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Jennifer Robson

Who's got clout? The Las Vegas Business looks at 10 movers and shakers who shape business in the valley

20 November 2012

LAS VEGAS -- Clout can be fleeting.

Especially in Las Vegas.

Times change quickly in Southern Nevada. During the boom period, gaming ruled as new megaresorts on the Strip fueled a booming economy.

The recession altered the status quo.

Gaming, in some sense, has taken a backseat to other types of development and job creation.

David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said there are two dimensions to clout: overall influence and the "what have you done for me lately" aspect.

Gaming is in the latter part of that dynamic.

"With much of the prerecession status quo, such as construction and real estate, still in recovery mode, there is an opportunity for new development to help those with capital to invest to increase their clout," Schwartz said.

"In the case of Las Vegas, which does not have entrenched power structures that have been established for generations, there is a great potential for change in clout," he added.

A year ago, the staff of the Las Vegas Business Press came up with a subjective list of the 20 people we considered having the most influence in business and civic affairs in Las Vegas.

This year, we narrowed the list to 10 names.

Five of the individuals were on the 2011 list; Gov. Brian Sandoval, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson, Wynn Resorts Ltd. Chairman Steve Wynn and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Rossi Ralenkotter.

Two of the names were on the "almost" list; Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and former U.S. senator and Nevada governor Richard Bryan, a shareholder in Lionel Sawyer & Collins law firm.

The final three names are new to the list, but are individuals Las Vegans will recognize: Steve Hill, head of the Governor's Office of Economic Development; Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce President Kristin McMillian; and Derek Stevens, who owns the D Las Vegas, a majority stake in the Golden Gate and the Las Vegas 51s.

Shannon Monnat, an assistant professor of sociology at UNLV, said Las Vegas is a global city operating in a global economy. The ability for individuals to maintain or gain clout depends on their connection with economic and political leaders in other cities in the United States and the world.

"Influence is determined by more than just money, political power or popularity," Monnat said. "The ability to maintain influence is dependent upon a person's centrality, or importance, within a large network and how influential that person's friends or connections are within the network."

Monnat said influence is not an individual effort.

"Nobody does it alone," Monnat said. "Your friends, business partners and political allies must be influential as well if you want to hold on to your own influence for a longer period of time."

So how did our 10 individuals gain the most clout?

All, in some fashion, are tied to the economic recovery of Las Vegas.

"Las Vegas is a major metropolitan area, but in many ways it's a small town, and it's not difficult to arrive with a splash and gain a great deal of clout in a short time," Schwartz said. "Tony Hsieh is a case in point."

Hsieh, who is spearheading the move of the Zappos retail business from Henderson into Las Vegas' former City Hall complex, has become the grand visionary of all that is downtown redevelopment beyond the casinos.

Schwartz likened Hsieh in some ways to downtown Las Vegas' gaming pioneers.

"Once, Benny Binion, Bill Boyd or Steve Wynn would have been considered the uncrowned king of downtown," Schwartz said. "Now, it's Tony Hsieh. The Downtown Project and other key technology-related developments in town, like Switch, show that clout can grow quickly, particularly in times of economic uncertainty."

Sandoval, who is about to embark on his second legislative session as governor, may be taking his cue from the results of the recent presidential election.

As a Republican, Sandoval publicly backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee. However, Sandoval, who initially backed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president, was not overly out on the stump for Romney, who fared poorly with Hispanic voters.

"As a Hispanic governor, Sandoval has demographics on his side," Monnat said "It seems like he was trying to be strategic during this election cycle by not ferociously backing Romney."

Monnat said Hispanics viewed a Republican anti-immigration agenda to be an anti-Hispanic agenda. Sandoval, she said, will need the Hispanic vote to win re-election.

"He may have been saving his clout (during the election) for a better time," she said.

As for Adelson and Wynn, who continue to carry clout in the casino industry, they couldn't carry that influence over to the presidential election. Both unsuccessfully tried to exert their influence to oust Barack Obama from the presidency.

Adelson donated an estimated $53 million to political campaigns beyond Nevada because of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case involving Citizens United, which held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.

Monnat said the general public became frustrated with the "mind-boggling dollar amounts" that paid for a bombardment of political advertisements.

"Many people are asking themselves, 'How much influence do we really want these people to have?'" she said.

-- Howard Stutz

Brian Sandoval, governor, Nevada

A state's governor, by definition, carries at least some sway in the business community.

With the biennial legislative session coming up next year, that will be put more on display as Gov. Brian Sandoval takes on Democratic majorities in both houses during what will be his second budget cycle. Already, he has indicated that he would ask to continue a package of taxes that are supposed to expire next year to avoid cutting the education and social service budgets. But with the likelihood of projected deficits that must be covered, larger spending plans for individual agencies are not on the horizon.

