September 13, 2007 brett

Gamal Aziz, CEO of MGM Mirage and COO of the MGM Grand, has spent his entire life in the tourism industry. Born in Egypt, Gamal was fortunate enough to naturally acquire various languages as a child, possibly foreshadowing a life of demanding communication. At 16, Gamal spent his entire savings on a roundtrip ticket to France; his first job was bussing tables in Paris. After business school at the University of Cairo, Gamal realized that his “true passion is quality service.”

Today, Gamal uses that passion to lead more than 9,000 employees, a responsibility he gladly undertakes. “It is essential to know,” says Gamal, “That leadership is leadership, wherever you employ it,” whether as the CEO, or a pool attendant.

Interview

Where did you really think you were going to go in your career?

I was fortunate enough, Brett, in that at a very young age, I really had an idea that I wanted to be a part of tourism.  But I didn’t know how.

I was blessed in the sense that I spoke several languages.  In the environment that I was, speaking several languages offered you an opportunity to work in tourism and hotels.  Egypt is a very rich country from a tourism standpoint.  From the pyramids to all of the ancient culture that it has. 

Even in the neighborhood where I grew up, there were a lot of tourists from all over the world.  I was one of those people that could speak Italian, English, French…with that, I got truly impressed with the entire tourism sector.

As I was going through school, high school and so on, my focus was ‘How would I use my talent for my linguistic abilities to make a living?’  I chose to go to the business school at Cairo University so that hopefully one day I could know the business side as well as the linguistic side.  And marry those to be in the hotel business.  So that’s how it all started.  I had a little bit of clarity and I was blessed enough that in the environment where I lived, it was omnipresent in my environment.  Tourism was everywhere. 

What was your first job?

My very first job was at 16.  I was a busboy in a restaurant. 

Nice.  That was in Cairo?

That was actually in Paris.  My first trip to Europe at age 16. 

So world traveler at age 16.

Well actually guys, at age 16 I decided to travel on my own.  I had enough money just for the round trip plane ticket.  At the time it was less than $100 bucks to get a roundtrip from Paris to Cairo.  That was literally all the money I had.  I may have had $120 dollars.

As soon as I landed at the airport I started asking people if they would give me a job.  Finally, a restaurant took me in.  I fell in love with that business.  That was my first job.

Now here you are sitting in the chief executive chair.  What’s your true passion here in Las Vegas?  Is it gambling?  Is it growing business?  Is it people?

You know my true passion is providing quality service.  My true passion is to provide a vision for a group. 

At the MGM Grand for example, we have 9,200 employees.  One of the greatest accomplishments a leader can have is to be able to influence a group of people to go towards a commitment of quality and financial performance.

If you’re able to share a vision and see that people are pursuing that vision, I think that is the highest of your accomplishments. 

I get tremendous rewards.  This company has far exceeded any expectations from a revenue standpoint, from a profitability standpoint, from a people growing and getting promoted and educated standpoint.  We have so much to be proud of.  For the last two years, MGM Grand has been named Best Place to Work.  Those are the only two awards I put next to me on my desk because that’s the thing I’m most proud of.

In the state of Nevada, we’ve been selected to be the Best Place to Work.  That’s a huge accomplishment for our team. 

I’ve heard through the grapevine that Las Vegas is growing.  It’s booming.  There’s going to be a ton of jobs available for the people. 

It really has.  It has been growing for the longest time.

The rumor is that they’ll be too many jobs and not enough people.  Too much opportunity.  There’s talk about people bouncing from place to place.  Why would your employees stay at MGM Grand, and what’s going to continue to keep them happy here?

I think the point of being the Best Place to Work is something that has been determined by the employees.  This is an employee based survey, and out of 65 companies, our company was selected Best Place to Work. 

What keeps the employees employed at the MGM Grand and the reason we have the lowest turnover is the fact that opportunities are omnipresent.  You always have an opportunity to grow.  You always have an opportunity to transfer and get a better job.  Get a promotion. 

