If being in Las Vegas feels like an escape from reality, like a warp hole with no end in sight to the lights, glitz, and gambling, then Steve Wynn has succeeded. Inspired by family trips to Disneyland and the Fountainebleau Miami Beach in the 1950s, the Tsar of Las Vegas has built his own fantastical empire in Sin City, among towering edifices that blur the line between reality and fantasy.
“The idea of a world that was more perfect, more idyllic than the outside world struck me as a really cool thing,” says the 68-year-old billionaire with a net worth of about $1.6 billion. When the Fountainebleau opened in 1954, it was the greatest destination on earth; visitors from all over came to the resort during the winters. And Disneyland was its younger version. “The Fountainebleau and Disneyland moved my father, mother, and I. Ben Novack and Walt Disney both created these emotional experiences that you can live in, wrap yourself in. My entrepreneurial spirit was very much tied to the notion of creating a place that was much better than the outside world. And that’s what I wanted to do—to build places like that.”
Indeed, the hotelier and casino king is the expert of inspiring awe. He arguably has made more impact on the Vegas skyline than anyone, starting with a small stake in the Frontier Hotel and Casino operation when he first arrived in Las Vegas and then with the Golden Nugget in the mid ‘70s, which he revamped and expanded. But Wynn struck gold when he revolutionized the hotel world and revitalized the Las Vegas Strip with The Mirage in 1989, Treasure Island in 1993, and Bellagio in 1998. Then when Vegas became too trite again, Wynn turned another corner and wowed the world with Wynn Las Vegas in 2005. And when the economic downturn halted spending nationwide, Wynn played the wild card and opened Encore a few days before Christmas in 2008.
The casino resort tycoon who keeps turning the heat up in Las Vegas has also turned on the heat in Washington recently when discussing the future of the Wynn Empire: “Asia,” he says. With Wynn and Encore in Macau and a third forthcoming hotel in China, Wynn proclaimed on-air, “Macau has been steady. The shocking, unexpected government is the one in Washington.” Regardless of where the company will expand, one thing is certain—everything Steve Wynn touches turns to gold. He’s recently had extreme luck in his personal life, as he’s newly engaged to Andrea Hissom. He reserved a private dining room at Sinatra in his beautiful Encore resort, and popped the question. Hissom was presented with a heart-shaped diamond ring, which we’re guessing is only a symbolic token of Wynn’s affection.
From Bingo to Boomtown Luster
The modern-day Renaissance man studied cultural anthropology and English literature at the University of Pennsylvania, not business or real estate. Wynn’s mentor growing up was his high school English teacher, David Edwards, who taught him dangling modifiers and antecedent pronoun agreements, not entrepreneurship. His exposure to the casino industry was merely a weekend job at his father’s bingo operation in Maryland. “My weekly allowance,” he says.
However, Wynn says he always had an eye for detail. “I always had a feeling about space and color and decorating. My mother was an interior decorator, and color coordination, fabrics, and textures were things that were discussed around the house.”
Sixty days before Wynn graduated from the Ivy League, his father died of complications from open heart surgery, leaving $350,000 of debt. “My father had relieved me from running the bingo my last semester of college, because I was getting ready to go to law school,” Wynn says. “I had no idea what shape the bingo was in, but I came back and said I’d fix it. It took me 10 months to get the money back.”
Wynn decided he wanted to be a real estate developer and had his sights on 27 acres of raw real estate land next to the Baltimore International Airport, with the hopes of turning it into an industrial park. “But I didn’t have $1 million to buy it,” he says. “I had $20,000.” Through contacts, the 23-year-old reached the billionaire real estate and insurance tycoon John D. MacArthur. “Here I was in the presence of this 72-year-old famous man, who had an unfiltered cigarette hanging out of his mouth, listening to my pitch,” Wynn precisely recalls. “I offered him half the property if he lent me $1 million. He said no but asked for my card.”
Two weeks later, MacArthur called, asked Wynn to meet him at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and offered him the opportunity to be an investor of the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. In 1967, Wynn and his wife, Elaine, moved to Sin City. “That was the beginning for me,” Wynn says. “With my 3 percent interest, I was the slot manager, vice president of the company, and assistant credit manager.”
He was sent to the Bally Gaming factory in Chicago for two weeks to learn about slots. “I was about as interested in this stuff as I was about jumping off the roof,” he cracks. Instead, 23-year-old Wynn made his first hire. He stole the chief of production from Bally Gaming that first day and offered him a job (and a higher salary) to become the head of slot mechanics at The Frontier.
“I did not stay to learn about the slot machines,” Wynn says of that day in Chicago. “Money comes in one end and out the other. That’s what I know about. The business is to get people to come to your place.”