Hilton Hotels leader and philanthropist Barron Hilton played an influential role in Las Vegas gaming history, helping to bring “real legitimacy” to the industry on Wall Street, a retired company executive said Saturday.
Barron Hilton died Thursday at age 91 of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation announced Friday.
“His father started the hotel business, but the gaming part of the company was something that Barron really took ownership of and really felt was his,” said Nashville-area resident Marc Grossman, a vice president for Hilton Hotels Corp. from 1992 until he retired in 2007.
The company’s presence in Nevada grew under Barron Hilton’s watch, and he spent a lot of time in the state, Grossman said.
He also spent a lot of time in the state. “Barron had this real affinity for Nevada,” Grossman said.
Barron Hilton followed in the footsteps of his father by becoming chairman, president and chief executive officer of Hilton Hotels Corp., in 1966. He spent 30 years as the company’s leader, until retiring in 1996. He was also an original club owner in the American Football League.
“He was a great and very generous man,” said David Siegel, owner of the Westgate, formerly known as Las Vegas Hilton. “I am proud to own his famous hotel.”
Siegel recalled going to a Victor Awards event 15 years ago at the Las Vegas Hilton and was irritated when there was only one clerk checking in 30 people at 1 a.m.
“I told my wife when I saw Barron Hilton at the event that I was going to tell him that he runs a lousy hotel,” he said.
But then Barron Hilton got on stage and donated $250,000 to a children’s charity. “I kept my mouth shut,” Siegel said. “How could I insult a man that generous?”
The hotel has kept his apartment at the hotel the same as when he lived there, Siegel said.
An NYSE first
In 1970, Hilton Hotels was the first company listed on The New York Stock Exchange to enter the gaming industry in the United States, with the purchase of the Flamingo Hotel and Las Vegas International, which was later renamed Las Vegas Hilton, according to Hilton Hotels’ website.
Barron Hilton “really had to convince the board of directors to get involved in the gaming business in Las Vegas,” Grossman said.
“I think what that did was give the industry some real legitimacy on Wall Street,” said Grossman, who spent the majority of his Hilton career as senior vice president of corporate affairs.
Hilton Hotels Corp., along with Harrah’s Entertainment, the successor gaming corporation to Hilton’s gaming operations, were purchased by two private equity firms in 2006 and 2007, according to a Friday statement from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
Barron Hilton never got the he deserved for being an industry innovator, particularly “his foresightedness that a mainstream hotel company could be a force in the gaming business, thereby having two good revenue streams,” Grossman said in an email later Saturday evening.
While Conrad Hilton was very much a celebrity and had a larger-than-life personality, that was not his son’s way, according to Grossman. “Barron lived a much quieter life,” enjoying activities such as fishing, hunting and aviation, he said.
He had a ranch — Flying M Ranch near Hawthorne in Northern Nevada — and spent a lot of time there, Grossman said. The ranch was sold in 2016 for $19.4 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Barron Hilton got involved in Nevada shortly after the state’s Corporate Gaming Act of 1969 took effect, said Michael Green, associate professor of history at UNLV.
The company’s purchase of the Flamingo Hotel and Las Vegas International was “a good signal for Nevada — and especially Las Vegas — that this was a decent place for corporations to invest,” Green said.
At one point, the Flamingo Hotel was one of the most profitable in the Hilton chain, Green said. “Hilton did very well in Las Vegas.”
Barron Hilton expanded the Las Vegas Hilton and Flamingo Hotel, spearheaded the effort to open a property in Laughlin and bought what became the Reno Hilton, Grossman said.
In the early 1990s, the hotel business wasn’t doing well, Grossman said. There was a lot of overbuilding in the 1980s, and room rates and occupancy rates were suppressed, he said.
Gaming accounted for about two-thirds of Hilton’s business in the early 1990s, he said, and it’s where expansion and development was happening.
“Barron wasn’t necessarily a huge fan for expanding outside of the Nevada,” Grossman said, adding he wasn’t as aggressive about that as a lot of other companies.
In the statement Friday from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Barron’s son and Hilton Foundation board chairman Steven Hilton said the Hilton family mourns the loss of a remarkable man.
“My father was a loving husband to our mother, Marilyn, a wonderful role model to his eight children, a loyal and generous friend, visionary businessman, respected leader and a passionate sportsman,” he said in the statement. “He lived a life of great adventure and exceptional accomplishment.”
Barron Hilton entered the U.S. Navy at age 17 and served at Pearl Harbor, according to the statement from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. He spent 20 years as an entrepreneur before his father invited him to join Hilton Hotels Corp. as a vice president. He also founded Air Finance Corp., an aircraft leasing business, and Carte Blanche, a consumer credit card, according to the statement.
Barron Hilton previously announced he would leave 97 percent of his wealth to Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, according to the statement. That will lead to an increase in the foundation’s endowment from $2.9 billion to $6.3 billion.
He was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 60 years, Marilyn Hawley Hilton and his brother, Eric Hilton, who founded Three Square food bank in 2007 in Clark County with his wife, Bibi. Survivors include eight children, 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.