Terry Lanni never backed away from a debate.
In November 2007, Lanni, chairman and chief executive officer of MGM Mirage Corp., walked into a Bellagio ballroom to address the annual luncheon of the Nevada Development Authority. He told more than 800 business leaders they needed to pay higher taxes.
Lanni was one of the few gaming leaders willing to step forward at the time to advocate a broad-based Nevada business tax.
Needless to say, Lanni's remarks were met mostly with silence.
When told afterward he received applause only five times during the speech, Lanni laughed.
"That many?" he asked.
Lanni, 68, who died Thursday night at his home in Southern California after a two-year fight with cancer, was willing to buck any gaming industry trend.
As president of Caesars World, Lanni announced the company would spend $100 million to build a shopping mall on vacant land next to Caesars Palace, rather than expanding the casino. The move was not well-received in the industry.
A few years later, when the Forum Shops at Caesars became the nation's most lucrative retail mall, other casinos quickly added high-end shopping destinations.
"Terry was an extraordinary leader for our company and our industry," MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO Jim Murren told employees in an email Friday. "His thoughtful leadership on important issues, from expanding the gaming industry's reach internationally to establishing the industry's first formal diversity and inclusion program will forever mark his place in history."
Lanni's family -- his wife, Debbie, and sons, Sean and Patrick -- released a statement Friday expressing their "deep appreciation" for the outpouring of tributes.
"He was a very humble man and would have found all the attention embarrassing," they wrote. "At the end, he was very peaceful and surrounded by those he loved the most: his family."
ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND TRIBUTES
Lanni's career was marked by the key role he played in directing the development and growth of two gaming industry giants.
He oversaw the expansion of Caesars World over an 18-year tenure, including 14 years as president, and directed the company's move into Atlantic City.
He joined what was then MGM Grand Inc. as president, chief executive officer and a board director in June 1995. He steered the company's massive growth over a 13-year period, from one casino (the MGM Grand Las Vegas) into a gaming conglomerate with 17 resorts in Nevada, Mississippi and Michigan and 50 percent partnerships in four other properties in Nevada, New Jersey, Illinois and Macau.
He also established MGM's presence in the worldwide luxury hotel business and oversaw two major acquisitions : the $6.4 billion purchase of Mirage Resorts in 2000 and the $7.9 billion buyout of the Mandalay Resort Group in 2005.
"There is virtually no one that I've respected more than Terry Lanni," said MGM Resorts' founder and largest shareholder, Kirk Kerkorian. "His integrity, professionalism and generosity were second to none. He was a valued and trusted friend and an invaluable colleague."
Word of Lanni's passing brought tributes from throughout the gaming industry.
Caesars Entertainment Chairman Gary Loveman said Lanni's leadership came at a critical time in the industry's development.
"I had great regard for Terry and especially appreciated his sophisticated capacity to work closely on issues that affected our industry while competing vigorously in the marketplace," Loveman said. "I enjoyed every chance I had to be with him. Terry was an accomplished student of political history, with a special taste for Churchill, and would weave Churchillian quotes, often colorful ones, into his remarks."
Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson said Lanni was one of gaming's "most important and respected" leaders. "I greatly admired his commitment to the industry and the care he showed for his extended MGM family," Adelson said.
Wynn Resorts Ltd. Chairman Steve Wynn called Lanni a longtime business colleague, a friend, and a "lovely man, taken from us far too soon."
Boyd Gaming CEO Keith Smith said Lanni, "was a terrific ambassador for gaming, a great business partner, and a tireless advocate for Las Vegas."
Station Casinos CEO Frank Fertitta III said Lanni always supported charitable causes within the community.
"He was an all-around classy guy who was respected and well-liked by everyone who knew him," Fertitta said.
Lanni is credited with implementing MGM Resort's highly regarded corporate diversity efforts that began after community leaders complained the company wasn't doing enough to promote minorities. The program is now more than 10 years old.
"Terry's leadership in pioneering the first diversity and inclusion initiative in our industry was a bold and courageous move at a time when few realized the tremendous importance of all facets of diversity in the globalization of our industry and the world economy," Murren said. "Terry's leadership of our company's diversity initiative was a true reflection of his personal values and his personality."
Lanni was first diagnosed with cancer in October 2009, nearly a year after he retired. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy treatments. He was recently placed on hospice care.
After turning over the reins of the company to Murren in November 2008, Lanni largely stayed out of the picture. His exit came as MGM was dealing with corporate financing matters stemming from the melting economy and a debt load of more than $13 billion.
His departure was also marred by revelations that he had not earned an MBA in finance from the University of Southern California, as had been reported in his corporate biography dating to 1982, when he was an executive with Caesars World.
Company officials and others denied the degree flap had any bearing on Lanni's retirement.
Lanni decided not to keep his seat on MGM's board of directors, and also resigned from the board of homebuilder KB Homes.
Lanni maintained a house in Las Vegas but spent most of his time in Southern California. He did not attend the opening of MGM Resort's $8.5 billion CityCenter development in December 2009, which began construction and development during the later part of his tenure with the company.
NAMED TO NATIONAL GAMING PANEL
In 1996, then-Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., appointed Lanni to the nine-person National Gambling Study Impact Commission, which spent two years looking at all facets of legal and illegal gaming. He spent much of his time on the panel defending the heavily regulated casino industry from anti-gambling foes, and was credited with balancing the panel's final recommendations.
Lanni was also one of the founders of the American Gaming Association, the industry's Washington D.C.-based lobbying organization. Association President Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. said Lanni was, "without question one of the best and most decent people to ever work in the gaming industry. Terry genuinely cared about bringing the industry together to tackle its challenges."
Gov. Brian Sandoval said Lanni's influence went beyond gaming. "His dedication to public education, diversity, and community service will forever place him among the finest corporate citizens in our state's history," he said.
Before joining the gaming industry, Lanni worked for President Gerald Ford as an advance person covering the Western United States during the 1976 presidential campaign. Lanni was active in Republican Party politics throughout his gaming industry career.
Lanni is also credited with bringing executives from other businesses into the gaming industry.
Former Las Vegas Sands President Bill Weidner was an executive with the Marriott Hotel chain in 1979 when Lanni hired him to oversee hotel operations at Caesars Atlantic City. Another executive Lanni helped lure into gaming was Murren, an analyst with Deutsche Bank before he became the company's chief financial officer. Lanni named Murren as MGM Resorts chief operating officer 14 months before his retirement, setting up a plan of corporate succession.
Murren said two memorials would be scheduled, one in Lanni's hometown, of Pasadena, Calif., and a second in Las Vegas.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at email@example.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.