More on Taming Dinosaurs

“With but few exceptions, it is always the underdog who wins through sheer willpower.” – Johnny Weissmuller

In my last article for ETR, I told you how Leonard Riggio of Barnes & Noble fame proved that every industry is vulnerable to resourceful entrepreneurs.

Today, let’s talk about the similar effect a young upstart named Steve Wynn had on Las Vegas.

Are you old enough to remember Las Vegas? I’m not talking about today’s Las Vegas – tract homes thrown up like mud huts with tile roofs… traffic jams that rival those in New York, Chicago, and L.A…. and giant gaming corporations that are in total control of anything – and everything – that goes on there.

When I refer to Las Vegas, I’m talking about the original Las Vegas – the one where men wore coats and ties and women wore fine dresses in the casinos and hotel restaurants. In those days, if you wanted to sit in the front row to see a puffy Elvis perform in his Col. Sanders outfit, you slipped the maitre d’ 50 bucks and were immediately ushered in and taken to a stage-side table. If you liked a touch of class with your corruption, Vegas was the place to be.

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. would make surprise appearances at each other’s shows, blowing smoke rings, sipping booze, and spontaneously yukking it up on stage. Talk about the good old days – Vegas in the sixties, seventies, and early eighties was the embodiment of that phrase.

Then, along came Steve Wynn. Many credit Howard Hughes with the corporatization of Las Vegas, but the reality is that Hughes was so drugged out in the late sixties that he probably thought he was still in Nicaragua while lying in his bed on the top floor of the Desert Inn Hotel.

Wynn, however, knew exactly what was going on in Sin City, and he had a vision of a very different kind of Las Vegas – a rigidly corporate desert oasis structured for the masses. The son of a compulsive gambler, this Baltimore native somehow negotiated his way into owning a piece of the Golden Nugget in the seedy downtown.

After converting the property into a luxury hotel, Wynn mounted a full-scale attack on The Strip itself. He opened The Mirage in 1989, and followed that in 1993 with the ultra-tacky Treasure Island right next door. Then, in 1998, he went to the head of the class – as in first-class – and built every socialist’s nightmare, the Bellagio, a structure so sumptuous that even Saddam would have been happy to count it among his palaces.

The paintings in the Bellagio’s art gallery cost more than it cost to build an entire Vegas hotel in the good old days. But long before he built the Bellagio, Wynn had already succeeded in forcing the gaming industry in Vegas to conform to his corporate-structure model.

Once he landed on The Strip, it took him just a few short years to eliminate the old maitre d’ bribery (er, tipping) system and replace it with tightly controlled theaters where people were given only one choice: Buy a ticket for a specific seat or stay outside. Worse, he turned Vegas into a come-one, come-all town – “Bring your paycheck, and preferably as much of your dwindling savings as possible, and your whole family is welcome.”

The coats and ties are now a distant memory. In their place are sloppy fitting Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts made in Pakistan, even sloppier khaki shorts made in the Philippines, and an army of fast-food-bloated bodies parading around in them.

This army consists of everyday Americans who part with most, if not all, of their money inside the casinos, then wander aimlessly up and down The Strip in search of fun that doesn’t exist. “Gee, Maude, it all looked so exciting in those TV commercials we saw back in Des Moines.” Funny how having your last dollar extracted from your wallet seems to take the fun out of everything.

In 2000, Wynn sold his Mirage Resorts group of hotel casinos to MGM and became a billionaire. In case you aren’t familiar with the big players in Vegas, MGM’s largest shareholder is Kirk Kerkorian, who seems intent on making Howard Hughes’ hotel-buying spree in the late sixties look like a game of Monopoly. It’s no wonder Kerkorian is in such a hurry. At the tender age of 89, he probably doesn’t have more than 10 years left to take control of every hotel-casino in the city.

What Wynn accomplished in a town where Bugsy Siegel and The Mob once called the shots is about as easy as taming a dinosaur. He got his foot inside the door (Entrepreneurial Step No. 1) through his minority stake in the Golden Nugget. Then – slowly, at first – he started to manipulate the entire industry to his way of thinking.

I don’t know whether Wynn began with a grandiose plan to change the way Vegas operates or if events just sort of unfolded for him as things went along. Either way, Wynn’s success in bending the desert Establishment to his way of thinking was a remarkable entrepreneurial achievement.

Which brings me to you. Are the companies at the top of your industry arrogant and lethargic? Probably.

If so, think about going against the grain and doing things differently – or, even better, exactly the opposite of the way the big guys have been doing them for years. But don’t spend too much time thinking. Instead, like Leonard Riggio and Steve Wynn, take action. Move quickly, quietly, and relentlessly, and you may be surprised to discover just how vulnerable the major players in your industry are.

Bill Gates did it to IBM and the rest of the computer industry. Now Google is trying to tame Microsoft and Microsoft’s worst enemies. And, at this very moment, there are young dinosaur tamers – in many ways just fresh incarnations of Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin – working out of their home offices and plotting how to tame Google.

Pretty exciting century we’re living in, isn’t it? Why not make a commitment to yourself to be in on the excitement?

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