Arte Nathan

July 24, 2007
Posted in interviews
July 24, 2007 Terkel

Arte Nathan seems an intimidating man. In his 20 years in the gaming industry, the Cornell graduate hired more than 80,000 people to staff hotels all over the world. His secret? Go ask your mother.

After leaving law school, Arte managed a steel company in New York until he was injured on the job. This led to a two year hospital stay, perhaps the root of his understanding how people want to be treated. That, as well as an excellent recall of every piece of advice his mother gave him.

The simplicity is a misnomer. As the head of human resources for Steve Wynn, Arte oversaw the staffing of hotels that would eventually dominate the market. He gives credit to Mr. Wynn, however, who sees “human resources not as a department, but as the department.” That sentiment, after the intimidation subsides, radiates from Arte.

He once dressed up as Mrs. Doubtfire to give a talk to an audience full of employees, simply to put them more at ease. It is that sensitivity that Arte used to study Chinese culture for a year before attempting to staff a hotel in Macau. His diligence paid off. Arte retired from the gaming industry, but could not quit working for good, as he simply has too much energy.

Today he is the vice president of human resources for Irvine Resort Properties, and he carries into this new endeavor his style developed in the gaming world. Respecting and valuing employees “isn’t a thing we have to do. It is the way run our business.” Sounds like something a mother might say.


What have you learned about people?

People like to come to work at a place where there’s a lot of respect and fairness.  In most companies, the pay is about equal.  The benefits are about equal.  But the treatment is all over the place.  And if you can provide a work environment where people have fun, feel as though they can get ahead, feel that there’s a lot of respect and fair treatment, I think they’ll stay with you. 

It was an idea we came up with that didn’t have a lot of those things.  We tried it out, and in successive properties, they became more successful.  At the end of the day, we probably had the highest performing casino hotels with the lowest turnover and the highest productivity.  So it seems to have worked.

Back in the mid 1980’s and into the early 1990’s, hotels didn’t have a lot of Human Resource expertise.  They had people who maintained personnel files.  They had people who made sure that you got paid correctly.  We started a program called Employee Services. It was to treat our employees like guests.  Over the years, we extended that to treating applicants like guests.  And treat them the way we wanted to treat our very best guests.

At the end of the day, we had the lowest turnover of any hospitality company in the United States.  We have to attribute that to this program of treating people well.  And putting ourselves in their shoes, understanding what they like, what they want, what they need.  Maybe it’s the golden rule- treating people they way they want to be treated.  And they responded very positively to that. 

I was lucky that I had a guy like Steve Wynn, who gave all the support you can imagine.  He loved Human Resources.  He believed that Human Resources wasn’t a department, it was the department.  It wasn’t a thing we had to do, it was a thing that ran our business.  He just kept supporting me in the ideas that I had, and I kept running to achieve the goals that he had.  And together, we were very successful.  It was a fun career.

I retired from there last year and had a chance to come to California to work for another company that is 150 years old.  They believe in all those same things.  Very passionate about people.  Very passionate about excellence.  That’s what I like about working.  If you can get into an environment like that, you can have fun and be successful. 

So is that your passion?  Putting people in places where they can excel?  Why are you passionate about Human Resources?

Because you have a chance to shape somebody’s life.  You have a chance to give them something that they have hoped for, but rarely found.  And if you can create that environment, and that connection with them, you can see the excitement on their faces.  And you can follow their progress, where they get to do things that they’ve only dreamed about.  That they get to be fulfilled and rewarded for things they’ve heard others may have done, but they never got a chance to.  And, just the excitement on their face.  I don’t know if you remember the first time you rode a bike.  The first time your father lets go of the bike, and you don’t know it.  All of a sudden you discover that, and then you think, ‘Wow.  I’m doing this on my own. Wow.’  And you get all excited.  You see that look on a kid’s face, you see that look on employee’s faces. When they get in that same kind of employment situation.  I live for that.  I think it is so cool to watch an employee to finally, get the realization that this is it.  This is what I’ve been thinking about.  This is what I wanted.