During his first budget session in 2011, he incurred some wrath among his conservative base and within his own Republican party. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the state could not tap money held by local entities, creating a $657 million shortfall. As a result, Sandoval had to backtrack on a campaign promise the previous year and accepted the renewal taxes that would have expired to fill the gap. However, he stuck by a pledge not to enact new taxes.

In the process, he drew some favorable reviews of personally diving into the negotiations to reach a deal, in contrast to the more aloof posture of his predecessor, Gov. Jim Gibbons. But he also disappointed those who found he operated in the mode of the federal judge that he was before running for governor in 2010, weighing different sides of a case before reaching a decision rather than promoting new initiatives to fix structural flaws in the Nevada economy, such as the heavy reliance on the visitor industry.

To draw new companies to the state, he has headed trade delegations to countries such as Canada, China and South Korea. He has also reorganized the state's business development effort through the Governor's Office of Economic Development, focusing on seven industries in which Nevada has a chance to compete plus creating regional economic development groups.

The reorganization led to the creation of the Las Vegas Regional Economic Development Council, which aims to continue the longtime effort to sell Nevada as a low-tax, business-friendly haven and persuade homegrown companies to stay and expand.

-- Tim O'Reiley

Sheldon Adelson, chairman, chief executive officer, Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Sheldon Adelson, whose gambling operations span the globe from Las Vegas to casinos opened or planned in Macau, Singapore and Spain, set a new record in political donations by giving $70 million to help Republicans in the 2012 elections, according to a recent report.

Politico said Adelson's donations nearly tripled the previous record held by liberal billionaire financier George Soros. Soros spent some $27.5 million in 2004 in a failed effort to defeat Republican President George W. Bush.

Listed as the 14th richest person in the world by Forbes magazine, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, can afford to be generous and support causes they're passionate about.

His place on the Forbes list is even more impressive given that when the economy tanked the Las Vegas Sands came close to bankruptcy.

To help, Adelson invested $1 billion in his company, reduced his ownership stake to 53 percent and brought in new management teams.

His investment in Las Vegas Sands has paid off. The company, which operates The Venetian and Palazzo hotel-casinos on the Strip and the Sands Expo and Convention Center, posted revenues of $2.71 billion in the third quarter.

Adelson also owns Israel HaYom, a free Israeli daily newspaper.

His philanthropy has been substantial and prolific, with donations of $100 million to Taglit-Birthright Israel and to numerous medical research centers and educational institutions, including Nathan Adelson Hospice and the Adelson Educational Campus, both facilities in Las Vegas.

Despite his losses on election night, expect Adelson to continue supporting candidates and political action committees.

-- Chris Sieroty

Steve Wynn, chairman, chief executive officer, Wynn Resorts Ltd.

Steve Wynn may not be completely satisfied with the re-election of President Barack Obama to a second term earlier this month, but with the election over the casino developer is shifting his focus back to his business and expanding into new and profitable markets.

Wynn's company, Wynn Resorts Ltd., is building a $4 billion hotel-casino complex on Macau's Cotai Strip region. The company already generates about 70 percent of its earnings from its Wynn Macau and Encore Macau properties.

Wynn will also bid for the last casino license in Philadelphia. He said his assignment was to "build a facility that brings people from outside of the city into the city."

"It allows for a luxury hotel complex and the introduction of the Wynn brand to Philadelphia," he said.

A Philadelphia casino, if Wynn gets his license, is expected to cost about $500 million.

The 70-year-old businessman's political activities in 2012 included a $10.1 million donation to Crossroads GPS, a political action group founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove.

But his true passion will always be designing, building and operating luxury resorts. He played a leading role in the 1990s resurgence and expansion of the Strip.

His companies refurbished or built some of the most popular and profitable resorts in Las Vegas, including The Mirage, Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas and Encore.

Those projects have made Wynn wealthy. As of 2012, Forbes magazine ranked Wynn as the 491st richest man in the world, with a net worth of $2.5 billion.

-- Chris Sieroty

Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, D-Nev.

Since 2007 Harry Reid has been the Senate majority leader, a position that has brought the Searchlight native, and Nevada, to the forefront of the national political stage.

With the 2012 election in the books, many have noted that Reid came out a big winner. One year ago, 23 Democrat-held seats were on the line, compared to 10 Republican-held. Reid's chamber majority was in jeopardy, but when all was said and done the Democratic majority retained its power and Reid expanded his Senate control.

Technically, the Democrats netted just one seat via Indiana and Massachusetts, because Nebraska went to the Republicans. But, the upcoming 113th Congress should prove successful for Reid.

