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Howard Stutz

Old school: Takeover of Stardust an easy call for Bill Boyd

21 January 2015

LAS VEGAS -- Bill Boyd said a 1983 decision to take over management of the troubled Stardust was an easy choice.

He worried that 2,000 workers would lose their jobs if Boyd Gaming Corp. didn't step in after state gaming regulators filed an emergency order of closure against the failing Strip hotel-casino.

"We thought it was the right thing for us to do," Boyd, 83, said last week.

It was also an old school Las Vegas decision, one made with a handshake and without hesitation.

At the time, Boyd and his father, Sam Boyd, operated three casinos: the downtown California Hotel & Casino, Sam's Town Hotel & Gambling Hall on the Boulder Highway, and the Eldorado Casino in Henderson.

Assuming the Stardust's operations — including the Fremont Hotel & Casino in downtown — became the catalyst that transformed Boyd Gaming Corporation into more than just a family-owned business.

Today, Boyd Gaming is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, operates 22 hotel-casinos in eight states and employs more 24,000 workers nationwide.

But in many ways, Boyd Gaming — which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month — still has the feel of a family-run business. The Boyd family still owns more than 30 percent of the company.

Bill Boyd gave up the company's CEO title in 2008. But he stepped up his role as an ambassador of Boyd Gaming, taking on the title of executive chairman. His children, Marianne Boyd Johnson and William R. Boyd, have been on the company’s board since 1990. His son also held various administrative and operations positions.

Keith Smith, Boyd's CEO since 2008, has been in corporate-level roles since 1990. Executive Vice President Bob Boughner joined Boyd Gaming in 1976.

All were in attendance Friday afternoon when Boyd Gaming celebrated the opening of California Noodle House, a new Pacific Rim-themed restaurant inside the California. The eatery is part of several new features planned for the casino, which will always hold a special place for Bill Boyd. It's the place where the company began.

"It was much smaller when we first started out, and we've added to it three or four different times," Boyd said, following a ribbon cutting that was preceded by a traditional Hawaiian blessing. "This is just another way to freshen up the property."

Upward of 90 percent of the California's business comes from Hawaii and from Hawaiian transplants living in Las Vegas and the West Coast, a niche market Boyd credited his father with creating.

Along with the Fremont and Main Street Station, Boyd Gaming has maintained its downtown roots, even as the company expanded into regional markets in the South, Midwest and Atlantic City through the 2003 opening of the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa.

Bill Boyd, along with then Golden Nugget Las Vegas owner Steve Wynn, were the driving forces behind the development of the Fremont Street Experience, which opened in 1995.

Wynn, the Binion family and other downtown casino owners have vanished from Fremont Street. Bill Boyd is impressed by the new breed of downtown Las Vegas developers, including Landry's Gaming, Inc., which owns the Golden Nugget, and Derek Stevens, who operates The D Las Vegas and Golden Gate Hotel & Casino.

"It's a much different place than the Strip; it has a different feel," Boyd said. "The new guys see that aspect and have embraced the idea. Landry's is building Golden Nuggets around the country (Lake Charles, La.; Biloxi, Miss.; Atlantic City) and that’s good for downtown."

Boyd was successful on the Strip with the Stardust.

Patty Becker, who was a member of the Nevada State Gaming Control Board when the Stardust faced closure, said Boyd stepped up after many of the larger casino operators at the time, including Harrah's Las Vegas, Inc. and Del Webb, turned down the chance to manage the casino.

She remembered Boyd and his chief adviser, Chuck Ruthe, coming to a meeting with the Control Board. They took all of a few minutes to say yes to the idea.

"It was a relief to the board that they were willing to step up," Becker said.

That was part of the "old-school Las Vegas" way of doing business. Boyd knew Becker apart from gaming; her father, Bill Becker, operated the Children's Bootery on the corner of Bonneville Avenue and Maryland Parkway. It was the store where Bill Boyd bought all his kids' shoes.

A year after taking over as manager of the Stardust Resort and Casino, Boyd was approached by the property’s lenders to purchase the resort and the Fremont. There was one catch; Boyd had to personally guarantee the loan.

He agreed and three years later, the banks removed the qualification.

"After a few years, they were convinced we would make it," Boyd said with a smile.

Boyd doesn't regret the company's shutting down the Echelon development in 2008, just as the recession began to grip the gaming industry. The project, which was planned to replace the imploded Stardust, was never restarted. The site was sold in 2013 to Malaysia-based Genting Malaysia Berhad.

"We made the right decision," Boyd said. "We made up our minds we weren’t going to fail."

The company's 40th anniversary party will be a simple affair.

On Jan. 31, Boyd, his family, company officials, close friends and Mayor Carolyn Goodman will celebrate on the top floor of the California with a giant cake and a few words.

That’s the old school way of doing things.
Old school: Takeover of Stardust an easy call for Bill Boyd is republished from