A conversation with the man responsible for modern-day Vegas.

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Steve Wynn was the oldest child of Mike and Zelma Wynn. His father, a bingoparlor operator, took a 10-year-old Steve to Las Vegas to open a new venture above the Silver Slipper casino. The business failed quickly, muscled out by a heftier competitor called the Golden Nugget. The trip wasn’t lost on young Steve Wynn, though.

Wynn went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania with aspirations of becoming a doctor, took business classes at Wharton, and worked in his father’s D.C. bingo parlor on Sundays. Mike Wynn’s sudden death devastated his son, who dropped his own plans and took over his father’s business.

That’s when Vegas came calling. Wynn made his first investment in the Frontier, a new resort on the Strip, in 1967. By 1973, at the age of 31, he owned 400,000 shares and was elected president and chairman of the Golden Nugget, the same establishment that had crushed his father’s short-lived attempt to get a foothold in Vegas years earlier.

For Wynn, Vegas was about connections, risk, playing big, and thinking beyond the gambling business to the much larger game of resorts and destinations. He built for the child in everyone with an uncanny feel for the next big thing. In the decades since Wynn has been the major player, Vegas has developed its scope from casinos and entertainment to being a destination with some of the best restaurants, spectacles, nightclubs, and shopping in the world. And Wynn has been at the forefront of all these expansions. His prescient investments in Macao casinos right before the crash of 2008 helped steer Las Vegas through the tough years that followed.

Wynn has said, “Being visionary just means you know where the market wants to go five minutes before the next guy.” Those five minutes have, in large part, created the Vegas we know today.

Jack Sheehan interviews the man who can see the future.

You’ve been shaping the Las Vegas landscape for 40 years. Do you ever take the time to reflect on what has happened here?

Last night I was showing part of the hotel [Wynn Las Vegas] to some people, and I went up in the lift in the mountain at the Lake of Dreams. Then I immediately went down underwater in the lighting booth, under the showroom of Le Rêve, to see what was going on there. I had never done that before. I started to observe the miraculous things that are done to pull this all off, and the divers and how busy they were while the show was on. It dawned on me what incredible and complicated places these are that we’ve designed and built.

I’m not one to reflect for long on that, though. I love the process that created these places, and that’s all I care about. Once a property or challenge is completed, I’m always anxious to move on to the next one. On those occasions when I’m riding down the Strip, I will sometimes lament how ugly some of the places are, and I’m disappointed when someone does a bad job with a property. Without picking on anyone, I’ve been more disappointed through the years with the competitors and their lack of imagination and taste than I’ve been impressed with my own work.

What’s your read on the Las Vegas economy as we begin 2016?

Let me ask you the same question I ask my board of directors when we’re meeting: Do you think there’s any doubt that for the next 10 or 20 years Las Vegas will be a major destination, with its 160,000 hotel rooms and its infrastructure?

I think that’s a safe bet.

My approach to solving problems and answering complicated questions is to back up until I get to a simple truth that there’s no doubt about. Then I go forward one step at a time.

Now, we know why people come to Las Vegas, don’t we? They come to live large, to do something they can’t do at home. To have a wild experience, like kids going to Disneyland. That’s a simple truth. We know historically that the town has always gone to the showmen—whoever gave the people what they wanted has been a winner here. So the town goes to the showmen, people come here to live big, and they will stay in that frame of mind as we go forward. The answer to the question is that the economy of Las Vegas will remain as it’s always been—either very strong, weak, or troubled, but the best joints in town will make whatever money is left. This is a real safe place to go forward if you know your business and have the capital. But be aware that this is no
place for short money.

You’ve spoken often about the sadness of losing your father when you were just 21, and how that redirected the course of your life. I imagine you reflect often about what it would mean for him to see the success you’ve enjoyed.

Both my parents were raised in single-parent households. My mother, Zelma, never really knew her father much, and my father’s mother died when he was a year old, in the influenza epidemic. While neither of my parents had a bad childhood, you could say they were underprivileged.

When I was 10 years old, my father brought me to Las Vegas with him for two weeks, and his father, Jake Weinberg, came over to see his son and grandson. As an old vaudevillian, Jake danced with some of the showgirls that were performing in the Minsky Revue on top of the Silver Slipper casino. My father recorded the dancing with a 16-millimeter Bell & Howell camera. It was a riot.
My old man had, years earlier, at age 18, wanted to get a job with Coca-Cola, as a sign painter, but they wouldn’t hire Jews during the Depression. So he used the name of Ed Wynn, a popular comedian who was Keenan Wynn’s father. Eventually, he legally changed our last name to Wynn.

