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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Las Vegas Sands boss Sheldon Adelson tells UNLV students he learned on the fly

27 April 2012

It's not every day that the nation's seventh-richest billionaire tells college students the secret of his success was "never knowing anything" about the businesses in which he got involved.

In a 90-minute discussion Thursday with University of Nevada, Las Vegas students, Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson also advised that willingness to risk it all is key to any entrepreneur.

Adelson, 78, who was awarded the Hospitality Industry Leader of the Year by the UNLV's Harrah Hotel College, said he's either started or acquired 50 businesses. Each time, he wasn't sure exactly what he was getting himself into.

That held true when he jumped into the gaming industry with his purchase of the Rat Pack-era Sands on the Strip in early 1990s. At the time, Adelson was only looking for enough land to build a convention center for his computer industry trade show. Gaming was an industry he knew little about.

"This is the nature of entrepreneurship. It's the willingness to take a risk," Adelson said. "It's a willingness to do things a little bit different."

With risk, there have been rewards. Forbes magazine in March estimated his current net worth at $24.9 billion.

Adelson was questioned by UNLV gaming professor Gary Waters and Peter Eghoian of the school's International Gaming Institute for about an hour, followed by a brief question-and-answer session with students.

The audience politely applauded at the beginning and the end of the session and when Adelson's wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, was introduced. The students also laughed at Adelson's attempts at humor, including when he mocked his lack of understanding of technology.

"You could hand me your laptop and I wouldn't know how to turn it on," Adelson said. "It was amazing I had success in developing Comdex [the computer industry trade show]."

A handful of students who waited around after the discussion were rewarded with a handshake, the chance to ask a personal question and a photo with Adelson.

"It's great to hear from people who have led incredible lives and learn how they developed and progressed," said Jared Maddern, a senior in the hotel college. "It's amazing to learn about the small things that drive them. You can see what defines them just by talking with them for a little while."

Adelson told the students he changed the gaming industry by developing integrated resorts, which have a large offering of entertainment attractions, including retail and restaurants. He was also the first casino operator to embrace convention and meeting business.

He was also criticized early on in his gaming career for his business decisions.

"The Circus Circus guys [the late Bill Bennett and the late William Pennington] used to complain, 'Who is this guy,'?" Adelson recalled. "? 'Doesn't he know convention people don't gamble?' But money is fungible. We made it in other areas, not just the casino."

On Wednesday, Las Vegas Sands told Wall Street it collected more than $1 billion in pretax earnings during the first quarter, becoming the first gaming company to ever do so.

Adelson hinted at other ways he does things that run counter to convention in the casino industry. In Singapore, his Marina Bay Sands won't use junket operators. In Las Vegas, The Venetian and Palazzo don't offer free nongaming incentives - otherwise known as comps - to gamblers.

Adelson also said he doesn't know how to play baccarat, the game favored by Asian gamblers that is primarily responsible for Las Vegas Sands' earnings in Macau and Singapore. Those casinos accounted for more than 83 percent of the company's overall quarterly revenues.

He said he doesn't need to know the ins and outs of the game.

"Entrepreneurs are not in the business of making others rich," Adelson said, explaining why he bought the Sands to build his own convention center rather than leasing facilities.

Jeff Kimelman, who graduated from UNLV's hotel school a year ago, was back on campus to hear Adelson's advice. Kimelman recently started his own business, Kimmel's Pickles. He asked Adelson how Judaism plays a role in his business dealings.

Adelson said his father, a cab driver, would save spare change to give to charity, following a Jewish tradition of attempting to "repair the world."

"I don't put change in a box, but it's not because I'm cheap," Adelson said. "I give it back in bulk. Instead of 48 cents, I give $48 million."

Zack Grayson, a freshman who is majoring in the professional golf management program, said he wanted to take an opportunity to meet someone who has been a successful businessman. He asked Adelson to name his favorite golf course.

"He told me he doesn't play golf," Grayson said.