Since the election, Reid has spoken publicly about his hope for averting the "fiscal cliff" -- $600 billion in spending cuts and higher taxes set to go into effect in 2013 if the White House and Congress can't reach agree on how to cut the federal budget deficit. Reid specifically claimed that the election proved the nation's desire to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

Reid was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 after serving two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1970, he was elected Nevada lieutenant governor at age 30, but then lost races for the U.S. Senate and Las Vegas mayor. In 1982, Reid tried again and won a House seat, which essentially reignited his political career.

Reid's current term ends in January 2017.

-- Laura Carroll

Tony Hsieh, chief executive officer, Zappos

Tony Hsieh went from developing Web software to developing a system for controlling warehouse merchandise inventory, spawning online shoe retailer and growing the company to nearly $1 billion in annual sales.

Hsieh moved Zappos' headquarters from San Francisco to Henderson in April 2004, and in 2010 announced plans to occupy the former Las Vegas City Hall. About 1,000 Zappos employees are expected to be working downtown when renovations are complete next year.

"Las Vegas is changing," Zappos chief executive officer said when the City Hall sale was approved. "We're just at the beginning of what's possible."

Some people say he could change Las Vegas forever. He's invested $350 million of his own money in the Downtown Project, planting seed money for business growth. His $50 million Las Vegas Tech Fund has already invested in nine startups. was ranked 15th on Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in 2004 with $52.3 million in annual revenue, and made the list again in 2007 when revenue had grown to $380 million. It also came in at No. 23 on Fortune magazine's top 100 places to work.

"We believe that a company's culture and a company's brand are really just two sides of the same coin," Hsieh said. "If you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff will happen on its own."

Zappos had to cut 8 percent of its work force during the height of the recession.

In 2009, Zappos was acquired by for $1.2 billion.

Hsieh put's name on Adopt-A-Highway signs throughout Southern Nevada, sponsored the Las Vegas Marathon and wrote a book called "Delivering Happiness." He leased two floors at The Ogden high-rise condo near City Hall, where he has taken up residency.

Hsieh's partners include Andrew Donner of Resort Gaming Group, who brokered the $18 million deal to lease City Hall and is handling all commercial real estate transactions.

-- Hubble Smith

Derek Stevens, chief executive officer, Desert Rock Enterprises

Derek Stevens had already invested in Las Vegas with the $18 million purchase of the Las Vegas 51s Triple-A baseball team when he made a pitch to become majority owner of the historic Golden Gate hotel-casino.

Stevens, 44, chief executive officer of Desert Rock Enterprises, acquired a 50 percent ownership position from Mark Brandenburg in March 2008, eventually raising his share to 60 percent.

The Detroit native was approved by the gaming commission to become CEO at Golden Gate in September 2009. He continues to support the rebirth of downtown Las Vegas.

"We're really excited about what's happening downtown." Stevens said when the sale was approved. "We think the Golden Gate can play a big role bringing downtown back. We believe in what (former Mayor Oscar Goodman) and the downtown leaders are trying to accomplish."

He recently completed a $12 million renovation of the hotel, upgrading the casino's 15 table games and 270 slot machines, remodeling 106 rooms, adding televisions and opening an outside slush and beer bar.

Stevens acquired a 15 percent stake in the struggling Riviera hotel on the Strip in 2010, and bought the 640-room Fitzgeralds hotel from the estate of former owner Don Barden for an undisclosed price in 2011. Barden had died earlier in the year and the sale had to be approved by probate court in Detroit.

Stevens rebranded Fitzgeralds as the D Las Vegas, a play on its downtown location and Stevens' nickname. He spent $20 million on renovations, replacing the Irish theme at Fitzgeralds with a more modern look.

The D made national sports news in September by refunding losing bets on a National Football League game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks that involved a controversial call by the referees.

-- Hubble Smith

Kristin McMillan, president, chief executive officer, Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce

As head of one of the nation's largest chambers of commerce, Kristin McMillan has a direct line to policymakers ranging from governors to U.S. senators.

McMillan is president and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, a group of nearly 6,000 members that has long led on business issues such as corporate taxes, business licensing rules, commercial water rates and interstate transportation. In her role, McMillan is the public voice of a group whose members include business heavyweights such as MGM Resorts International, Boyd Gaming, Caesars Entertainment Corp., NV Energy, Southwest Airlines and Wells Fargo. But the decisions she makes and the policies she helps shape have implications that go well beyond the more than 200,000 employees of the chamber's member businesses.

