Lyle Berman: An executive for all seasons

August 21, 2001 7:55 AM
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            Among the gaming industry’s pioneers, Lyle Berman is truly a Renaissance man. A lifelong resident of his beloved Minnesota, Berman is chairman and chief executive officer of Lakes Gaming Inc., and the founder of Grand Casinos Incorporated.

            Berman is also credited as one of the early visionaries in the development of casinos outside the traditional gaming markets of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Around poker rooms, he’s known as a world class player, and has been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame at Binion’s.

            In 1990, Berman founded Grand Casinos, which quickly became a leader in the segment of the gaming industry known as “emerging markets.” Within five years, Lakes Gaming had opened eight casino resorts in four states. In 1995, Grand Casinos was named the Fastest Growing Company in America by Fortune Magazine.

            In that same year, Berman was honored with the B’nai B’rith Great American Traditions award, and a year later he received the Gaming Executive of the Year Award.

            At about the same time, Berman’s company joint ventured with Bob Stupak to build the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. Grand Casinos subsequently bought out Stupak, and eventually sold its interest to Carl Icahn.

            In 1998, Grand Casinos completed a transaction in which its Mississippi casinos were merged with the gaming division of Hilton Hotels Corporation to form Park Place Entertainment. In addition, Grand Casinos’ Indian casino management business was spun off into a new public company called Lakes Gaming Inc.

            And Indian gaming is where the company is now primarily focused.

            “We’re going very well right now developing five casinos with Indian tribes,” Berman told GamingToday in a recent interview. “Each has some hurdles, but we’re optimistic.”

            Berman said Lakes Gaming has entered into agreements to develop and manage five new casino operations: three in California, one in Michigan and one in Connecticut.            “Basically, we lend the tribes some money, help them secure financing, and assist with the architectural and engineering work,” Berman said. “Once the casino is built, we will manage the day-to-day operations.”

            Lakes currently manages the largest casino resort in Louisiana, the Grand Casino Coushatta.

            Berman said that over the years, Indian tribes have become more active in the decision-making associated with the development of casinos on their land. They’ve also become more prone to assuming the management of the casinos, leaving firms like Lakes Gaming without a management contract.

            “We’ve found that our margins aren’t what they used to be, primarily because the perceived risk is less,” he said.

            Nevertheless, Berman is still “excited about our participation” with the five new tribal casino projects, which represent “continued value to our shareholders.”

            In addition to casino resorts, Lakes Gaming would like to further develop the 17 acres it owns surrounding the corner of Harmon Avenue and the Las Vegas Strip. Currently the property’s strip mall has a small number of tenants, including Nickronis, one of Berman’s favorite restaurants! “I like the oyster bar and pizza,” he said.

            In a statement earlier, Berman said he would like to see the property upgraded to include an upscale retail, commercial, hotel and entertainment complex.

            Building a company like Grand Casinos and ultimately Lakes Gaming was not a fluke for Berman. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in business administration, he entered his family’s leather business, Berman Buckskin, which grew under his tutelage to a major retailer with 27 outlets.

            When Berman’s was sold to W.R. Grace in 1979, he continued as president and chief executive officer, and led the company to become one of the country’s largest retail leather chains with over 200 stores nationwide.

            Berman led a management buyout of the company in 1987, and in 1988 it was sold to Melville Corporation and combined to form Wilsons The Leather Experts.

            It was about this time that Berman looked beyond leather, and landed on the green felt of the gaming industry. The rest, as they say, is corporate history.