Good ol’ Boyd
Even in these hard economic times, a gaming bigwig takes time to get to know everyone
Tue, Nov 3, 2009 (6 p.m.)
Photo: Steve Friess
Bill Boyd and I hit a dead end, one of several. There was a door there, and he opened it, only to have his neatly combed silver hair blown about by a sudden, chilly gust of wind sweeping in from a rooftop.
“Nope, nothing up here, that’s the wrong way to go,” he chuckled in his folksy manner, a little embarrassed. Then, leading me back down another nondescript hallway, Boyd gave pretty much every doorknob a twist, and one of them opened to reveal someone sitting at a desk doing some sort of desky kind of work.
“Hi there, Bill Boyd, how ya doin’?” he asked. The dumbfounded lady shook his hand, said she was well and it was nice to meet him. He wished her a nice Halloween and a good weekend and closed the door.
As we returned to the hallway and headed back toward the more populated parts of Main Street Station, he was a bit triumphant. “You never know what you might find,” he said. “That’s why I go through these halls like this. We don’t want to miss anybody, so we open every door.”
There are easier ways to do this. He’s the multimillionaire executive chairman of one of the world’s biggest gaming corporations, as recently as 2005 listed as the 235th richest American in Forbes’ annual list, before a precipitous stock-value slide. If William S. Boyd, 77, wants to meet every dang employee and shake every gosh-darned hand—or if he just wants to be shown around one of his properties without accidentally wandering onto a rooftop—he could arrange for it to happen with more efficiency and better planning than this.
But that wouldn’t exactly be the point. Since retiring as CEO of his eponymous corporation nearly two years ago, Boyd has decided to “get back to what we did when we were much smaller, and that is get out to the properties, meet the people who are actually making money for us and servicing customers.”
And so every month or so, he picks one or two of his 16 properties—last Friday it was Main Street Station and its connected-by-a-pedestrian-bridge cousin, the California—and wanders unannounced all over the place, looking for employees to meet. We meandered together through the kitchen of the buffet, wandered through the casino pit, stopped in the areas where the housekeepers were putting towels and shampoo on those carts. At every turn, he went through a simple script much like the one above.
Dressed in a beige Polo shirt, a plaid light-brown jacket and tan slacks, Boyd ambled proudly through Main Street having brief, perfunctory conversations with his charges, most but not all of whom recognize him. The purpose of the walkabouts is not so much to seriously connect with employees—Boyd must know that’s impossible in such an enormous corporation—but to say hello, show his face, impart a sense of caring. Everyone seems to have about the exact right level of expectations, with Boyd not trying to force deeper conversations than are appropriate and employees offering their regards. “I’ve seen your picture, but I never met ya,” one gift-shop lady told him.
It does get nostalgic and touching, though. Jim Aldridge, who has worked for the company as a bellman for 30 years, dating all the way back to the opening of Sam’s Town, recalled to Boyd how they threw parties at Sam’s for cab drivers to convince them to bring customers out there. A blackjack dealer named Carmen told Boyd that the photo they took together at her 10th anniversary appreciation dinner is blown up and framed in her living room, where she tells her children, “This is my boss. He’s the one who pays the bills here.”
There is, however, something jarring about Bill Boyd’s contradictions. He projects himself as jovial and folksy, but when one dishwasher asked how Bill was, the mogul gave a macroeconomic response: “We’re survivors, we’ll be okay. Soon we’ll be back to booming.” I’m sure the dishwasher was just worried sick.
The shark of a businessman buried under the congenial grandpa facade came out again later when an unbidden Boyd told some dealers the company was making a serious play to pick up some properties from bankrupt rival Station Casinos. He was asked the status of Echelon, the stalled $5 billion project that was to replace the Stardust but was mothballed last year when credit got tight and the economy tanked. He replied: “Eventually we will finish the Echelon, and, as we did before with Borgata and other places, you will all have an opportunity to apply for jobs there.”
No, this is no doddering elderly figurehead. He’s the son of the legendary Sam Boyd, who came to Las Vegas in 1941 with $80 in his pocket and went to work in various entry-level jobs at, among others, the long-gone Jackpot Casino on Fremont Street and the El Rancho, the first Strip resort. Sam Boyd grew a minor empire out of his savings, picking up an interest in the Sahara and opening the El Dorado, a tiny Henderson joint that still exists. The father and son then opened the California in 1975 and invented the locals casino market by plopping Sam’s Town out on remote Boulder Highway in 1979. In the early 1980s, the state asked the Boyds to operate the post-mobster Stardust, leading the company to buy the Stardust and Fremont for a combined $165 million. That, Boyd believes, was the largest bank loan ever obtained by a casino company at that point.
It was Bill Boyd who decided to turn the company public in 1993 to raise capital for expansion into other states and then, earlier this decade, merged with Coast Casinos to better compete with Station.
It’s ironic, then, that Boyd is now trying to recapture something with these walkabouts that no longer exists, and that, in fact, he helped to bury with all that corporate expansion: The owner’s personal touch.
“There aren’t very many companies today that have someone who grew up in the business and understands the business,” he said. “For the most part, they’re being operated by lawyers, accountants and businesspeople who ran big corporations. They don’t have the same feel for the customers and employees that we do.”
To be fair, though, the exception isn’t really Boyd. It’s Steve Wynn at the Wynn or George Maloof at the Palms. Both are well-known CEOs who regularly interact with ordinary people in their casinos.
Still, Boyd gets an A for effort.
“I have a friend who deals cards over at Bally’s, and she don’t got any idea who runs that company,” one dealer told me. “None. So will I be over for dinner at Mr. Boyd’s place? No. But it’s still nice, y’know? Nobody cares about working people anymore. He don’t need to do this. He could just be off playing golf and counting his money.”