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Disruptor | James Murren, CEO, MGM Resorts International

Disruptor | James Murren, CEO, MGM Resorts International

Posting in Finance | From Issue 04 December 9, 2013

By playing his cards right in diversity and sustainable operations, the former Wall Street analyst is building a new model for gaming and entertainment properties.

The top executive at one of the world's largest gaming companies, MGM Resorts International, isn't one for playing the tables, although he does speculate on work from up-and-coming artists.

"I don't gamble anymore. I feel like I do plenty of gambling as a CEO. I try to make educated bets," admits James Murren, the former Wall Street analyst who has been chairman and CEO of the Paradise, Nev.-based casino and hospitality giant since December 2008. "But when I did play table games, it was exclusively blackjack. I'm a pretty numbers-oriented person. I would say that I'm an average to slightly above average player, nothing better than that."

Actually, from the vantage point of MGM Resorts investors, the numbers are trending in Murren's favor.

The company appears on track to generate more than $10 billion in revenue this year. Its string of recent losses – largely related to budget overruns for the massive CityCenter development in Las Vegas – is shrinking, and it is chipping away at $13 billion in long-term debt. Name pretty much any exclusive Vegas Strip resort and you discover it's part of the MGM portfolio: Bellagio, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand and Mirage. The company owns half of one of the few successful Atlantic City properties, the Borgata, and it hopes to pioneer new markets in Springfield, Mass., and Prince George's County, Maryland. Overseas, it has opened a property in China and has five more under development there. There are also projects under way in the Middle East, North Africa and India.

"We want to be in markets where we can leverage what to be our strengths: driving business back and forth to existing properties," Murren says. "Where we can, if we do our jobs correctly, build a leading market share."

In his previous job as MGM's CFO, Murren was instrumental in engineering the $15 billion string of acquisitions that turned MGM into the mammoth company it is today. His experience on Wall Street – and observations during the Mirage hotel merger talks in 2000 – were also the inspiration for the gaming industry's first formal diversity programs and inclusion program. Since 2001, MGM Resorts has spent a cumulative $3 billion with minority, women-owned, veteran-owned and otherwise disadvantaged enterprise that butt up against old boys networks. It wasn't really a hard sell to get management thinking this way.

"The board realizes that we are a people-oriented business," he explains. "If our employees are engaged and feel good about themselves, they will provide better guest service, the customer will be better engaged with our properties, and there should be a positive revenue impact. There should also be a cost savings, ultimately, through higher employee retention, lower absenteeism, lower turnover in general. As an ex-analyst, I can model up anything you want me to model up, but the reality is it is very subjective and we just had to swing for the fence."

It also helps to have someone like Alexis Herman, who was U.S. Labor Secretary under President Bill Clinton, lead your board's corporate social responsibility committee. 

It was Herman who helped champion the multi-million-dollar investment in MGM's latest diversity initiative, a 90-minute musical production called "Inspiring Our World" that Murren describes as equal parts concert, love fest and revival meeting. More than 50,000 of the company's 62,000 employees have seen the show, which is meant to highlight MGM's dependence on diversity. Even though there's only one woman who holds a C-suite position (two more are on the board), roughly 43 percent of those in supervisory roles are women and 38 percent are minorities.

"There are some things you do, and I have many examples, where there is a very black and white return on investment," Murren says. "There are some things I'm willing to do that have a projected return, but harder to quantify. And there are some things you do, you just do it. You just won't be able to measure it during that investable period of time, in some cases. But you know intuitively you should do it."

Murren, 52, may be forgiven for sounding preachy. As a boy in Fairfield, Conn., his household was regularly filled with priests who visited for theological debates with his father, who studied for three years at a Jesuit seminary before switching career paths to become a lawyer. "I grew up with an environment of service, and that became an important part of my life growing up," he recalls.

His mother, a watercolor artist, insisted that each of her four children take up their own unique arts-related hobby. Since Murren was tone-deaf, piano lessons were out of the question, and he took up oil painting by default. He actually planned a career in architecture before winding up on Wall Street. Although Murren hasn't picked up his own brush in 20 years – choosing to spend his leisure time hiking or coaching baseball – he gravitates toward post-Impressionist contemporary artists who convey their messages with bold, heavy strokes and lots of pigment.

His favorite artist is James Turrell, whom Murren commissioned to build a "skyspace" in the front yard of his home. From inside the chamber, you can view the Nevada sky or lights on the Las Vegas Strip. Lights are synchronized to play off the ambient light provided by nature. He is also a fan of the Vietnam Memorial sculptor Maya Lin. Her Colorado River sculpture, made out of recycled silver, hangs where it can remind Murren and others of Las Vegas' delicate relationship with nature.

"We live in the desert. The water source of our entire livelihood, the Colorado River, feeds our valley, into Lake Mead: 30 million people depend on the Colorado River for its very existence. Yet, I don't know how else to say it, people have had a belligerent attitude toward that," Murren says with conviction.

While one questions whether or not any luxury resort can really be called green, here too, MGM Resorts is making a serious investment. Over the past five years, it has saved approximately 2.5 billion gallons of water by rethinking the landscaping and irrigation needs at its properties and adopting more efficient plumbing fixtures as a standard business practice. So far, 15 resorts have earned a Green Key eco-rating, more than for any other hospitality company. The 18 million square-foot CityCenter is Murren's biggest attempt yet to push the envelope when it comes to green building practices. Unfortunately, the property opened at the height of the recession. It cost more than anticipated and has only recently pushed into the black. "We were really bleeding edge," he says matter-of-factly.

Still, Murren feels it is his responsibility to take action like this, and to do so publicly. In that way, he differs from his role model: MGM founder and airline mogul Kirk Kerkorian, who has given away an estimated $1.5 billion anonymously.

"He doesn't want to be recognized, doesn't look for fanfare or recognition, he just does it because he knows it's the right thing to do," Murren explains. "I always had felt that way, but along the way, I realized that there is an added responsibility that leaders have to lead: that people are inherently good, in many cases they are not educated as well as they would like to be on different topics or don't know how to approach a challenge that they see as an obvious one. So, at this company, we have evolved the way that we have directed funds and the way that we have articulated what we are doing to be more visible and more educational. Because it is incredibly valuable to give money, no doubt, but it's as valuable, if not moreso, to give of your intellectual capital, your leadership, your influence, your persuasion."

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure