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Arnold M. Knightly

Visionary Henri Lewin dies

18 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Heinz "Henri" Lewin, a gaming industry veteran who escaped Nazi Germany and foresaw the convention potential of Las Vegas, died Wednesday in San Francisco. He was 85.

He died after a long series of illnesses, his son, Larry Lewin, said Thursday.

"My father was very much a visionary," Larry Lewin said. "He was an early supporter of the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority. He believed that was going to be the future success of Las Vegas."

Lewin is best known for his 13-year tenure as a high-profile executive running the Las Vegas Hilton and Flamingo Hilton and as a principal of the first management team to run the Sands under Sheldon Adelson.

His tenure with Adelson ended in what his son described as a "clash of egos."

Lewin's belief that Las Vegas could become a major destination site, with good restaurants, fine rooms and large conventions, puts him out front in the area's history.

MGM Mirage Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Terry Lanni said while everyone else was focusing on gaming as the valley's main economic engine, Lewin saw that rooms and other amenities were the future of the town.

"He focused on that and the conventions because he saw that aspect of the business," said Lanni, who met Lewin in 1977.

"He really was a pioneer in that regard, because he really looked at areas that have now become extremely important to all our operations."

Lanni, who was chief financial officer of Caesars World when he met Lewin, said casinos accounted for 80 percent of the resorts' revenue when Lewin arrived. Today, they account for approximately 37 percent of their revenue.

Lewin arrived in Las Vegas in 1972 from San Francisco after being appointed executive vice president in charge of Hilton Hotels Corp.'s gaming interests in Las Vegas

Lewin joined the company in 1964 as a protege of Hilton Hotels founder, the late Conrad Hilton.

He rose from catering and sales manager at the San Francisco Hilton to vice president of the western division.

Barron Hilton, son of Conrad Hilton and Lewin's boss, in a statement Thursday called the gaming executive a "brilliant leader." "He was a talented hotel executive who left his mark in San Francisco and Hilton's western region before running our Las Vegas operations," Hilton said. "He took to the gaming business and was instrumental in building the convention market in Las Vegas.

David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Lewin's vision of what the city could be was important to Hilton Hotels.

"He was crucial to Hilton in a real transitional period," Schwartz said. "With the Hilton ownership, it was the first time you had a big, multi-national chain owning a casino in Vegas."

Lewin left Hilton Hotels in 1985 to strike out on his own, founding a consulting and management company, Aristocrat Hotels.

In 1989, his company was hired to manage Sheldon Adelson's Sands, which the then convention-business entrepreneur had purchased for $110 million.

Adelson told the Review-Journal in 1989 that much of the financing of the deal "was contingent upon Henri Lewin being the operator of the Sands."

However, Lewin, along with his son and Ken Scholl, were fired just nine months after taking over operation of the Sands.

Larry Lewin said a megaresort like The Venetian is part of the vision his father had and one of the reasons Adelson hired him.

However, he said his father's flamboyant personality -- he liked to host parties for big players and sold his autobiography in the Sands gift shop -- clashed with Adelson's.

"With my father, he needed to be in the press and Sheldon needed to be in the press," Larry Lewin said. "Sheldon had the ownership, so it just didn't work out."

Arictocrat continued for another 10 years with operations in Dallas and Northern California.

Born in Postdam, Germany, Lewin fled with his family in 1939 with the rise of Nazi Germany.

He first worked for Hilton Hotels in Shanghai, China, before arriving in San Francisco in 1947.

He landed a job as a busboy at The Fairmont Hotel, where he climbed up the management ladder for the next 17 years before rejoining Hilton Hotels.

Lewin's influence in the hospitality industry has continued through all three of his sons, all of whom graduated from Cornell University.

Larry Lewin worked at the Las Vegas Hilton and later joined his dad at the Sands. He was most recently director of Global Hyatt Corp.'s gaming operations before starting his own consulting business.

Jerry Lewin continues to work for Hyatt as senior vice president of the hotel's northeast division.

Barry Lewin oversees private-equity firm Blackstone Group's Luxury Resorts' portfolio for the Caribbean, Florida and Hawaii.

"He never expected more out of anybody than he expected out of himself," Larry Lewin said. "He demanded the best out of everybody."

Henri Lewin is also survived by a brother, Werner, and three grandchildren.

Funeral services are scheduled for today at 1 p.m. at The Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., in San Francisco. His interment will follow at Eternal Home Cemetery in Colima, Calif.

Lanni said he is traveling to San Francisco today to say goodbye to a friend.

"The industry is going to miss him," Lanni said. "I'm going to miss him very much, personally, because I considered him a very dear friend."