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Gaming Guru

Laura Carroll

Nevadan at Work: MGM exec shows passion for greener business

1 July 2012

One thing that sticks out after meeting Cindy Ortega is her passion.

She can point to a framed photograph that just arrived in her office, and the excitement about it flows from her. Ortega tells you about the way the art was created as if she was the artist.

Then she notices a Nordstrom shopping bag and begins telling a story about the company being quietly sustainable and how much she admires that. Ortega seems genuinely interested in life, and she engages those around her with that energy.

As the senior vice president of the sustainability division for MGM Resorts International, Ortega has made a career of getting other people excited about her ideas.

For example, six years ago the company created her current position after Ortega presented a proposal to create the division.

"In this company, and as a woman, I have been able to have ideas, big ones and little ones, and people are willing to take the risk and help you. When we created the division, not only did the company decide to create the division, but the company gave the division money to go do things with and invest in the department. It gave us the ability to get started."

Ortega oversees the development and implementation of strategies for environmental sustainability and awareness throughout the company. She was responsible for the oversight and achievement of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification of the $8.5 billion dollar CityCenter project, which resulted in CityCenter's six developments being awarded LEED Gold certifications. Her position requires her to negotiate contracts and use project management techniques to execute and deliver on large-scale sustainability goals.

Previously, Ortega was vice president and chief financial officer for MGM's corporate services division. She routinely testifies before the Nevada Legislature. In 2011, Ortega was elected chairwoman of Green Chips, a private-public nonprofit organization that encourages and facilitates environmental sustainability initiatives in Southern Nevada. Early on in her career with MGM, Ortega worked on a project wth Microsoft, helping to develop a software for use in hotels.

As a child, Ortega grew up on a cattle ranch in Burbank, an unincorporated patch of remote west-central Utah. Her grade school had 24 students in eight grades. For high school, she had to board away from home.

On the ranch, Ortega worked very closely with men and calls herself a "tomboy" who was on a horse all the time. Her first job, helping out in a store, came at 12. At 14, she began driving to her waitress gig across the state line at Nevada's Lehman Caves.

She decided to obtain a hospitality degree at age 29, when her children were babies. However, she wasn't immediately sure she'd be headed into a hospitality career.

"Somebody at UNLV told me I couldn't be in the (management associate program) The Mirage had at the time and it made me mad. I didn't fit the profile. I was an older student and I was married and I had a family. So, I was interviewed for that program and was selected for it," Ortega related.

She's been with MGM ever since.

Throughout her 20-year career at MGM Resorts, Ortega's work has resulted in numerous honors for the company, including the 2011 Environmental Protection Agency WasteWise Gold Achievement Award, the 2011 Business Leadership Recycling Award from the American Forest & Paper Association and the 2006 Southern Nevada Water Authority Water Hero Award.

Question: How does practicing sustainability positively affect a company?

Answer: What we think, is that when a company is really paying attention to how it's impacting the community, or its world, the employees see that as something they admire about their own company. And when you admire the company you work for, you have, typically, such a different attitude about working and we think that goes right through to the customer.

Question: What was it like, working on software design with Microsoft?

Answer: Well, it was interesting. It was in 1992-ish, so it was a long time ago. It was at a time when Microsoft was a newer company and they only had 50 people in their consulting group. These were the people who were the visionaries in the beginning of Microsoft. They were young men and women who became millionaires during the time we worked together, in their twenties. We set out to develop a platform for Microsoft. It was a software that was only known for desktop use, like Word. What Microsoft wanted to do was enter into big software, like hotel software.

Question: What happened to the project?

Answer: The project ultimately failed. Both companies, after investing money and time, made a decision not to launch the software. And for me, it was one of the most important experiences of my career, because you learn from failure. When you are successful and the accolades come in and everybody's happy with what you're doing, it's a wonderful place to be, but for growth, you must learn how to deal with adversity and failure. So for me it was a very important experience.

Question: Why did the project fail?

Answer: We wanted to make it - and Microsoft wanted to make it - the project that did everything. It was so rich and so complex that the feeling was, that to deploy it (throughout MGM properties), that there was too much risk to the customer (if it didn't work.) You have to take your old software out, and after that decision, you're done. You have new devices and new back-end software and the people who were leading the company at that time made the wise decision to undo that before we did it. I think, now that I'm a more mature employee and I've had much more experience since then, I think that was the kind of decision that business leaders make that are tough at the time but you know they're the right decision.

Question: When you worked on the CityCenter project, what were some of the challenges?

Answer: The biggest challenge was limited availability of materials. When you want to buy cabinets for 8,000 bathrooms and you want to buy them in a way they don't have materials in them that (emit gas), ... it's very difficult. We broke it down to education and clear communication. I'd never worked on a construction project, and I'd never done anything green. I'd just established the division. We demystified green. There's nothing mysterious about it. ... You knew what you had to do in order to make your part sustainable, and we told you early on, and we actually had you sign off that you were going to do that.

Question: You said that family is most important to you. How do you maintain that while having a successful career as an executive?

Answer: When I started in the company, I made a choice that my priority was going to be my family. I talked to my superiors and I said, "You will never have a 40-hour workweek from me, ever. You will never have less than 100 percent from me, but I will manage my time around what I need to do for my family." I think that's one of the reasons I've stayed in positions that were less demanding on you being there at exact certain times. It's been very accepted by the people who are above me, but also by the groups that I have overseen.

Question: How did growing up on the cattle ranch help you in your professional life?

Answer: When I came into a corporation, I developed relationships that were very, very male-oriented. Very straightforward, very strong leadership skills I had coming in. When I came in to the hospitality industry, although we had women in senior positions, it was easier for me to develop a career because I developed mentorships and coaching with many of the men around me. My current mentor and coach is my current boss, Bobby Baldwin. He's mentored me since I started. I think that being raised on a ranch, I felt very open to those kinds of experiences and those kinds of relationships with men who were really senior to me.

Question: Are you working on anything right now that you're particularly excited about?

Answer: Yes, I am. For us, as a company, the opportunity is in our own community. We have the opportunity, and I would say the responsibility, to help make our community more sustainable.
Nevadan at Work: MGM exec shows passion for greener business is republished from