Station Casinos' new chief operating officer, Kevin Kelley, never expected the call.
He spent 10 years with Station Casinos, helping the company grow from a single-property venture into a company with nine hotel-casinos. But then the executive departed to cut his operational teeth at the Hard Rock Hotel in 2003.
After 31/2 years running that niche property, Kelley was settling into what he viewed as a long career working for the Las Vegas Sands Corp. in Macau when the phone rang.
"I was thinking when I went to Macau that I was going to be there for quite some time," said Kelley, who moved there a year ago to be senior vice president overseeing two Las Vegas Sands properties with a dozen more in the growth pipeline.
"I was really excited about the long-term prospects of the development there. Out to the horizon there's a huge, huge opportunity there."
Kelly and his family, who moved to Macau in June, were settling in for the long haul when Stations Chief Operating Officer William Warner resigned and the company's founding family began looking for someone they trusted and who already knew the operations.
"I was really pretty surprised when I got a call from (Chairman and Chief Executive Officer) Frank (Fertitta III) and (President) Lorenzo (Fertitta)," he said. "They asked me if I was interested in coming back to the company."
Question: Did you ever think you would return to Station Casinos?
Answer: I felt like that once I had left, I had set a course for myself so I really was surprised when I got the call. I had spoken with the brothers on many, many occasions, but more as friends than as business colleagues.
Never contemplating that I would be asked to take a leadership role in the company. When the call came it was very refreshing.
Question: Why did you leave Station Casinos in the first place?
Answer: I had high career aspirations and really wanted to grow. I didn't think, over the next few years, that I would have the opportunity to grow to near the level of responsibility that I would have been able to.
Thus, when the opportunity to become the chief operating officer of the Hard Rock came available, I jumped at it because I thought it would be a great career path and a great steppingstone for higher aspirations.
Question: How was it to return to the company?
Answer: It feels like a pair of really comfortable jeans. It feels really good to come back to Station Casinos because the company's culture hasn't changed in, well, since Mr. Fertitta founded it back in the '70s. Those values that drive the culture here are very much aligned with my own personal core values.
Question: Station Casinos just went private with a $5.4 billion management-led buyout. Was there any concern about returning with a private-equity firm controlling most of the interest in the company?
Answer: Not knowing the relationship between Colony Capital and Frank and Lorenzo, that would be a concern for anybody.
The good news is that from a day-to-day standpoint there's not much difference from how the company's being run today as opposed to 10 years ago. Frank has got both hands firmly on the wheel. If it were a different relationship, with Colony having a more active day-to-day role, I might have reconsidered.
Question: When you left Station Casinos you were president of westside operations, overseeing many properties. At the Hard Rock Hotel, it was only one property. Why did you leave?
Answer: I was really looking to become the leader of a company and test my mettle. There was always a lot of controversy around the Hard Rock and how difficult it was to work with (owner) Peter Morton.
I knew that if I wanted to become the chief operating officer of a major company I was going to have to get out there and prove to the world that I could do it. The Hard Rock is a great place because there's lots of moving pieces that really test you as a businessman. I saw this as a huge opportunity to cut my teeth and prepare myself for greater responsibilities.
Question: Does that take a certain skill set to deal with those strong personalities such as Sheldon Adelson, Steve Wynn, Peter Morton and the Fertittas?
Answer: It's basically the same dynamic. These are very driven people who have very, very high standards. Once a guy like myself understands what those standards are and what the expectations are, it's easy to get along. Where I have been successful is that I listen, and I understand what the expectations of what each respective owner is, It's a great guide for me. Then I shape our operations around the philosophies these owners have.
Question: How did you get interested in the gambling industry?
Answer: I moved to Las Vegas in 1971, when I was 14, with my dad when the Hilton Corp. bought the International and Flamingo from (Kirk) Kerkorian.
My first job in the industry was a pool boy at the Flamingo when I was 15. That kind of spawned a love. It was exciting, fun, high-energy. I just fell in love with the business and that is where I've been ever since.
Question: Living in Las Vegas most of your life, was it a concern to uproot yourself and your family and move to Asia for what you thought would be the foreseeable future?
Answer: I like adventure and love challenges. Back in my former days when I was with Hilton and Mirage Resorts in the international casino marketing world I spent time in Asia.
I really looked at it as if was going to be a great adventure.
Question: Were you concerned that you or your family would get over there and become homesick?
Answer: I have the best wife in the whole world; she supports me wholeheartedly. She saw this as a great opportunity to help elevate my career and let her explore and expand in this new culture.
When you get a lot of expatriate executives with assignments in Asia you look at it in one of two ways. You can count the days until your assignment is up and then go home.
Or you can say, "I'm really going to take advantage of this opportunity and immerse myself in the business opportunities and the cultural diversity opportunities that can help me and my family grow."
We looked at it like a great adventure. (We said to ourselves) we're going to learn a lot, we're going to grow from it and really take advantage of all the things that are available to use there.
Question: Do you think you would be COO of Station Casinos if you had stayed with the company?
Answer: Leaving the company gave me opportunities to grow in directions that I would have never have had the opportunity to do if I'd stayed. Was there the opportunity to become COO if I had stayed? Possibly.
But I wouldn't have enjoyed the experiences I had at the Hard Rock and at Las Vegas Sands that have broadened me as a leader, broadened me as a businessman that I think have added greater value when I came back, now in the role of COO.
Contact reporter Arnold M. Knightly at email@example.com or (702) 477-3893.