There’s an extraoridinary focus in our company on diversity.  So really, we don’t look at it as anybody, age group, male female, African American Hispanic, whatever your background, no one has an exclusivity on talent.  No one has an exclusivity on intellect.  We look at everybody as equal and say, ‘Here’s the stage.  How would you perform better than anybody else?’ 

That stage, as you do your job and excel at it, we offer the best of opportunities.  I mean, we have 78,000 employees, and those that rise to the top work the hardest, smartest, and are willing to take risk. 

So it’s giving them that stage.

Giving them opportunity.  Letting them know that there is rewards when you work hard.  When you’re a self starter.  When you initiate those things that amount to a level of success for the organization. 

And you mentioned taking risks.  Can you remember a time in your career when you took a risk and it backfired?

(Laughs).  Backfired.  You know, if you say that every risk you’ve taken has been a wild success, that would be an exaggeration.  But quite honestly, compared to the success that we’ve had, by taking a risk at the Bellagio and creating the company that it is today by doing something completely different and new.  Same thing here with the MGM Grand. 

But I think the perfect example is that when you take a risk and it backfires.  I can’t tell you a specific one.  It’s absolutely essential that you admit it’s not working.  Go on, change it, close it, open up something else and get out of it. 

What a lot of executives do because of their pride or possibly their ego, is when they make a mistake, they want to run for cover.  They want to say that it’s the audience that doesn’t understand.  Maybe it’s the customers that don’t get it.  The reality of the matter is- if you take a risk and it doesn’t work out, it’s okay.  I’m the first one to raise my hand and say we missed.  And on to the next because what you’ll realize is that in the number of initiatives and risk taking that you take, you’ll always have a disappointment. 

The best possible way to overcome that is to move on.  Is to admit it, and then move on.  Because people will remember the good and lasting things.  We’ve done that several times when something doesn’t work. 

So you mentioned to Zach and I that you’re touring a few colleges and speaking to students.  What kind of advice do you give them in regards to finding their passion in a career?

You know it could be as simple as recognizing what you’re good at.  A lot of people don’t realize that if you’re someone that’s really good with computers, that may be your calling.  If you’re someone that’s really good around people, and people flock to you, that may be your calling.  If you’re someone that draws beautifully and has got a great imagination- recognizing the simplest of comforts of things that come naturally- that may be your calling and career. 

There’s nothing greater than doing what you love and loving what you do.  There really isn’t.  That’s the greatest compliment that one can have in their career.  Is to just be passionate about what you’re doing.

What a waste it is if you’re someone that just dreads going to the office or going to the store and doing a job that you can’t stand. 

In my case, I really followed something that was as simple as speaking lanuages.  But in order for me to speak languages, I really had to be around people from different parts of the world.  And in order to be around people from different parts of the world, I had to be in tourism.  It was as simple as that. 

My brother is a civil engineer.  He’s a perfect person that can imagine buildings in his head since he was 9, 10 years old.  The simplest answer to this is that it’s there.  You don’t have to go buy 51 books and research what it is that you’re good at.  You can just find it in what you do, day in and day out. 

What do you flock to?  What do you have the most comfort with?  It could be sports, it could be in technology, it could be in the things you read in the paper and are excited about.  It could be in writing.  You just have to identify it.  Write it down.  What are the ten things you’re really good at.  Simple or complex, it doesn’t matter.  Just write down what you’re good at.  What do people tell you you’re good at?  If you’re really at such a  loss, as to not even being able to identify at what you’re good at, ask your closet peers and family.  ‘What do you think I’m good at?  What do you see in me that’s really good in what I do?’  And people will tell you. 

‘You take great photographs.  I love the letter you wrote.  You’re an actor.’  Who knows.

Between the people that are surrounding you, and your own sense of what’s comfortable and what’s natural to you, you can definitely come up with an idea of what you can be good at.  Or you can decide to be a doctor and go to medical school.  I don’t know. 

So if you could tell yourself just one piece of advice at 22 years old, when you’re sitting there at Cairo University, what’s the one thing that you would say to yourself?

I would say believe in yourself.  I would say there are going to be thousands of people along the road, along the journey, that will tell you that you can’t do it.  You have to have the inner strength to believe that you can do it. 