But yet, most people don’t find it.  I like to figure out a way to give it to them.  That’s what I love about Human Resources. 

Do you have a first time you rode the bike moment with Human Resources where you realized that this was your industry?

It’s not that it was this industry, it was the idea that in Human Resources, and in management in general, people tend to be like McGruff the Crime Dog.  They want to catch people doing things wrong.  And they think that’s so cool that ‘I caught him.  I stopped that from going on.’  And people hate that stuff.  And they really don’t react positively to that.  And I thought, ‘What if you catch people doing things right? What if you actually thanked them for doing what you asked them to do?’ 

When I first proposed this at the Golden Nugget, the management team looked at me as if I was crazy.  They wanted to know where the basis for this came from.  I said it’s in that pysch 101 class that you took in college where you learn that the behaviors that are good are the ones you ought to pay attention to.  And if you pay attention to them, they’ll be repeated.  And if you don’t pay attention to them, people will do anything to get your attention. 

So I thought, ‘What if we go after people for doing things right?’  I challenged the management team to catch people doing things right.  At that time, turnover was horrendous.  Much higher than the industry average.

We tried it out in the housekeeping department.  Tough job.  Dull job.  We started with the maids.  And I said, ‘Look.  You have very high turnover among the maids.  What if we stopped giving out disciplines and we give out stars.  For everything you did right, you get a star and you can redeem these stars for goods and stuff you couldn’t sell in the retail stores and were piling up in the warehouse. 

We started this, and everyone was mad at me. This was not going to work.  Turnover went from 300% to 75% in six months, and down to 8% after a year.  Just by catching people doing things right.  And the looks on the faces of the maids, and the excitement on the managers faces when they saw that this actually worked.  And that this was more fun than being tough on people, and trying to find out who did what wrong. 

Because people come to work everyday and they want to do a good job.  And they want to be recognized for doing a good job.  Or just doing the job you asked them to do.  So why wouldn’t you thank them for just that? 

It was a revelation that I started talking about throughout SHRM and all my friends there.  People were a little surprised that they hadn’t thought of it themselves, because it’s an obvious thing.  They were more surprised at how effective it was.  And it really turned around the management style at Mirage Resorts.  It turned around the way we engaged ourselves with the employees, and how they saw us.  All of a sudden, it became a nicer, fairer, better place to work.  And it really calmed down.  Everyone enjoyed it.  And we did a lot better.  That was one of those ‘aha’ moments. 

It’s funny.  Most things that are very successful are not real complicated.  If you just try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it usually works.  Because you’ll see it, you’ll know what they want.  And you can give it to them.

It took a leap of faith however, to get people to go through with this.  At the end of the day, they thought, ‘Nope. You want me to write them up so I can get rid of them.’  And when I told them no, we want to thank them so we can keep them, that was a big thing.  It was one of those ‘aha’ moments.

Is that mentality, like you said, it’s so simple, everybody should be doing it, but why aren’t companies today doing that?

I don’t know.  It’s probably one of those guy things.  Where you have to be tougher than the next guy.  Where you want to be seen in the board room as the toughest dude in there.  And you don’t need to be.  You just have to be the one who’s right.  And you have to have some guts to try things like this.  It was just one of those things.

And it started me on a long road of doing fun things like that for people.  And I think our employees appreciated it. 

So you mentioned earlier that you retired last year from the casino business, was that the only time you retired?

Ah, I tried it once before.  That didn’t work.  I got bored.  I was a consultant.  That didn’t seem to work.  I didn’t have the DNA to be a consultant.  If I have an idea, I like to run it all the way to home plate.  I don’t like to just talk to people about it.  So I went back to work in the gaming business.  I took three years off as a consultant.  It was okay.  I got bored though. 

What brought you out of it?  Just that boredom?

