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Ex-MGM chief Jim Murren looks back on casino career

Updated May 23, 2020 - 9:50 am

Jim Murren didn’t think he’d like Las Vegas much when he left “a pretty good gig on Wall Street” and took a pay cut to join MGM Resorts International as its chief financial officer in 1998.

“I thought I would be out in Las Vegas for six months, maybe a year,” Murren said in a recent interview. “My wife (Heather) and I had a nice apartment off of Central Park and a farm in Connecticut, a 2-year-old and an infant, and she was making more money than I was, and she ran global consumer product research for Merrill Lynch. We just couldn’t believe how fortunate we were.”

But they decided it could be an adventure to move to Las Vegas, and so they did.

Now, more than 22 years later, Murren has no regrets about the move. The former CEO also has no current connection to Nevada’s largest private-sector employer, having turned the reins over to Bill Hornbuckle, who temporarily is MGM’s top executive.

After stepping down from MGM in February, Murren was tapped to guide Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force. Murren said he had planned to leave the company sometime this year, but the onset of the coronavirus accelerated his plans.

The relationships Murren developed in the Middle East, Macao and Japan while MGM’s CEO made him a logical choice to lead the governor’s task force, which has the daunting undertaking of procuring supplies from all over the world for tiny Nevada while competing with other states, countries and the federal government.

Murren said he had the benefit of being married to someone who sits on the Johns Hopkins board of directors. He said they’d have conversations about whether what was happening in Macao earlier this year could happen in the United States.

“It seemed like every day was a series of conflicting mountains of information, and we kind of dissect whether this was localized, whether it was containable, whether it was going to be broad based,” he said. “And what it has laid bare is how ill-prepared we are as a planet, and certainly here in the United States, to effectively confront a major health crisis.”

Expanding MGM

Murren’s tenure as MGM chairman and CEO began in 2008, and he was the architect of an estimated $15 billion in expansions for the company, including the acquisition of Primadonna Resort and Casino in 1998, Mirage Resorts in 2000, and the Mandalay Resort Group in 2005.

With the help of his best friend, MGM Chief Financial Officer Corey Sanders, Murren pushed the right buttons to expand MGM in Detroit, suburban Washington D.C. and in western Massachusetts, adding to the company’s assets in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Mississippi.

But nothing was as gratifying to Murren as the day 20 years ago when MGM was given regulatory approval to buy Steve Wynn’s Mirage Resorts Inc., for $4.4 billion, a day he remembers vividly. What he remembers most was sitting with his MGM mentors, the builder of MGM, Kirk Kerkorian, and former CEO Terry Lanni before the Gaming Control Board.

“And so, we go through the whole meeting, and then it’s the open comment period where anyone in the public could comment on the deal. And the first gentleman, a very tall, African-American man (Las Vegan Stanley Washington) stood up to the microphone and said, ‘Wow, this sounds pretty good. Sounds like a good transaction. But Mr. Lanni, can you tell me what you’re doing for the African-American community?’ And Terry stood up and said, ‘Well, sir, in all honesty, I don’t know. But whatever we’re doing, it’s not enough.’ And that deal closed in May of 2000. And that was the day that Terry started a diversity program at MGM, which was the first in the industry. That’s the day that he brought us together and said, ‘Go find out how we could do diversity training in our company.’ ”

‘What would Kirk do?’

Since then, the start of MGM’s acclaimed diversity program has come full circle.

The company contracted with a Reno firm called Guardian Quest that had two principals. One of them was Ondra Berry. He’s now the adjutant general of the Nevada National Guard, working with Sisolak on his “Roadmap to Recovery.”

“When Ondra was at Guardian Quest, we became so taken by him and I hired Ondra Berry, Gen. Berry,” Murren said. “And he worked for MGM for many years before he went back to the Guard doing what he’s doing now.”

The experience also inspired Murren, in later years, to ask his own management team, “What would Kirk do?” when confronted with a confounding issue.

Perhaps nothing has been as confounding as the coronavirus crisis. MGM’s net revenues decreased 29 percent in the first quarter compared to the prior year, primarily because of the suspension of the company’s domestic and Macao casino operations. The company is burning about $270 million during each month that its domestic properties remain closed and has laid off or furloughed 63,000 workers.

It’s a problem that likely would have challenged even Kerkorian.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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