McMillan's clout grew this fall, when the chamber boosted its membership nearly 10 percent in one swipe by negotiating a deal to bring on members and programs of the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

McMillan took the chamber's top job in May 2011, after chamber President and CEO Matt Crosson died unexpectedly following just eight months on the job. Before her move, McMillan spent 20 years working in Southern Nevada's legal and utilities industries. She was a shareholder in statewide legal powerhouse Lionel Sawyer & Collins, and a managing shareholder in the Las Vegas office of big multinational law firm Greenberg Traurig. To lead the chamber, McMillan left her job as the vice president of external relations for CenturyLink's Western region, where she managed a 10-state district in government affairs, public policy initiatives, advocacy and community relations. She played a significant role in the state regulatory-approval process for the merger between CenturyLink and Qwest, a deal that created the nation's third-largest telecommunications business.

-- Jennifer Robison

Steve Hill, executive director, Office of Economic Development

Want a piece of one of the world's largest and most popular tech companies?

Call Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

When Apple began sniffing around Reno in earnest earlier this year for data storage space for iTunes and its new iCloud service, Hill hopped on the phone with the company immediately. Gov. Brian Sandoval had met with Apple execs in 2011, but it was up to Hill to put together an incentive package that would pass muster with state and local officials. In the end, Hill negotiated $89 million in sales and property tax breaks, which made all the difference for Apple -- and for Nevada, which will see Apple invest about $1 billion in the Reno area over the next decade.

It's not the first time Hill has been influential.

Before he joined the economic development office, Hill was high-profile in the local business community. He started a local concrete company in 1987 that posted big business when real estate and development soared. In the early 2000s, he led the Coalition for Fairness in Construction, a trade group created to stem the tide of construction defect litigation.

Hill also was chairman of the Government Affairs Committee of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, just as the local economy tipped from boom to bust in 2007. By 2009, he was the chamber's chairman. He was part of the team that led the group's successful fight against growing calls for a state corporate income tax, and he helped oversee a series of studies on public-sector compensation that resulted in statewide benefits changes for public employees.

But it's economic development that has taken Hill's influence to a new level. With diversification on the front burner for state officials, Hill's ability to bargain with companies such as Apple gives him major clout.

-- Jennifer Robison

Richard Bryan, shareholder, Lionel Sawyer & Collins

With the biennial Legislature due to convene early next year, it will be a busy time for Richard Bryan.

As an attorney with Lionel Sawyer & Collins, he has a practice that focuses on government relations, a polite term for lobbying, particularly concerning land use issues.

In doing so, he will be able to tap the contacts that he has built up from winning elected offices going back more than four decades. After starting as a deputy district attorney in 1964 and becoming the county's first public defender two years later, he ran for the Assembly and won in 1968.

After being re-elected to another two-year term in 1970, he switched to the state Senate and won the first of two four-year terms in 1972.

But instead of finishing the second term, he tried a statewide election for the first time in 1978 and emerged victorious as the Nevada attorney general. He spent considerable time defending the state's gaming regulatory structure in federal courts.

From that platform, he was elected to the first of two terms as governor in 1982, becoming one of numerous state and local officials to push for economic diversification. From there, it was on to two terms in the U.S. Senate starting with his election in 1988.

In the Capitol, he was one of eight Senators to vote against the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, a Depression-era law that prevented companies from engaging in both conventional banking, backed by federal deposit insurance, and investment banking and stock trading.

He entered private practice after deciding not to run for re-election in 2000, but maintained contacts through membership on the boards of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the Nevada Development Authority and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

-- Tim O'Reiley

Rossi Ralenkotter, president, chief executive officer, LVCVA

As the leader of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Rossi Ralenkotter spearheads tourism efforts for one of the top travel destinations on the planet.

In his position, Ralenkotter not only oversees citywide marketing efforts and branding opportunities, but also runs the Las Vegas Convention Center and Cashman Center.

Ralenkotter, who grew up in Las Vegas, began working for the tourism board in 1973 when the city had about 8 million visitors annually. The city is slated to attract close to 40 million visitors in 2012.

In 2011, tourism had a $40.2 billion impact on Southern Nevada's economy, making up 44 percent of the area's gross product.

Besides his local role, Ralenkotter is a commissioner with the Nevada Commission on Tourism and is the chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Travel Association's board of directors, a role he holds through 2014. Ralenkotter, who carefully crafts Las Vegas' branding message, lately has been focusing on the nation's travel transportation infrastructure. Talk to him, and chances are you'll hear him make mention of moving people "from Point A to Point B."

International visitation is also a strong focus for Ralenkotter, who aims to increase international visitation in the coming years. Toward that end, the travel leader has been vocal about the need to expand the number of participating countries in the visa waiver program.

-- Laura Carroll