Part of it was the boredom, but the other part was when Steve Wynn called me and said he was starting a new company and asked if I could help him open a new casino in Las Vegas and in China.  And getting the international experience, and learning how people operate in a different culture, and trying out the ideas that I had that worked very well in the United States, and see if they translated internationally.  And they did.

It was really an interesting idea.  In Macow, where they had never had big time gaming, like we had in Las Vegas, they weren’t ready for somebody like us.  They certainly weren’t ready for big American companies and big American policies and procedures.  I was nervous about it.  We actually took a whole year to study the culture and to learn the culture before we actually went there.  And if we hadn’t done that, I think we would have made a lot of mistakes. 

We made a conscious decision to hire a lot of Chinese nationals to run that company, as opposed to bringing in a lot of foreign nationals, in the U.S. or Australia.  And that was very successful.  The community appreciated that, the employees respected that, and they worked very carefully with us to make sure these things were successful.  And it was a great opening.

You said that there were a lot of similarities between the cultures and the staff and what motivates people?

There weren’t a lot of similarities. But at the end of the day, people are people.  I think that no matter where you are…if you were to go around the world, and I had the chance to do this in a couple of the properties because they were so diverse and multicultural.  But if you were to ask a room full of a hundred people from fifty different countries, and you were to read some statements that are ‘My mother said to me as a kid.’  And I’m going to read some of these, and tell me if you’re mother said that.  So I said the first is, ‘Sit up straight.’ Everyone raises their hand.  I said, ‘Ok. How about ‘Wash your hands.’’ Everybody raises their hands.  If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it.  I’ve got a thousand of these.  I’ve been studying up on things your mother used to tell you.  They really do apply at life and at work. 

As I read off fifty of these statements, ‘It hurts me more than it hurts you,’ everybody in the room was agreeing.  It dawned on me right then that most people in the world have had a basic understanding of how to interact with one another.  If you were to say to treat others the way you want to be treated, I suppose that’s something someone can learn in Sunday school, but it’s far deeper than that.  People who are non-religious learn the same thing from their parents.  So on that level, people are pretty similar.  They’re all looking for the same kinds of things.  So if you just dealt them in a way that showed you respected their culture and understood the dynamics of how they lived their lives, then you could probably be successful.

As opposed to coming in there and saying we’re going to have a job fair.  In China you certainly can’t have a job fair and be successful.  Because everyone is afraid that someone will see them applying for a job.  And that’s disrespectful, because if you have a job, it’s disrespectful to apply to another one. 

So all the other companies that were trying to start in China were having these big job fairs where no one would show up, because they were afraid to be seen.  We said we were going to allow them to apply online.  Everyone yelled at me.  ‘They’re not going to able to apply online!  What’s a matter with you?’  Well, we got 65,000 applications in a little under a month by people applying online.  And they were so thrilled that we didn’t make them come in and expose themselves in the beginning. 

That’s just a simple example of how we learned their culture and applied our ideas to their culture.  And showed that we were respectful of them.  And that made us very successful.

So we’ve been talking a lot about people and employees and getting the most of employees, how important is passion?

If you don’t love what you do, you should quit.  Unfortunately, more than 60% of the American people hate their jobs.  I don’t know how they get up in the morning and go to work.  If you don’t have a passion, if you don’t have a fire in the belly, if this isn’t so exciting that you can’t wait to get back there the next morning, then you shouldn’t do it.

The economy is good enough right now that you should go looking for a job like that. And you shouldn’t have any notions of what’s right and wrong for you as an individual.  It should be something that you love to do. 

I think I was born to do Human Resources.  I love this.  And every day I come in to this job or my previous jobs just full of energy.  ‘What can I try today?  What can I come up with that will make people say that this is a great place to work?’

And if you can make it a great place to work, that’s saying something.  And it’s good for people because they spend eight hours a day where they work.  You don’t spend eight hours a day anyplace else.  You don’t interact with the same group of people for eight hours in any other level of your life.  So you’ve got to make this one great.  And I think you should hold out for that, and keep looking for that.

