angeles. He speaks admiringly of Adelson’s two 747s and a 767, also used to transport whales (a term, Wynn said, only the press uses. “We say ‘big customer.’”).

Originally a Portuguese colony, Macau was handed back to China in 1999. The enclave was opened to outside developers in 2002, and Wynn opened his first casino/hotel complex four years later. Gambling revenue in Macau totaled around $46 billion in 2013 after phenomenal growth, compared to the relatively stagnant Las Vegas Strip’s $6.5 billion.

“You can’t discuss Macau in any logical conversation,” Wynn says. “It will distort any reality. For the people who’ve been allowed to participate in Macau, it’s the greatest single business opportunity that’s been given in the last 100 years in any industry on earth. We’re just grateful to have been chosen.” Wynn Resorts is building a new 1,700-room hotel/casino there, the $4 billion flower-themed Wynn Palace, on track to open in 2016.

Macau caters to an emergent class of Chinese big spenders. “There’s no old money in China,” Wynn said. “There’s nothing over 40 years old in the whole country. It’s all first-generation wealth.” Wynn compares the phenomenon to the “greatest generation” Americans who came of age during the Depression and then went to war.

“This group of first-generation Americans, having known no wealth or privilege, had a pent-up demand for the good life,” Wynn said. “And after the war that meant a mink stole, a diamond ring, a Cadillac, and going to Las Vegas or the Copacabana in New York. They had a different attitude toward money, essentially, I made it myself, so I can make some more. If I want to [throw] it away, I will. It’s about the good life—everybody wants it.”

That easy money saw Las Vegas through its growth years, which were still underway when Wynn hit town in the 1960s. But now the business has changed, and Wynn Resorts has changed with it. And it’s not all about gaming. Wynn said his rows of luxury stores, including Christian Dior, Cartier, Manolo Blahnik and Louis Vuitton—all lined up like the most upscale mall you’ve ever seen—generate big returns, and mostly from Asian customers.

Macau has not been without bumps for Wynn. He’s in a bitter business dispute with Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada, his former business partner. Wynn once said he loved Okada “as much as any man that I’ve ever met in my life.” But they fell out over allegations that Okada had improperly influenced Asian gambling regulators. In turn, Okada, who was forced out of Wynn Resorts and then sued as a result, questioned the propriety of a $135 million donation Wynn made to the University of Macau. A U.S. shareholder suit over the college donation was dismissed in 2013, but the whole imbroglio is far from settled.

Next Steps

I asked Wynn what he’d do if—echoing Prohibition—casino gambling was outlawed in America and internationally. “I’d spend more time in my apartment in New York [a $70 million penthouse atop the Ritz Carlton on Central Park, with art from Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Picasso] and on my boat,” he said. “At that point I’d say thanks a lot, I’m going to make a full-time job out of amusing myself.”

A moment later, he reverses himself. Wynn says he may be 72, but he feels the same as he did when he was 32—and without deal-making, “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

News reports are full of plans for more casinos, many of them built by newly or potentially enfranchised Native American tribes, but Wynn shrugs it off. “I  thrive in competitive environments,” he said. “I’ve never been in a monopoly. If you think of my career, it’s marked by Atlantic City, Fremont Street [a downtown Las Vegas pedestrian mall and attraction], Macau and the Vegas Strip. I’ve never had difficulty dominating any market I’ve been in.”

So what’s next? Wynn nixed a Philadelphia proposal in 2013, but he is confident he’ll prevail in a pitched battle over the right to open a 19-story hotel with casino in eastern Massachusetts near Boston. It’s just the kind of challenge he relishes. Wynn’s competing against sentimental favorite Joe O’Donnell, a native son and principal owner of Suffolk Downs racetrack.

And if the Bay State doesn’t pan out, there’s always Wynn’s backyard. That beautiful golf course he sees from his terrace? It’s nice, but it only produces $5 million or $6 million a year in fees. Suppose he instead joined it with a few adjacent properties and created one huge convention center with 7 million square feet right in the heart of Vegas? “So far we haven’t wanted to sacrifice this beautiful suburban environment, but it’s one of the options we have,” Wynn said. “A hotel is $2 billion, but what I’m talking about could be $400 to $500 million to build and earn an additional $60 million to $80 million annually in Las Vegas. I could have exhibit halls on the lake, and you could take a boat from this hotel.”

It’s a vision worthy of Walt Disney, the name his friend Michael Milken frequently invokes in describing Wynn. “Sure, why not?” Wynn says now. “Anyone with imagination thinks of crazy stuff like that, and how much competition would that give convention cities like Orlando and Chicago?”

Most of Steve Wynn’s “crazy” ideas have defied the norm, but his special gifts are passion and drive, and he brings enough people along with him—from the high rollers to the valet parking attendant—to make them a success.

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