The man who wants to give Macau a hug

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am


US billionaire Steve Wynn's first management gig came during his first year at university in the late 1950s, running one of his father's suburban bingo halls near Washington. Over the next few years he developed a promising career as a disc jockey on college and commercial radio stations in Rhode Island and Florida.

But Wynn's leathery baritone was lost to the airwaves forever following his decision in the 1960s to move to Las Vegas, where he bought a small stake in his first casino, the Frontier. He later owned and operated the downtown Golden Nugget before going on to develop Las Vegas Strip icons, including the Mirage, Bellagio and Treasure Island casino-hotels.

Wynn struck his biggest jackpot in 2002 when he won a gaming license in Macau, which now accounts for the majority of his group's revenue, cash flow and profit. The 69-year-old chairman of both Wynn Resorts and Wynn Macau sat down with the Post in Macau to talk about managing staff in Asia, missing the Singapore gravy train and the next challenge he plans to wrap his arms around: a resort on Macau's Cotai strip.

What matters most in your business?

With our customers there's no difference anywhere in the world with what matters: guest experience. If that's good, people come back and are going to tell their friends and are even willing to pay more to offset the rising cost of business. The building has a lot to do with it, and the decorating, but all that is a small percentage of the whole compared to the rest of it, which is human-resource engineering. The real guest experience is defined by the staff.

You talk about the importance of trust in business relationships. Is it the same with your staff?

You bet. They've got to trust me. They've got to trust the company. They've got to believe that if things get tough, it won't be every man for himself. That's the first step in getting an agile and happy workforce. And it's more important than the money. The money becomes an issue if they think they're being abused. But once someone feels they're being paid fairly, everything else has to do with self-esteem and a feeling of security.

How do you build that trust in China?

I gave a cost-of-living [pay] increase to my employees five months ago here in Macau. Didn't have to. But [Premier] Wen Jiabao made a speech in town and said he hoped, with the prosperity and success that the Macau government and gaming industry [have experienced], that the people of Macau and the working folks were benefitting proportionately. And the minute he said that, as is always the case in Macau, [Chief Executive Dr] Fernando Chui [Sai-on] made a speech echoing that sentiment. If you've been schooled and have any sensitivity to this culture, that is the moment. Everything here is subtle. You're supposed to be paying attention.

Describe one horrible management decision you have made.

I hold a record in every category. The worst credit decision ever made in the history of the company, I made. The worst entertainment decision, I made. The worst design of a restaurant remodelling job? I hold that [record, too]. I destroyed a restaurant once that [after reopening] lasted for 35 days. If you count the ripping it out and rebuilding it the average [meal] cheque cost us US$48,000. Never be afraid to make a mistake, and don't cover anything up because you're afraid you'll look bad. When a leader says 'I don't know,' he's showing great strength. If he pretends he's the omnipotent answer man, it takes the average employee a week to know he's talking to a phoney, or worse: someone who's frightened and has to pretend that they know everything.

Any regrets over strategic decisions you made?

I was very well positioned early on in Singapore. It was August 2004. I had a start-up company with no income that was opening, two start-up hotels [in Las Vegas and Macau] totalling US$3.8 billion within 17 or 18 months and I had made all these promises to [then Macau chief executive] Edmund Ho [Hau-wah], the government here and my investors and bankers in Vegas, who had given me all but a billion of it. The idea of turning away from Macau and Wynn [Las Vegas] at that late stage was so reckless in my mind that when I discussed it with the board it was unanimous - we weren't old enough. We had gone public in 2002. But opportunities missed strategically? Singapore. I was there early, probably before anybody else. So I was right there while they were making up their minds [on allowing casinos]. I think probably that's the biggest single train that I couldn't take, or missed, strategically - because the timing wasn't right. [Singapore eventually awarded gaming licences to units of rival firms Las Vegas Sands and Malaysia's Genting Group. Analysts expect the city-state's casino revenues could surpass the Las Vegas Strip's this year.]

So the next big thing for you is probably going to be in Macau, on the Cotai strip, where your competitors Sands China, Melco Crown Entertainment and now Galaxy Entertainment are already up and running?

Oh yeah, we're ready.

But still waiting for approval, right?

Yeah, and I think that's imminent. [Wynn holds up an artist's rendering of his planned Cotai resort]. I drew it myself. It's an embrace. You want to connect with people, do something primordial. So that's the idea that I had with this design. I wanted to create a building that was a 'photo op' for the town, for Macau. Like Bellagio was with the fountains. I wanted to have something that had that kind of resonance. So it's a hug, it's an embrace. It's the first time I've used a compound curve, it's a very complicated structure. It's the best thing we've ever done by orders of magnitude. And it's meant to compete with everything that's here and every place else. And the good thing is, we get to go last.


The net worth of casino tycoon Steve Wynn, as estimated by Forbes magazine in March

- Rated as one of 400 richest Americans