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LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Twice in 1997, Jim Murren turned down overtures from then MGM Grand Corp. President Alex Yemenidjian to become the expanding casino operator's chief financial officer.
But Yemenidjian was persistent. The company's board of directors wanted him to find a CFO and he targeted Murren, who built a 14-year career on Wall Street to become one of the financial community's rising stock analysts.
The pair met one last time in December 1997 at Cipriani's, a popular New York City restaurant. Murren was ready to reject the job offer again.
Yemenidjian, however, used a sports metaphor that resonated with Murren, a one-time baseball standout at small Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., who played briefly in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system.
"He said 'you can continue to do what you're doing and be on the sidelines watching the game, or you can get on the field,' " Murren recalled recently from his spacious office at the Bellagio. "He hit me where he knew it would make an impact. That kind of sunk in because of my background."
Murren also credited his wife, Heather, herself a respected Wall Street analyst, with pushing for the move. She told him that even if he hated working in the gaming industry, he could always return to New York because of his background and experience.
Murren joined the MGM roster in 1998 and has never left the lineup.
In August, MGM Mirage announced that Murren, 46, would give up his CFO duties and take on the role of chief operating officer, where he will oversee the day-to-day operations of the company's current 23 hotel and casino properties.
Many industry observers consider the position No. 2 in the MGM Mirage hierarchy behind Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Terry Lanni. Speculation immediately began that Murren was on track to eventually replace Lanni.
"I've heard that talk, and I'll tell you what I told Terry," Murren said. "I hope he's the CEO of this company for a long, long time. But I also want his job. However, I don't want it now. I love working for him and I love the role I have here. No one has ever told me I'm the heir apparent, and I don't think that will be a topic that will be discussed for some time."
Deutsche Bank gaming analyst Bill Lerner said it wasn't surprising Murren's name was mentioned as a possible successor to Lanni.
"Every responsible company has a succession plan," Lerner said. "Jim has to be recognized for his talent."
Murren recently held his first monthly management meeting with the property presidents in order to begin the budgeting process for 2008. He said the MGM Mirage board of directors, of which he's a member, wants the company's casinos to be operated under one umbrella, ending the MGM Resorts/Mirage Resorts split that had been in place since 2000.
During the next month, Murren plans to visit the company's resorts outside of Las Vegas.
"I have a 90-day plan that we're going to roll out in which we will become a more powerful company, tackling all of our issues much more strategically," Murren said. "The first 30 days for me will be a learning process because the property presidents can teach me much more than I can learn on my own."
As part of the company's corporate restructuring, MGM Mirage executive Bobby Baldwin was given the title of chief design and construction officer, while retaining his oversight of the company's $7.4 billion CityCenter development.
Murren said it was important to keep Baldwin in his development position. CityCenter is progressing toward a 2009 opening and other projects, such as a remodeling of Circus Circus and a joint venture with Kerzner Holdings International on the Strip's north end, will soon proceed.
"We need to spend more of our time competing against Wynn (Resorts Ltd.) and Venetian (Las Vegas Sands Corp.) instead of against one another," Murren said. "Combine that with the vast amount of work we anticipate having in development, the board felt Bobby was best suited to take on that role while it was best for me to tackle this position."
Murren became president of MGM in 1999 when Yemenidjian took over as head of MGM Studios. On Wall Street, he built up the research department for Deutsche Bank, helping several gaming companies, including MGM Mirage, raise money through stock offerings.
With MGM Mirage, Murren has helped direct much of the company's expansion from the financial side. He played roles in the company's 2000 purchase of Mirage Resorts for $6.4 billion and the $7.9 billion buyout of the Mandalay Resort Group in 2005.
"Jim Murren has established a reputation as one of the leaders in our industry," Lanni said in announcing Murren's promotion. "His ability to envision the future direction of the Las Vegas market and his contributions to positioning MGM Mirage as the undisputed industry leader has earned him this well-deserved recognition."
Lerner, who has Murren's old duties as the current head of Deutsche Bank's gaming research department, said the former analyst serves as an inspiration to other Wall Street types because of his rise to the top of MGM Mirage's corporate ladder. Lerner said he was at Deutsche Bank the same time as Murren, but in different divisions.
"I don't think his success is a surprise to anyone," Lerner said. "Moving into an operational role helps to round him out and gives him a greater set of skills."
Murren was involved in the negotiations for the company's newest joint ventures, including the Kerzner deal and the several of the partnerships within the CityCenter development, which includes a 4,000-room hotel-casino designed by noted architectural firm Pelli Clarke Pelli, boutique hotels, high-rise residential, and a retail, entertainment, and dining district.
Murren, who has a degree in urban studies and art history, is credited with coming up with the idea for CityCenter, which covers 76 acres between Monte Carlo and Bellagio.
"Until it's a success, people will give me total credit," Murren said. "When it's successful, it will have many masters. But if it falls on itself, everyone will be looking at me."
Despite his move to a larger corporate office, across the hall from Lanni, Murren said he won't cede his ties to Wall Street. The only items he's moved so far from his old office are a large painting by Janaina Tschape that reminds Murren of Central Park, a photo of Heather, and his Bloomberg Financial Markets Terminal, which provides stock updates and Wall Street news.
"I think I will still have a major role in the deal making process," Murren said. "I'm proud in how that has helped transform the company."
In his spare time, Murren and Heather founded the Nevada Cancer Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to comprehensive cancer research, education, early detection, prevention and patient care. Heather Murren serves as the institute's Chairman and CEO and Jim Murren is on the board of directors.
"We're only getting started with the cancer institute," Jim Murren said.
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