executive at one of the world's largest gaming companies, MGM Resorts
International, isn't one for playing the tables, although he does speculate on work from up-and-coming artists.
gamble anymore. I feel like I do plenty of gambling as a CEO. I try to make
educated bets," admits James Murren, the former Wall Street analyst who
has been chairman and CEO of the Paradise, Nev.-based casino and hospitality giant
since December 2008. "But when I did play table games, it was exclusively
blackjack. I'm a pretty numbers-oriented person. I would say that I'm an
average to slightly above average player, nothing better than that."
the vantage point of MGM Resorts investors, the numbers are trending in
appears on track to generate more than $10 billion in revenue this year. Its
string of recent losses – largely related to budget overruns for the massive CityCenter development in Las Vegas – is shrinking,
and it is chipping away at $13 billion in long-term debt. Name pretty much any
exclusive Vegas Strip resort and you discover it's part of the MGM portfolio:
Bellagio, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand and Mirage. The company owns half of
one of the few successful Atlantic City properties, the Borgata, and it hopes
to pioneer new markets in Springfield, Mass., and Prince George's County,
Maryland. Overseas, it has opened a property in China and has five more under
development there. There are also projects under way in the Middle East, North
Africa and India.
to be in markets where we can leverage what to be our strengths: driving
business back and forth to existing properties," Murren says. "Where
we can, if we do our jobs correctly, build a leading market share."
In his previous
job as MGM's CFO, Murren was instrumental in engineering the $15 billion string
of acquisitions that turned MGM into the mammoth company it is today. His
experience on Wall Street – and observations during the Mirage hotel merger
talks in 2000 – were also the inspiration for the gaming industry's first formal
diversity programs and inclusion program. Since 2001, MGM Resorts has spent a
cumulative $3 billion with minority, women-owned, veteran-owned and otherwise
disadvantaged enterprise that butt up against old boys networks. It wasn't
really a hard sell to get management thinking this way.
"The board realizes that we are a people-oriented
business," he explains. "If our employees are engaged and feel good
about themselves, they will provide better guest service, the customer will be
better engaged with our properties, and there should be a positive revenue
impact. There should also be a cost savings, ultimately, through higher
employee retention, lower absenteeism, lower turnover in general. As an
ex-analyst, I can model up anything you want me to model up, but the reality is
it is very subjective and we just had to swing for the fence."
It also helps
to have someone like Alexis Herman, who was U.S. Labor Secretary under
President Bill Clinton, lead your board's corporate social responsibility
It was Herman who helped champion the multi-million-dollar
investment in MGM's latest diversity initiative, a 90-minute musical production
called "Inspiring Our World" that Murren describes as equal parts
concert, love fest and revival meeting. More than 50,000 of the company's
62,000 employees have seen the show, which is meant to highlight MGM's
dependence on diversity. Even though there's only one woman who holds a C-suite
position (two more are on the board), roughly 43 percent of those in supervisory
roles are women and 38 percent are minorities.
"There are some things you do, and I have many
examples, where there is a very black and white return on investment,"
Murren says. "There are some things I'm willing to do that have a
projected return, but harder to quantify. And there are some things you do, you
just do it. You just won't be able to measure it during that investable period
of time, in some cases. But you know intuitively you should do it."
Murren, 52, may
be forgiven for sounding preachy. As a boy in Fairfield, Conn., his household was
regularly filled with priests who visited for theological debates with his
father, who studied for three years at a Jesuit seminary before switching career
paths to become a lawyer. "I grew up with an environment of service, and
that became an important part of my life growing up," he recalls.
His mother, a
watercolor artist, insisted that each of her four children take up their own
unique arts-related hobby. Since Murren was tone-deaf, piano lessons were out
of the question, and he took up oil painting by default. He actually planned a
career in architecture before winding up on Wall Street. Although Murren hasn't
picked up his own brush in 20 years – choosing to spend his leisure time hiking
or coaching baseball – he gravitates toward post-Impressionist contemporary
artists who convey their messages with bold, heavy strokes and lots of pigment.
artist is James Turrell, whom Murren commissioned to build a
"skyspace" in the front yard of his home. From inside the chamber,
you can view the Nevada sky or lights on the Las Vegas Strip. Lights are
synchronized to play off the ambient light provided by nature. He is also a fan
of the Vietnam Memorial sculptor Maya Lin. Her Colorado River sculpture, made
out of recycled silver, hangs where it can remind Murren and others of Las
Vegas' delicate relationship with nature.
"We live in the desert. The water source of our entire
livelihood, the Colorado River, feeds our valley, into Lake Mead: 30 million
people depend on the Colorado River for its very existence. Yet, I don't know
how else to say it, people have had a belligerent attitude toward that,"
Murren says with conviction.
While one questions whether or not any luxury resort can really be called green, here too,
MGM Resorts is making a serious investment. Over the past five years, it has
saved approximately 2.5 billion gallons of water by rethinking the landscaping
and irrigation needs at its properties and adopting more efficient plumbing
fixtures as a standard business practice. So far, 15 resorts have earned a Green
Key eco-rating, more than
for any other hospitality company. The 18 million square-foot CityCenter is
Murren's biggest attempt yet to push the envelope when it comes to green
building practices. Unfortunately, the property opened at the height of the
recession. It cost more than anticipated and has only recently pushed into the
black. "We were really bleeding edge," he says matter-of-factly.
Still, Murren feels it is his responsibility to take action like
this, and to do so publicly. In that way, he differs from his role model: MGM
founder and airline mogul Kirk Kerkorian, who has given away an estimated $1.5
"He doesn't want to be recognized, doesn't look for
fanfare or recognition, he just does it because he knows it's the right thing
to do," Murren explains. "I always had felt that way, but along the
way, I realized that there is an added responsibility that leaders have to
lead: that people are inherently good, in many cases they are not educated as
well as they would like to be on different topics or don't know how to approach
a challenge that they see as an obvious one. So, at this company, we have
evolved the way that we have directed funds and the way that we have articulated
what we are doing to be more visible and more educational. Because it is
incredibly valuable to give money, no doubt, but it's as valuable, if not
moreso, to give of your intellectual capital, your leadership, your influence,
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com