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Rod Smith

Harrah's Began with Bingo Parlor

21 July 2004

LAS VEGAS -- Harrah's Entertainment, one of the oldest and most recognized operators in the casino entertainment industry nationwide, was founded in 1937 when Bill Harrah opened a hole-in-the-wall bingo parlor in Reno.

By taking what the industry saw as risks and using unorthodox business practices, Harrah built his modest parlor business into an industry icon, leaving a legacy of landmarks scattered across the history of the company and the gaming industry.

His commitment to running a fair and legitimate operation helped make Harrah's a dominant player from Nevada to New Jersey.

The flamboyant Harrah took his company public in 1973 when it became the first gaming company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

It has been cited by BusinessWeek and Forbes magazines as an industry leader, and has won kudos for programs springing from its mission "to build relationships."

As the world's third-largest gaming company (behind Caesars Entertainment and MGM Mirage), Harrah's has been spreading its bets by diversifying geographically.

Harrah's Chairman Phil Satre said Harrah defined the modern gaming industry with his developments, mainly in Northern Nevada.

"Bill Harrah owned the company as a sole proprietor for the 30-plus years he ran the company," he said.

Satre said Harrah, who died in 1978, was the first in the industry to turn to major bank financing, which he used to build Harrah's Lake Tahoe in the mid-1970s.

At a cost of $100,000 per room, it was the first five-star, five-diamond hotel in the casino industry, he said.

"It was seen as exorbitant then, way over the top according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, but the hotel and the financing defined the future of Harrah's and of the gaming industry," Satre said.

In 1980, Harrah's was bought out by Holiday Inn and, although the marriage only lasted 15 years, it forever put a corporate imprimateur on the entrepreneurial company Harrah had founded.

Harrah's still claims its founder's commitment to technology and providing customer-service, but it has grown into a giant intent on pressing its methods of doing business, military-style, on the vast array of properties it acquires.

And in recent years, it has grown through its acquisitions rather than increasing the business and customers it attracts to individual properties.

If the Caesars deal goes through, it will make the modest business Harrah started the biggest gaming company in the world and a colossus of entertainment on Wall Street.

Today, Harrah's operates 26 casinos in 13 states under the Harrah's, Harveys, Rio and Showboat brands in Reno, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, Laughlin and Atlantic City. It also operates riverboat, dockside and Indian reservation casinos.

As of Dec. 31, 2002, Harrah's owned and operated a total of 1.5 million square feet of casino space, 42,585 slot machines, 1,167 table games, 14,431 hotel rooms or suites, approximately 365,422 square feet of convention space and 108 restaurants.

Harrah's completed its most recent acquisition with the $1.45 billion acquisition in July of Horseshoe Gaming Holdings Corp. and its three riverboat operations in Hammond, Ind.; Tunica, Miss.; and Bossier City, La.

Company-owned casinos include Harrah's Atlantic City and the Mardi Gras-themed Atlantic City Showboat in New Jersey; as well as Harrah's and the Rio in Las Vegas. Company executives say its goal is to provide great customer service in exciting and entertaining environments, and to become the first choice for casino entertainment across the country.

Harrah's Began with Bingo Parlor is republished from