If it’s something you’re passionate about, and something you see in yourself, you will accomplish it. 

Really fundamentally believing in yourself.  Because it gets pretty tough out there.  You just need to pursue your passion. 

Z: I got kinda of a quick question.  So you worked for the Bellagio before this.

I opened the Bellagio.

Z: Okay.  Now you’re working here.  I’m sure they’re similar positions, but there’s probably a lot of versatility that you have to be able to have to move from place to place like that in an executive position.  What are the common themes that link those two jobs that made you available to do those things.  And how important is that versatility?

I think it’s essential to know that leadership is leadership regardless of where you employ it.  The focus is having the vision.  Having it clear and being able to communicate that to people.  Because people are people.  Believe it or not, people want to be led.  Because it’s hard to be a leader.  If you are selected to be a leader, you accept that responsibility and people will follow. 

But the idea is to have a vision, share that vision often enough so that people can naturally go towards that vision.  Understanding your audience and understanding the customers.  The customers at MGM are different than the customer at the Bellagio.  So you cannot employ the same marketing techniques.  You can employ the same product service techniques.  And you just have to understand who your audience is here, who is your audience there, and at the end of the day, it’s really about quality. 

Someone like myself has been associated with quality and product for my entire career.  That’s a theme I’ve never really veered away from. 

Z: What’s harder about being a leader?  Establishing a vision or getting people to follow you?

If they will follow you, the sky is the limit.  The ultimate accomplishment for a leader is those that have the confidence that they will follow you.  Will they follow you?  If you’re confident of that question, if that question is answered with a resound ‘yes,’ you rank right up there amongst the greatest.  But none of us can be certain they will follow you.  It’s a constant pursuit for many of us to be able to communicate the vision and hope they’ll follow you. 

I can share with you that I’m very fortunate that in the many years I’ve been doing this, that the success we have been met with is completely due to the fact that people have followed.  People have executed on the vision and got us to where we are.

Z: Is it leading by example, or just persuasion? 

I think leading by example works in smaller circles.  Leading by example can be done when you’re in a team of eleven.  Or a team of 20.  They see everything that you do.  I think leadership on the scope and scale of what I’m talking about, the example now becomes a higher example.  It’s an example of integrity, honesty, dedication, and not necessarily, ‘You will follow me because I’m cleaning the floor.  So you will clean the floor.’ 

I think sometimes we also may exaggerate the whole ‘lead by example’ bit.  It’s really about providing a vision.  And follow that vision yourself.  Do it with the highest level of integrity. 

Z: Ok.

B: I was wondering about what’s misunderstood about the gaming business or Las Vegas in general.

I think Las Vegas has completely transformed itself from a pure gaming destination to an entertainment destination.  I think when I first arrived here eleven years ago, gaming represented nearly 70% of the business.  Today, gaming is in the neighborhood of 35% of the business, and the rest is in hotels, food and beverage, theater, shows, retail, you name it.  The guests have come to expect an entertainment experience from Las Vegas.

There are many, many, millions of guests that come to Las Vegas and never go to a slot machine or a table.  They come for the great restaurants, the great shows, the great hotel pool spa experience. 

I still, as I travel around the world, people will think that Las Vegas is only about gaming.  But that is slowly but surely being corrected.  We have the highest convention attendees in the world.  There are no other cities in the world that come close to the number of conventioneers and people attending conferences as in the city of Las Vegas that can be matched anywhere in the world.

So retail.  We have the highest retail per square foot anywhere on the planet.  The show attendance, the revenues from shows.  The restaurants! 

B: So you love Las Vegas.

Completely (laughs).  Completely.  I think Las Vegas is a great stage to do what we do for a living. It’s a great stage.  Just imagine.  The normal hotel size is 400 rooms.  This hotel alone, that we’re sitting in, is about 6,800 rooms. 

I absolutely love this business and love this city.  It’s a great place to be.

B: Thanks for taking the time with us. 

Thank you very much.  It’s great that you guys have chosen to come and visit with us.