Influenced by Kerkorian, Murren joins gaming Hall of Fame

October 4, 2023 11:04 AM
Photo: Courtesy
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
October 4, 2023 11:04 AM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

After a long tenure at the helm of MGM Resorts International, steering the multibillion-dollar gaming giant through bruising recession and financial victory, Jim Murren was at the top of his game when he announced he was stepping down from the company in 2020.

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By anyone’s measure, Murren had been successful at the highest levels of the industry. He’d enjoyed the caliber of career that could easily place his name in the pantheon of the American Gaming Association’s Hall of Fame, a list that includes his mentor the late casino titan Kirk Kerkorian. As such, the AGA recently announced Murren would be among those in its Hall of Fame class of 2023.

In September, he was back in the news with the announcement that he’d been named chairman of the new gaming regulatory authority established by the United Arab Emirates. The General Commercial Gaming Regulatory, in place to introduce a national lottery and commercial casino play in the UAE, would return Murren to an international industry led by former colleagues and competitors.

For many, it was what Murren did on his way out of MGM that makes him a Hall of Famer in other ways.

At a time when he might have been popping champagne corks and sailing into the sunset after leading Nevada’s largest employer, or at the very least remaining far from the fray of an ongoing and deadly pandemic, Murren rolled up his sleeves and joined the fight, becoming the most public face and chairman of then-Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Nevada COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force.

Sisolak left no doubt about his motivation for bringing Murren to the front lines. The gaming executive’s knowledge of the state’s most influential industry, his working relationships with organized-labor officials and healthy contacts in Washington, D.C., made him a natural on a cohesive team of go-getters who understood what was at stake if Nevada sat back and let the crisis play out.

Sisolak had it right when he observed, “That is one of the reasons (for) having this task force assembled, with the assets and the resources of an individual like Jim Murren can open, doors that otherwise, I, as governor, can’t open up. We cannot get enough resources and equipment from the federal government. That’s clear. So we are fighting with the federal government, hand in glove. But that being said, we’re on our own as well, to try to acquire as many of these assets and resources as we can and I’m proud of the fact that we’ve got a group that we’re putting together that’s going to help us access those resources.”

Murren, who worked without compensation, struck the right tone from the outset.

“There’s nothing more important right now than helping our state and each other through this crisis,” he said. “I’m humbled by the opportunity to help the governor in providing relief to the many families suffering personally and economically during this difficult time. When we defeat this pandemic, I’m confident that our state will come roaring back, as we have from the great hardships of the past.”

There were skeptics, not so much of Murren, but whether there would be sufficient buy-in from other influencers in the Las Vegas community. There were. Murren wasn’t on his own and he said so many times throughout his tenure. Other casino executives stepped forward with generosity and understanding of the rising stakes and the greater interest of a population buffeted by a deadly virus and a tanking economy.

The task force was assembled at a time when supplies of personal protective equipment and masks were short, casinos and other businesses closed, and the politicization of the pandemic itself was skyrocketing. Unemployment rose sharply, but fear and panic didn’t win the day. Murren’s steady influence was part of the reason for that.

There were many highlights in Murren’s remarkable run as chairman of MGM Resorts International. In addition to guiding Nevada’s largest employer through a lengthy recession and slow economic recovery, he was a central figure in the effort to rescue CityCenter, the enormous casino-resort complex that set a new standard for what was possible on the Las Vegas Strip.

Murren represented a new generation of gaming industry executives who weren’t raised in the business, climbing the ladder from the casino floor to the CEO’s office. It’s a common sight nowadays, as casino companies have grown and evolved into complex international corporate structures with megaresorts and financing located far from the glittering Strip.

Born in 1961 in Bridgeport, Conn., Murren graduated from Trinity College, then marched to Wall Street as a financial analyst and played a key role in the recapitalization of MGM Grand, Inc. After serving as director of Deutsche Bank’s equity-research unit, in 1998, he joined MGM as its CFO. A year later, he was named president in a growing corporation defined by gaming legend Kirk Kerkorian’s understated leadership and influence. A decade after joining the company, he was its chief executive officer.

One of Kerkorian’s lessons: “(He) taught me the importance in looking forward and to look back only to understand how things could be done better.”

Murren almost immediately embarked on what would become a $15 billion acquisition plan that added Mirage Resorts and Mandalay Resort Group to its list of pearl properties, along with other profitable casinos.

With Murren leading a reorganization effort, the company managed to outrun the Great Recession and plan for future growth in the form of what would become known as its greatest venture, CityCenter. The superlatives were sparkling: It would be the largest private-investment effort and the largest energy-wise “green” development in the country’s history. For a time, the laurels seemed unceasing.

When lingering recession and construction problems called for a financial infusion and a new investment partner, Murren again used his growing catalog of contacts to get the job over the finish line. He won the praise of U.S. Senator Harry Reid, who lauded Murren’s efforts at saving thousands of jobs and the state’s biggest employer and played an integral role in turning potential failure into stunning success.

Murren has lauded Kerkorian for teaching him many things about business and life. When the lion of MGM died in 2015, Murren wrote a letter that was circulated through the company. It read in part:

“I count myself fortunate to have known and worked closely with him under his adroit leadership. Some of you who have been with the company long enough also had the opportunity to engage with and come to know him.

“In his 98 years, Kirk Kerkorian probably did more – while receiving less attention – than anyone else in Las Vegas history. He worked for the betterment of our city, our industry, and our company.

“I wish more of you, especially our younger employees, had opportunities to know him as well. He was a wonderful man. He did not carry himself as the giant of our industry that he was, but conducted himself humbly, allowing his hard work and keen insights to speak for him. He worked his magic quietly, effectively, and without fanfare. …

“If more of us would choose to lead our lives in the manner he did, we would live in a far better world.”

When the last of the Kerkorian family’s Tracinda Corp. stock in MGM was sold a few years later, Murren marked the moment and reminded everyone, “The values instilled by Mr. Kerkorian when he founded MGM are what we still live by today – a focus on visionary ideas and creating value for shareholders; a dedication to bettering the communities in which we operate; an emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and being a responsible corporate citizen.

“In an industry with a history of flash and big egos, Mr. Kerkorian’s example of leading with vision, humility, and compassion is truly inspiring and serves as a driving force behind everything we do. His legacy will continue to live on at MGM Resorts.”

In his own way and time, Jim Murren did his part to carry that legacy forward to a new generation.