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Audio: Bill Smith Interview - Steve Wynn's Mentorship and Building the Las Vegas CityCenter


By: Geoff Woods

Today you join me for my conversation with Bill Smith, the former President and COO of MGM Design Group, and the man who was in charge of building the Las Vegas CityCenter. To date, this is the largest privately funded development project in the history of the United States and cost over $9 billion. We dive into what he learned from Steve Wynn as his mentor, how he goes about making his projects extra special and generates incredible returns, and Bill’s advice to YOU, the entrepreneur.

The reason I introduce you to guys like Bill is because surrounding you with the right mentors and the right ideas will accelerate your progress toward your goals.

Lessons From His Mentor Steve Wynn

To become world-class, there are a few key things you need to have consistently. First is quality. With Steve there was always a focus on quality. To give you some perspective on the cost of building a resort in Las Vegas, Bellagio was built for $1.6 billion, Sands was built for $1.2 billion. With Steve Wynn, his costs to build were the same, but then he would go and spend an extra $2 million on extras (the conservatory, the lake). Why would he do this? Steve understood something that the others did not. By spending the extra $2 million he was able to create an environment that distinguished his resorts and attract a certain affluent clientele. It also produced fantastic returns on his investment in the long run. Clearly Steve had a vision.

Once that vision was formed, Steve taught Bill that you have to hire world-class talent to produce world-class results. This was deeply imprinted in Bill’s mind as he moved over to MGM as their President and COO of Design and was in charge of building City Center. He went out and hired the best of the best from the architectural world and the results speak for themselves if you have had the privilege of stepping foot in City Center.

Lessons Learned Building City Center You Can Use in Your Business

Hire the top people. Look for people who have already done what you are looking for. When the stakes are high, you cannot place bets on people. You need to work with people you know can get the job done. To do that, you need to know you can trust them to deliver. Then its your job to empower them and get out of their way.

Remove the fear that mistakes lead to getting fired. Everyone makes mistakes. Create an environment where you are expected to tell your superiors about the mistake quickly so it can be resolved, instead of waiting and potentially turning it into a bigger problem. To help with this, we held a 1-hour meeting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 8am – 9am to discuss new problems with my top 26 people. By forcing everyone to get their problems out in the open quickly, you develop a team environment that is agile and problem-solving-focused. For many aspiring entrepreneurs, the fear of failure can be paralyzing. It is better to get started and make mistakes, then to never start at all.

Build a unified vision. When starting a project, I like to sit down with all the key players from the CEO to the CFO, etc. Everyone has a different vision or area that they care about. Once everyone has shared their vision, we all come together in one room for one day and identify the vision in written form on one page. This is then shared with every person in the organization so there is complete understanding of the vision for the project.

Commitment. The team has to be committed when taking on a project like City Center. One way to gain the commitment of your people is to make them feel like they have are in charge of their specific responsibilities. Telling them, “you are in charge of this building”, “you are the boss” will empower anyone.

Bill’s Advice to You, the Entrepreneur

  • Don’t be afraid to take risks

  • Capitalization – If you do not have enough money to start a business, do not do it. You need enough capital to keep the business going for at least one year, including salaries for you and your people.

  • Work with people who are credible and clients that will pay you.

  • Do your homework before you start a business. Meet with the people who have done what you want to do and find out where the mistakes are so you do not have to make them

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