With the new name, he got the job with Coca-Cola, making $128 a week working in the morning painting signs for billboards, and at night painting signs for the Revere, Massachusetts, bingo parlor, which is how he got into the bingo business.

Years later, our company is number two on the cover of Fortune magazine as a Most Admired company in America, behind Coca-Cola. At the awards event in Atlanta—the CEO Summit—they were all there: Microsoft, Warren Buffett, Ralph Larsen of Johnson & Johnson, all those people. I met the CEO of Coke, a Cuban immigrant named Roberto Goizueta, and he had a thick Cuban accent, like Al Pacino in Scarface . I told him the story of my father working as a sign painter for Coca-Cola. Until he died of cancer, Roberto remained my friend.

We’ve always served Coke products at Wynn, and last year, to honor us, on 24,000 bottles of Classic Coke they printed wynn las vegas—10th anniversary.

Can you imagine, to a Depression kid from Revere, Massachusetts, if I could show my father a Coke bottle with his name on it, what a juxtaposition of fate that would be? You talk about one kick in the ass; that would take the cake. Not the private jets or the hotels or the paintings or the money or all that stuff—if my old man could see his name on a Coke bottle, I can’t imagine what could top that.

When you speak to bright young people and they ask you the inevitable questions about achieving success or being entrepreneurial, what do you tell them?

I’ve noticed that it’s almost impossible to anoint anybody, as much as you wish you could. That drive—that desire to accomplish something, and being dissatisfied with the status quo, having your eyes on something that you want to do and figuring out a thousand different ways to break the code or find the door in when all the rest are locked—that seems to be a personality trait that is inherent in the person. Incidentally, when I meet a young person who has that trait, it stands out like a sore thumb. Now, there is an endless list of kids who want to be entrepreneurial, but whether they have it or not is something that’s probably already been decided.

The biggest revelation I can share with these people, which applies to almost every business, is that I’ve found that money alone doesn’t make ordinary people behave in extraordinary ways, which is what leadership is about. The secret of real, unbelievable performance is to somehow equate people’s enhanced self-esteem to something that happens on the job. It’s demonstrating to employees that working at the company means they belong to a club that’s hard to join, that it’s a point of pride. Everybody likes being number one.

Condé Nast Traveler informed us recently that, for the ninth year in a row, their readers’ poll selected the Wynn as the best hotel in Las Vegas. That’s real important to my employees, because our people who work here love the idea that this is the best place. And that attracts the kind of people who care about stuff like that, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I believe it was 1982, in Atlantic City, that I gave new cars to all 377 of my supervisors. This was at a time when they were laying off workers all over town, and every worker in the city was worried about losing his job. Obviously, the people who got the cars were thrilled, but what knocked me out was that our employees who worked for the 377 supervisors were just as thrilled, because it meant there weren’t going to be any layoffs, and that the Golden Nugget of Atlantic City was successful and safe, not like the other joints that were struggling. They started bragging to their friends about it: Did you hear that Steve Wynn bought new cars for all his supervisors? It harnessed thermonuclear power in the human resources area, and that didn’t just strengthen the company, it
created a culture. I couldn’t believe the impact of that gesture on the rest of the employees. It caused them to stick their chests out. I thought, Holy smokes!

You’re 73, and have accomplished so much. Is there anything you’d put at the top of your bucket list?

I always wanted to meet Nelson Mandela, and I have friends who knew him, but I didn’t get to meet Mandela. I always thought he was a spectacular character.

What excites me the most is working on new projects. I spent all day yesterday, and I’m going to spend time today, working on some of these. Life is good. I’m having the time of my life with [my wife] Andrea; we just giggle throughout the day.

When I’m working on these projects, I feel like a student. I’ve never felt like a master. I’m always thinking, If I just bear down more, I’ ll find something new and terrific that will make people go, “Wow!” Something as simplistic as that keeps me totally jazzed. I’m sure you know what I mean. As a writer working alone, you’re looking for a perfect expression, the perfect description of an idea or a mood, and you find something that’s just OK, but it’s not perfect. Then you keep working and working, and then you get that tremendous click when you get it right. When that happens, it’s such a lift. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, that’s the feeling we’re all looking for.