On the flipside, I think employers have a responsibility to make it like that.  If they don’t make it like that, I think that they are cheating themselves, their employees, and their customers.  And it’s so easy to do.  It’s not like this is rocket science.  No offense to the rocket scientists in the world, but it is simple to do if you just think about it. 

‘What turns me on?  What do I love about what it is I’m doing?  What do I like about this environment?’

And if I do like it, and I think it’s great, I should make that for everybody.  And I don’t think enough companies do that. 

And we argue about this thing called the ‘War for Talent.’  I think that’s bullshit.  I really do.  Bad companies can’t find employees.  They can’t keep employees.  All you have to look at is how they train and treat their people.  They don’t put any energy into it.  And everyone says, ‘Employees are my most important asset.  My biggest asset.’  And they put no money into it.  And every chance they get they cut this and they cut that.  I think if you invest in your people, they’ll invest in the company and make it successful. 

And creating the passion, having the passion, everyone that works here at the Irvine Company is so passionate about what they do, and doing things right, the quality aspect of what they do, and I love that. 

Didn’t your mother say that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right? 

Noah: My momma told me that.

It’s funny because you just go repeat these things to people.  They agree.  And you wonder where do their mothers come up with this?  How do mothers all over the world know these things?  And it’s just common sense.  I’m not sure that there are many businesses that incorporate common sense in how they run things.  They should do more of that.

Brett: I can definitely relate to that because Zach and I were corporate auditors before we started doing this.

That’s an exciting job.  Did you have a passion for that?

Brett: Not at all.  And it made it worse because the employer treated us like we were another number in a big environment.  Just sit at your computer and go home and wonder why you’re doing it.

It’s really not the job of auditing that made it boring.  It was the employer. 

Brett: It was the environment.

Just thinking about how they want to make this place.  I mean, a nice environment, clean rugs, bright lights, nice windows.  I think a lot of things go into making a place nice.  But how you’re treated.  Does your boss know who you are?  Say good morning and good night?  Hello and thank you?  Those are just the things you learn as a human being.  It’s the right way to interact with human beings. 

I don’t know if we encourage that enough at work.  I don’t think companies pay enough attention to it.  If they did, more people would be happy with where they work.  Unfortunately, the statistics are frightening how many people hate where they work.  Not dislike, not ‘I rather get something better,’ but they hate it!  And they have to get up and trudge to work.

Can you imagine that?  It’s like carrying a fifty pound bowling ball on your head. 

Zach: I had a question.  A lot of what we’ve been talking about is how to give the employees the respect they deserve, which, without question is invaluable.  But you also talked about fun, and when we’re at Jobing, it seems like all the employees are having fun, so without a doubt, you can create that environment.  But what do you do to create that environment when employees are having fun and distinguishing…

Fun and enjoyment are somewhat synonymous.  And if they enjoy where they work, then they’ll have some fun.  And there are little things you can do.  I mean, how many companies encourage employees to sing together?  People love to sing.  They just love to sing.  People listen to music all the time, so you’re allowed to hum at work. 

Now most companies would freak out by humming at work.  Well, allow people to bring some music in their life.  What’s wrong with that?  How about if you have a book club at work?  How about you have lunches that encourage people to sit around and tell jokes to one another?  We often complain that no jokes should be told at work.  Like jokes don’t exist.  Well they do exist.

Tell me something funny that happened to you this weekend.  ‘Did you have a good weekend’ is what you ask your employees.  They go, ‘Well yeah, I had a good weekend.’  They probably didn’t, but they feel compelled to say they did.  ‘Tell me something funny that happened this weekend.’  As a manager, that’s more fun.  Because managers often say, ‘We don’t have enough money to pay our employees.  We don’t have enough of a budget to give big increases.  And I’ve got nothing to give my employees.’  Well you have yourself to give to your employees.  And if you do that with humor and humility and a sense of creating a better place, employees won’t be so fixated on the little bit that you have for